Design + Data = Power: Webinar Recap and Resource List

One of the most challenging and rewarding design projects I ever worked on was a data visualization project for Microsoft when I worked at Gensler, an architecture and planning firm. The problem? How to shuffle 50,000 employees across 26 buildings on Microsoft's Redmond campus over a three-year period while new buildings came available and old buildings were taken offline. Microsoft's offices were sorely overcrowded and it was affecting productivity. Workers were double- and sometimes triple-spaced, crammed into offices, nooks, and crannies. A sign that business was good, but to keep it that way, workers needed to be happy.

Our team started with empty maps and raw data. Lots and lots of raw data. Spreadsheets full of it. With one piece of data looking as generic and bereft of meaning as the next piece. Our job (the design team consisted of three space planners, two designers, and one Excel programmer) was to find meaning in this data. Our job was to visualize the story of how Microsoft's managers were going to handle the monumental task of moving thousands of employees over time, some of them two or three times by the time it was all finished.

The story was there, we just didn't know it yet. And didn't know it until we'd spent a few months analyzing the data, following pattern threads that looked like they were telling us something, but then led to dead ends. So we explored more, finally discovering the story revealed through patterns disclosed in maps and management trees and color codes across time.

For large Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, inefficient, poorly planned staff relocations could lead to unacceptable downtime, costing a fortune in lost productivity and decreased employee morale.

For me, this was a crash course in business intelligence. For Microsoft, it led to valuable business insights that allowed the company to effectively plan and manage its workforce and office spaces through a period of rapid yet sustained growth and change.

Without good visual design principles, it wouldn't have happened. Lucky for Microsoft, the project manager who hired me knew visual communication design was crucial to the success of this project. We were able to provide valuable insight around change management by using the design elements of metaphor, scale, perspective, color and visual hierarchy—which Angela Shen-Hsieh made a point of demonstrating in last week’s webinar, “Designing with the Power of Data.”

In our fifth “Breakthroughs” webinar, Angela, along with Jared Waxman from, also mentioned the importance of teasing the right narrative and approaching data visualization from a human-centered design perspective. Good data visualization is knowing what story to tell and how to tell it in such a way that humans understand and relate to it.

Today's corporations have access to more data than they know what to do with. It often comes in raw form, or poorly presented via simple, flat, pie charts and spreadsheets. Which is unfortunate, because within many data sets there lives a story to be told, a narrative to be followed, an insight to be realized. The best way to discover these hidden narratives is by combining data with design. Here are some resources to help you do that. Tell us in the comments if there are others that you find valuable.

Books and Articles on Data Visualization

More Reading Recommendations

Technologists/Data Visualization Groups to Follow


Join Us Next Time...

In our next “Breakthoughs” webinar, on December 7, we’ll be talking about web typography with guest presenter Tim Brown of Typekit. AIGA members, you won’t want to miss it!

About the Author: Callie Neylan is an Assistant Professor of design at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) in Baltimore, Maryland. She is interested in interaction design, the urban space, and designing for the disabled. She writes about design and technology for AIGA and and tweets via @neylano.