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Interview: Nicholas Felton

Nicholas Felton is a graphic designer working in New York City who, every year since 2005, has produced an annual report — everything from where he traveled to what he drank — using infographics which I'm pretty sure he stole from my math classes. His work inspired this blog's annual report contest, which you'll see again at the end of 2008. His annual report also inspired my classroom assignment, The Feltron Project. After struggling with my students to reproduce his accomplishment, I had several questions, which Felton was gracious enough to answer.

Dan Meyer: Can you describe your workflow, from (eg) a day's subway ride to its appearance as an infograph in your final report? What hardware and software shows up along the way?

Nicholas Felton: As I'm in front of my computer for most of the day, I use the mac's calendar application to keep track of all the day-to-day statistics. I arrive in the office, and immediately note anything of importance from the night before and the current morning. If I am away from the machine, or I am accumulating too many specific notes to keep track of, I will use the notepad in my mobile phone to write them down, or email them to myself. If I'm travelling, I tend to use my sketchbook to keep tabs on everything, which I will later enter into the calendar. For more infrequent activities, I also keep running lists in excel or on backpackit.com.

Throughout 2007, I also kept monthly maps of Brooklyn and Manhattan on which I traced the streets I walked each day.

DM: How much math goes into the final product? My best guess, for the record, is that you use Excel to turn (eg.) pie chart percentages into degrees and then pull that information into InDesign or Illustrator.

NF: A lot, a lot, a lot of adding. A lot of dividing by 365. A lot of multiplying by 360.

Nearly everything goes through a spreadsheet before it goes into the report, but none of the math is terribly complicated…. mostly calculating percents and angles (I should use excel, but I do this with a calculator). I have used an online tool that will output the diameter and radius of a circle if you provide the area, which has proved useful, but I don't believe I've applied it to my annual reports.

DM: My students were somewhat shocked you spend only 20.6 minutes per day (as reported in your 2007 Annual Report) recording these piles of data. What corners have you cut to save time?

NF: Actually, that measurement was 20.6 measurements each day in 2007. I don't know what it's corollary in minutes would be, but certainly less than 20. My best guess is that I only spent between 5 and 10 minutes a day on notation. But 2007 was the most complex year of datalogging thus far, and I ultimately found that I had too much… which bogged down the tabulation and design process. This year I've decided to refocus my data collecting in a way that only requires a couple minutes on most days, but occasionally gets much much more complicated.

DM: How much of your final report comprises data you have PASSIVELY collected, data generated from last.fm's music service, for example? What other sources do you use?

NF: Unfortunately, not enough data comes from passive sources yet… probably less than 10% of last year's report was captured in that way. As you mention, last.fm keeps tabs on all my listening through itunes and my ipod. I let netflix keep track of the movies I rent, and flickr tracks how many people have viewed my photos. I have also purchased weather records for New York City, which I augment with out of town records for the last 2 years in order to help determine my average temperature as well as the maximum and minimum.

DM: My students didn't have much trouble making infographs but the designs didn't stray much beyond Microsoft templates. What essential advice would you give a high school freshman for creating a compelling design?

NF: Reduce, reduce, reduce. I find that you can eliminate nearly all the elements that Microsoft wants to include in a graph with considered editing and placement. In most cases, I can get away with eliminating a key or an entire axis altogether.

DM: My students are quick to accuse anyone of your dedication of having "no life" or "too much time on his hands." Aside from the obvious intrinsic value you get from this project, do your reports benefit you tangibly? What do you get out of this?

NF: For the record, I prefer to consider myself curious or inquisitive, rather than the victim of dull circumstances. The truth is that the more I do, the more interesting I find the reports to be. Like everyone, I tend to be a creature of habit, so it's the outliers of activity that interest me. I am indebted to the project for a host of benefits. Without the report, I wouldn't have a very good reason for counting how many coffees I drank in a year, which truly intrigues me. The additional acclaim the report has received is terrific and has helped me forge a name for myself in a crowded field of talented graphic designers, leading to more commissions, as well as a refocussed dedication to continuing the project.

DM: Can you preview any new statistics you're tracking for your 2009 Annual Report?

NF: I'd rather surprise you in January…

[photo by Ellen Warfield]

8 Responses to “Interview: Nicholas Felton”

  1. on 27 Aug 2008 at 8:51 amScott Elias

    Good interview. Sounds like an interesting guy!

    But for the record, is it Felton or Feltron?

  2. on 27 Aug 2008 at 6:36 pmNicholas Felton

    soctt… you’re not the first to be confused. Nicholas Felton is my given name, while Feltron is a nickname that stuck and I apply to my website and artworks.

  3. on 27 Aug 2008 at 7:57 pmChristian Long

    Nicholas:

    Curious if you think that exploring the creation of “infographs” that demand rigorous design sophistication is appropriate for middle school and/or high school students, or would you rather they become agile at the ‘data’ or ‘design’ sides at this stage of their academic/intellectual/creative life? Is there a certain degree of abstract conceptualization that requires more time on the planet to articulate a life or process or organization or network in this manner?

    Or do you sense that “infographs” (of the type you design) are a opportunity-filled gateway project for younger students (long before they attend higher level design programs) to push hard on a) what data is and b) why it matters to us as ‘narrative’ creatures? Do you believe such processes of design/story-telling/data-collection should be explored more directly at the MS/HS academic level?

    Note: I ask this as a 9-12 teacher who has taught both writing/lit and design/architecture…as well as a fan of what you do (as well as what kids can do) and what Dan continues to do with the Feltron project model.

    Cheers in advance — Christian

  4. on 28 Aug 2008 at 9:04 amkrasicki

    Dan,

    Not sure if you’re aware of the ManyEyes alphaworks project at IBM. Here’s the link;

    http://services.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/home

    As an aside, I am just blown away by this blog and the video series. Very impressive and heartening for those of us looking to push teaching into the 21st century.

    What do you edit your videos with for the split screen effects and so on?

  5. on 28 Aug 2008 at 4:27 pmdan

    krasicki, thanks, I posted some tech specs back here in this post.

  6. on 28 Aug 2008 at 5:09 pmDoug

    Dan-
    What is your first-day of school like?? Are you a rules first guy?How has your first day evolved over the first few years of teaching for you?

  7. on 29 Aug 2008 at 9:53 amkrasicki

    Dan,

    You and Nick may also be interested in Hans Rosling’s work found here:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

    His tools are available under Google code I believe. You may have to hunt and peck a bit to find them.

  8. on 29 Aug 2008 at 3:27 pmdan

    Doug, my first year teaching, I covered a six-page syllabus in detail. My second year I covered a one-page syllabus in detail and sent the six-page syllabus home. My third year, I covered the one-page syllabus in detail and skipped the detailed packet. My fourth year I printed out the one-page syllabus but didn’t get around it.

    This year I had the kids working math out on white boards. I had instructions on the board for them and got on them a little bit for not starting work once they sat down. Sets the expectations, and year, off right.