All about Paul

The Fathom team is excited to welcome Paul, our new designer and recent graduate from the Sam Fox School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis. We asked him some questions about design and typefaces (among other things).


Who or what has inspired your design practice?

Before studying design, I found inspiration in drawing, printmaking, mapping and typography. I didn’t fully consider the crossover between them, but at its core my fascination with art, language and maps is about creating systems for communication. They’re just different ways to translate information into a story. I’m most inspired by artists who explore and connect those interests: Xu Bing, Paula Scher, Piet Zwart, Hannah Höch, Julie Mehretu and Yanagi Yukinori, among others. In a big way, my family has shaped my approach to design as well. My mom’s a photojournalist, so while growing up I learned all about the world of the newsroom. Both design and journalism, at their best, require a critical eye and a commitment to telling the truth. My dad is a map designer—maybe my career choice isn’t a huge surprise!

What are some of your favorite typefaces?

I always enjoy reading in Mercury. It has a stylish, chiseled look that holds up well on the page and screen. Other great typefaces for extended reading are Malaga, More, Quixote and Scala. I’d also recommend checking out the exciting and versatile work of Klim Type Foundry (designer Kris Sowersby).

Akzidenz Grotesk is another favorite. It’s a classic sans serif and a real anomaly in type history. Typically you see it compared to Helvetica, which is ubiquitous and more streamlined as a design. But Akzidenz was created sixty years earlier (in the late 1890s, and based on even older faces) which makes it one of the first sans serif type families. From the shape of its letters you can see how designers were experimenting at the time, trying to invent ways to keep stroke width uniform across a collection of weights. So Akzidenz’s originality gives it quirks that Helvetica is missing. These features produce better readability and a surprising personality for such a corporate context. The elegant curves of the question mark and number 2 are especially nice.

Typography confession: When I write, I always type as plain text in the default Mac editor (monospace, without formatting). I think it’s helpful to concentrate on the writing before bringing in a typographic voice.

If you could redesign anything what would it be?

Before moving to Boston, I spent some time studying the transit system while hunting for an apartment. (It definitely paid off to know that Kendall and Kenmore are different places!) It’s funny how Boston, like many other cities, tries to apply a Massimo Vignelli style to its wayfinding system, even though its geography is an organic network of squares — pretty far from a grid. Creating a complete transit map of Boston that stays true to the actual landscape would be a great challenge. I’ve started sketching a few concepts to see where it can go. It would be fun to droplift alternative posters at the station and see how people respond.

On the other hand, I think Boston’s place names are perfect as they are. I commute on the Red Line heading to Braintree, which is a wonderfully weird image.

What is your favorite snack?

I always enjoy fruit, especially dried mangoes. So far, I haven’t needed to bring in any because we have an excellent CSO (Chief Snack Officer) in the office.

Translating Visual Ideas Into Language

Fall is here, and the Fathom office is back in full swing teaching its second semester of “Information Design: Exploration, Navigation, and Understanding.” In the spirit of the very process we teach, we took a chance this summer to do some self-reflection as instructors, iterate and refine our ideas, and update a few assignments, lectures, and activities to make the course even more engaging and informative for the students.

One of our most recent lectures involved a hands-on activity in sketching and iteration, with an emphasis on algorithmic thinking and its considerations. The instructions for the activity will probably sound familiar:

  • Students have three minutes to sketch a picture of the house they grew up in, then five minutes to write a set of instructions that another student can use to reproduce their drawing.
  • After trading instructions with another person in the class, they have three minutes to draw someone else’s house, using the instructions they received.
  • Then, they repeat the entire process. The time limits are the same, the prompt is the same; the only difference now is that the students know that they’re going to have to write instructions for the picture they sketch.

In a popular variation of this activity— commonly referred to as the “Peanut Butter and Jelly Exercise”— a group is asked to create a set of instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then someone follows the instructions as literally as possible, often with hilarious results.

Photo Credit: https://mindstorms.dreschallenges.com/

Its relevance to computer science and programming is obvious, but it’s also a fun, easy, and memorable way to demonstrate effective communication, specificity in language, and the dangers of assumption, in fields ranging from construction management to philosophy. But, it stops just short of one additional important lesson, especially when teaching programming as a tool for design.

Here’s an example of the sketches from the first part of the activity we did in class:

A student first drew the image on the left (1a), then was asked to write a set of instructions (1b) to recreate that image. A different student used those instructions to produce the drawing on the right (1c). Unsurprisingly, because the student wasn’t expecting to deconstruct the first sketch into simple, reproducible steps, the left and right images look pretty different.

The second time around, the student sketched the same house (14a), but in a way that was better suited to being systematically described (14b) and reproduced (14c), and to great effect. The drawings on the left and right look much more similar this time. The crux of the lesson, though, comes when comparing the original drawings from the first and second parts of the activity.

The first drawing (1a) shows a home with a curved, corrugated roof, plants, and a courtyard with a pool. By contrast, the second drawing (14a) shows a much more technical view of the same house with no textures, few details, and only straight lines. It may be easier to write instructions for the second drawing, but that comes at the expense of the subjective qualities that make it unique and interesting.

Here’s another example.

Between the first (7a) and second (21a) round of drawings, the house loses its bricks, the driveway and bushes out front, and other details that make it personal to the artist.

This may be the most striking example— the first (8a) and second (22a) round of drawings look like they were done by two different people.

