Random Etc. Notes to self. Work, play, and the rest.

Design.Yahoo: Web 2.0 meets War Games?

Whilst I wrestle with my reaction to the reception of Twitter Blocks, it's interesting to look at what other people in information visualisation are working on.

Yahoo Design

Yahoo's new design research outfit, apparently also known as yhaus, have just put up a site outlining their work so far. The first thing I noticed is that they've snagged an amazing subdomain: design.yahoo.com. The second thing I noticed is that compared to other teams I'm aware of in the field (including Stamen) they have a pretty good gender balance (a thorny issue but I'm noting it anyway). The third thing I'll note is the guest appearance of non-Yahoo work in the portraits of the team: I see Torrent Raiders, Fidg't... what else?

Sadly, all but one of the demos there so far is a big Quicktime movie. I know that with millions of users Yahoo has to be a stickler for browser support and compatibility, but I hope they get a chance to take this work live on the web as well as demo it in movie form. There's some solid realtime Flash and Processing work hiding in there, and people (OK, I) want to see it in its interactive entirety.

There's clearly some healthy collaboration and influence going on there (much as in our work, e.g. Ben Fry's zipdecode looms large over the interactive version of our Trulia search animation). Yahoo's Aaron Koblin is best known for his Flight Patterns piece, and this visualisation by Michael Chang of Yahoo trip planner data is very similar:

Yahoo Travel

Likewise, Aaron's work on traffic patterns bears a close resemblance to Flight Patterns:

Yahoo Traffic

I don't want to pick on them too much, because it's really beautiful work I admire a great deal (and it might seem like sour grapes), but both the pieces I've highlighted do suffer from something we've tried to avoid at Stamen: animated information graphics on top of black backgrounds and vector maps can easily look like screenshots from a modern-day War Games:

War Games: Missile Warning

I'm glad other people as well as us are experimenting in public, and I'm glad sites like Infosthetics and Visual Complexity are cataloguing our efforts. We need our own visual language around this kind of visualisation that doesn't resonate with the imagery of war.

Apple's iphone has made a strong impression with slick transitions in its interface design, but the maps application still borrows from Google's pseudo-shadows and static pins. The playful interfaces of the Nintendo's Wii games certainly offer a different path, but the rest of the games (and movie) industry's cinematic-realism aesthetic exerts a strong influence over our generation of designers and it isn't going to meet these goals any time soon.

It's a fairly regular topic of conversation at Stamen: how can you make a visualisation of e.g. 911 calls actually look like emergencies, and not birthday parties or toilet flushes, without freaking people out and without making it mundane? Is it possible to use great circles to connect air travel destinations without it looking like missiles? Can you animate growing and shrinking red and yellow circles on an aerial map without it looking like Gulf War I weapons company propaganda?

It's a bloggy weekend here at Random Etc, if you're reading along I'm definitely interested to hear your thoughts.


4 Comments

Hi Tom: I work for the design innovation team at Yahoo, and am a big fan of yours and your work; thanks very much for writing about our efforts! We are still getting started, so hopefully soon we will have even more interesting things to show. I agree with you about the big movie files, but the decision there wasn’t about browser compatibility, more the difficulty of making work done in Processing available on the Web (I think our projects going forward will be more likely to be posted in their full interactive glory). Thanks again!

Posted by Ben Clemens on 6 September 2007 @ 5pm

[...] my post about the good people at Yahoo’s design research group in September I suggested that some of their visualisations remind me of the movie War Games. I love [...]

Posted by Random Etc. : Blog Archive : Accidental Visual Resonance on 16 December 2007 @ 6pm

[...] … like this NASA image of fires in the Oakland hills, from 1991. I’ve been calling this accidental visual resonance, and it’s something I picked on Yahoo’s now-defunct Design Innovation team about a few months ago. [...]

Posted by Random Etc. - Visualizing Urban Data: A Journey Through Oakland Crimespotting on 7 May 2008 @ 8pm

[...] tom-carden.co.uk [...]

Posted by WarGames (1983) | Old Old Films on 2 July 2011 @ 11am