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One million forks in a centrifuge

For the past few weeks, I have served as Fathom’s in-residence explorer of 3D printed information design with Formlabs’ Form1+ printer. Because my goal was to focus on the physical medium and form, I tried to stay away from directly 3D-ifying data visualizations that already exist in 2D (think extruded line graphs, bar graphs, etc.), or from arbitrarily mapping data points onto 3D space for the sake of aesthetics. Instead, I zeroed in on the features of physical objects that cannot be expressed on a screen, breaking them into two categories: material and interaction. More on forks later.

To encode meaning into material itself, I considered what makes us want to pick up and touch certain objects, as well as the subtle features that cue our immediate understanding of an object – what it’s for, who uses it, how old it is. In terms of interactions, I analyzed tasks that are very efficient for humans in the 3D world: quickly sorting and distributing many small objects, using peripheral vision, rotating and seeing multiple views of an object, and focusing on a small detail while keeping the bigger picture visible in the background.

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Mind map of information in 3D

Most of my experiments employed texture as a way to show what an object represents. If the texture is legible and successfully references familiar objects, there is no need for a key – one piece would clearly represent grain, another meat – though both made of 3D printed plastic. My inspiration for the food-related textures came from a series of chocolates designed by Nendo, a Japan-based studio, which led me to a massive list of Japanese words with no English equivalent, all used to describe the textures of different foods.

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Texture experiments inspired by the chocolatexture project from Japanese design studio Nendo.
Texture tiles 3D printed in black resin.
Texture tiles 3D-printed in black resin.

One example of an efficient human task that really stuck with me was the motion of quickly sorting silverware into compartments. Thinking along the lines of categorization, I remembered the card game SET from my childhood, and set out to design a 3D version. In this design, I also allowed for a hierarchy of information: certain characteristics and trends are discernible at a glance, while more subtle details reveal themselves through a closer look at a subset of pieces.

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The number of prongs on each piece is immediately obvious, but subtle differences in the length of the prongs are apparent once similar pieces are grouped together.
The blocks can be stacked and combined in different ways to make the "game" more interactive.
The blocks can be stacked and combined in different ways to make the “game” more interactive.

In a more spontaneous experiment, I tested what kind of objects people are compelled to pick up and play with in order to understand them, designing a sort of handheld clock with multiple hands that nest within each other. No one (myself included) could quite figure out what it should be, though maybe that is partly what made it compelling. I also discovered some of the limitations of SLA printing, which is the method of 3D printing that uses a UV laser to harden a vat of liquid resin one layer at a time. For starters, the laser has difficulty printing articulating parts that require a certain clearance between them, as the parts tend to fuse together during the printing process. It is also challenging to clean support material out of inner channels.

Telescoping pie chart, Golden Compass, orbiting planets, turbine - what is it?
Telescoping pie chart, Golden Compass, orbiting planets, turbine – what is it?

My final series of explorations were based on data from a national public libraries survey, containing indicators on library use and spending from 1992-2013. I chose to really push the idea that objects can tell stories, with the example of sea glass in mind. Sea glass experts can tell how old a piece of glass is, what kind of bottle it came from, and where it was made – all from subtle cues like texture, color, thinness, purity, and knowledge of trade routes.

I let the content of the data itself inform my design: referencing the metal type used in letterpress printing, with each piece of type representing a state in 2003 (left) and 2013 (right). The height of each piece reflects how much money each state’s libraries spent on printed material per capita (as of 2013), and the amount of wear of each piece on the right indicates how much spending on printed material was cut in the last decade.

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Massachusetts was one of the biggest supporters of the printed word in 2013 – spending $3.51 per capita on books, journals, and magazines. Maine spent slightly less ($2.49), but has hardly reduced its spending since 2003. Georgia not only spends the least on printed materials ($1.02), but also cut its spending the most drastically in the last decade ($2.80 per capita in 2003).

letter_print

Tackling such an open-ended prompt, I feel I only scratched the surface of 3D printed information design, and further exploration is definitely in order. Some other ideas thrown around the studio were to make metal casts from 3D printed parts, design for different abilities (e.g. blindness), use mechanical properties like friction to sort how easily different parts slide across a table, and create a big data analogue to the silverware in a drawer: one million forks in a centrifuge.

Fathom Information Design, in Boston, MA, works with clients to explain complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

For additional information please contact hello@fathom.info.