It comes as no surprise that in order to leverage the power of computation in design, we must find a way to describe visual representations of our ideas with a vocabulary that is both complete and unambiguous. The main point of this sketching activity is that people will commonly, without even realizing it, sacrifice many of the more subtle, individual, and appealing aspects of their visual ideas in order to match an existing vocabulary. Instead, we should be doing the opposite. Developing a personal language that is still complete and unambiguous, but better suited for describing our creative, individual ideas, is a big step towards using programming as a tool to push design further, rather than constrain it.

Related posts
Lights, Cameras, Action!
MIT 4.s50: Information Design
Girls Who Code!

This year, Fathom celebrated Pi Approximation Day one of the best ways we know how– by sharing our love of coding and technology with a visiting Girls Who Code group!

Girls Who Code is an organization that works to combat the growing disparity between men and women pursuing and employed in technology-centric careers. They do this in part by offering summer immersion programs where high school-aged girls learn about the many different aspects of computer science, and then work in teams to design and build a technology product of their choice. One of the cornerstones of this program is exposing the girls to actual tech companies, visiting the offices, and meeting the employees. For the second year in a row, Fathom has had the opportunity to host a GWC group for the afternoon, talk about our role in computer science and technology, and explain why we love it so much!

In addition to showcasing some of our larger projects, we had the girls break into groups to learn about the posters and print shop from James, the Android watch faces from Leslie, and Processing from Dylan. The Raspberry Pi photobooth– which we built using custom 3D-printed attachments and Processing— was a huge hit.

During a brief intermission between the scheduled talks and demos, Alex took the opportunity to interview some of the girls for an upcoming episode of the Especially Big Data podcast. So stay tuned for even more stories from our GWC visit, and why we think it’s great to “code like a girl!”

A New Beginning

Fathom got started on one floor with just two people and two desks. Eventually our team grew and added a second floor, which became our official conference room. As we continued to grow in numbers, we also continued to explore other interests, often peripherally related to design, development, and analysis. Six years passed, and we realized we were using our conference room simultaneously as a classroom, workshop space, poster shop, 3D printing studio, kitchen, and living room. We knew it was time for a move.

To find a new office that fit our needs, we had to take inventory of our team and our process. We needed to build a space that would allow our team to spread out and grow. I joined the group in March of 2016, with just enough time to get to know everyone before diving head first into a full office move.

Over the course of seven months, from the initial buildout to the move, we put our skills to work: James designed the architecture and layout of the new space. I became an interior designer and spreadsheet extraordinaire. Dylan took over as impromptu moving day coordinator, and everyone became experts at building Ikea furniture. Mark even fessed up to having spent a few years working as a moving coordinator for corporate offices.

We’re excited to see what unfolds in the new space as we continue to explore our projects and curiosities, and expand our team in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood. Stay tuned for new visitors, talks, classes, workshops, and an amazing data-driven mural by our resident doodler, Rachel.

I’m especially grateful to work with such a talented and dynamic team and can’t wait to see what’s next for Fathom.

Lights, Cameras, Action!

Teaching and outreach are a really important part of our work. They help us stay connected to our local community, and give us an opportunity to see how people outside the office think about code and design. We also get to share different things we’re learning about. Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to help at both Scratch Day and a Girls Who Build workshop.


Scratch Day celebrates the anniversary of the creation of Scratch–a programming language for kids. The all-day event at the MIT Media Lab invited kids and parents to experiment with new features of the language, meet with other Scratchers, and share work. The celebration not only introduces kids of all ages to programming, but also to MIT, and the local creative coding community.

I helped with an activity that showcased how Scratch can manipulate hardware and respond to physical surroundings. The activity, called Lightplay, consisted of a set of lights and rotating platforms hooked up to Scratch through a special set of blocks (the functions and variables of the language). Using Scratch, kids could control the color and brightness of the lights, as well as the speed and direction of the rotating platforms. There were ways to set up alternating color patterns, fading between colors, and even responses to different inputs like the volume of chatter in the room. There were also different toys and reflective objects, so kids could play with making shadows and patterns in the space.

It was amazing to see how quickly kids were able to start manipulating the lights and begin to solve their own problems like “How do I make the lights fade to red in a circle?” or “What happens when I shine both red light and blue light on an object? Will I get purple?” One of the most interesting parts was the number of parents who asked “How can I buy this, or build something similar?” The experience showed how excited the kids were to mess around with the code.

I also recently helped out at a workshop for Girls Who Build – a local group that develops open courseware and workshops on engineering for girls (our very own Leslie has developed material for it in the past!). The latest workshop focused on the intersection of computer science and photography. I gave a quick talk on image processing, and how math and computer science are combined to manipulate images for both analysis and aesthetic purposes. After the talk, the girls worked in small groups using Processing to manipulate photos they had taken.

The girls were really excited to get some insight into how some of their favorite apps, like Instagram and Snapchat, are able to produce image “filters.” A lot of the girls had never programmed before, but by the end they had all built or edited a filter in Processing. One girl even told me she was going to use her filters for all of her Instagram posts! Overall, it was incredibly satisfying to see how excited the girls were when they finally got a filter to work. More information on the workshop is available here, and soon the curriculum will be on MIT OpenCourseWare.

We see code as another tool for designers, artists, and engineers. We’re always interested in exploring new and engaging ways to teach programming, and in facilitating the use of code for creative endeavors. Both events were great examples of how creative coding can engage a wide variety of kids (and adults!) in programming. We’re looking forward to finding more opportunities to host or participate in workshops in the future. Perhaps we need a Processing day…

Related posts
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The Architecture of Typography

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

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.