Posts by Ben
A visit from Ms. Bowden

Just ran across this photo of Darcy Bowden, my high school “Production Art” teacher, during a brief visit to Fathom last summer. Her class was a two-hour studio that I was able to take both my junior and senior year—my first exposure to real graphic design exercises (creating black and white ink drawings of concepts like “contrast,” or making artifacts in the style of other eras of design, and so many others…) and gave me a chance to build a portfolio that helped me get into design school. I’d wanted to take the class ever since reading about it in the course catalog as an eighth grader picking out courses for my first year of high school.

Ms. B also kept Phillip Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (which at the time had a different—though still fairly atrocious—cover) checked out of the school library for the whole year, so I could read it from cover to cover. Such a great book, and perhaps a small thing, but huge for me to get that exposure as a seventeen-year-old. And she helped with the bigger things too—like introductions for internships and letters of recommendation for schools—but sometimes it’s the small things (whether the design exercises, a great group of people for class crits, or history books) that really stick with you.

So thanks to Ms. Bowden and the many other great mentors I’ve had over the years, and here’s to my friends who are teaching this fall and having the same kind of impact on their own students.

Provender Proceeds

For the last couple of years we’ve sold posters ( All Streets and Dencity) and a book (Frankenfont) as fun side projects that give us a chance to do some print work—in this graphic design-heavy office, we all still love print, and the chance to create proper physical artifacts. Since we give away the proceeds, I’ve been meaning to do an update on where we’ve sent the contributions.

With recent writeups about our friend Nelson’s All Rivers project, we’ve also seen a considerable sales spike!

Since these projects are more of a hobby than our “real” work (involving clients), we thought that would be a good excuse to give away the proceeds. We’re not particularly interested in becoming a poster company, but this provided a way to fulfill the many requests for posters that we’d received and a chance to take a break from interactive work and smell paper and ink coming off a Heidelberg.

We started with donating to Kiva and Donors Choose, but as the number of purchases continued to climb, we wanted to expand the list. So in the spirit of disclosure, here’s a list of contributions we made last December (yes, that’s correct—this post is eight months late). Everyone in the office pitched in with names of places they’d like to fund, so those are included here too.

As you can see, we decided to focus on local groups in particular. And while not comprehensive, the result is a decent list of things we care about. We hope to repeat it sometime soon for the latest round of proceeds, perhaps with another theme.

In the meantime, our bookkeeper Merrie just finished camp with Girls Rock Boston, and sent this awesome photo (of a photo) of the team that she coached:


We’re super excited to see where their careers wind up—whether they’ll be playing stadium gigs or  be the indie darlings of local venues—or just have used the opportunity to shake off some stage fright or feel a little more empowered. (Can we suggest graphic design? Coding? Information design? I wonder how they feel about offset printing…)

At any rate, thanks to everyone who’s made a purchase! We look forward to adding more projects in the future, but in the meantime, we still have more All Streets and Dencity posters, and Blurb will be happy to print a copy of Frankenfont for you.

The Ides of Insanity

For the past several years, my three brothers and I have convened at the eldest brother’s house for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament (also known as March Madness), doing our best to watch as many of the initial 32 games of the tournament during a melba toast and orange juice-soaked* four days of disregard for the outside world. Over time this has evolved—it initially started with just the two oldest brothers in an Arizona basement—into a gathering of up to two dozen friends, neighbors, wives, and kids.

Naturally, this group has also run an annual bracket pool, with everyone making their picks and competing to see if they can win some cash dignity and respect from the rest of the group. In the spirit of overdoing it (and working during what should be a vacation), for several years I’ve been building software that ran the pool and allowed people to track their picks, see how they were doing against everyone else, try out scenarios for future games, and talk smack to each other through a chat feature.

So this year, in the spirit of really overdoing it, Fathom Bracket was born. (There’s a lot of this going around: after all, as I write this post, Mark is spending the last day before his vacation writing a tool that will let him record data and update his status during his family’s week at Disney.) Tim took the helm of Fathom Bracket and built out the infrastructure to make it happen (a combination of Django, Postgres, and Redis, as well as lots of front-end JavaScript and CSS) and the rest of the team went to work on the design, development, writing, and testing. Alex in particular has distinguished herself as QA engineer, creating hundreds of alex, alex123, and alex1414093 accounts and test pools, mostly variants of “Dirty Pool.”

Once publicly launched, Fathom Bracket hosted a number of pools set up by individuals, plus the public “City Pool” that anyone could join, which picked up a few dozen entrants. After Louisville’s win was celebrated** by a flaming basketball animated GIF created by Terrence, there was a three-way tie for the City Pool, with “jlbaseball2,” “sistersarah,” and “Seth’s Winning Bracket” (named with a degree of prescience, it seems) coming out on top. They’ll each be receiving an allstreets or dencity poster from our Provender vault.

Best of all, we came up with a number of ideas for a better bracket as part of the exercise, and we can’t wait to get them implemented for next year’s tournament.

In the meantime, we have to get back to work. With Mark out of town next week, someone is gonna have to pick up the slack.

* It’s possible it wasn’t melba toast and orange juice, but that’s how Brother #1 referred to it at the time.

** To the disappointment of the four Michigan-born Fry brothers.

Join our studio in Boston

We’re looking for people to join us at Fathom. Sharp-eyed readers might note that the descriptions are a re-post, but we continue to be on the lookout for the right people to help fill our studio here in Boston.

This section of the site should give you an idea of what we like to think about (especially if you dig back through older posts), and you can get a sense of some of our client work from the rest of the site. We like to keep a mix between client work and in-house projects that we do out of curiosity or for the hell of it—a bit more of a mix of research lab and commercial. We’re a small shop so finding exactly the right people is especially important.

For all the positions, you’ll be creating work like you see on, but with even more of an emphasis mobile projects (Android, iOS, JavaScript) and installation projects. If you’re a developer, design skills are a plus. Or if you’re a designer, same goes for coding.

  • Developer Looking for someone with a strong background in Java, and some C/C++ as well. On Monday this person would be sorting out more advanced aspects of a client project. On Tuesday they would hone the Processing Development Environment, mercilessly crushing bugs. On Wednesday they would refactor critical visualization tools used by brilliant scientists. On Thursday they could put out a fire in another client project without breaking a sweat, and on the fifth day, they would choose what we’re having for Beer Friday. This messiah also might not mind being referred to in the third person.
  • Web Developer In 1996, I used Java for my Computer Graphics 2 homework at Carnegie Mellon. I’ll never forget the look on the face of my professor Paul Heckbert (Graphics Gems IV, Pixar, and now Gigapan — a man who wrote an actual ray tracer in C code that fit on the back of a business card), when he asked me during office hours why this was a good idea. Your professor did the same thing when you told him (or her) that you’d be implementing your final project with JavaScript and Canvas. We need amazing things to happen with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and you’re the person to do it.
  • Junior Designer You’ve finished your undergrad design program and feel the need to make beautiful things. Your commute is spent fixing the typography in dreadful subway ads (only in your head, please). You are capable of pixel-level detail work to get mobile apps or a web site just right. And if we’re lucky, you’re so good with color that you’ve been mistaken for an impressionist painter.
  • Senior Designer So all that stuff above that the Junior Designer candidate thinks they can do? You can actually do it. And more important, you have the patience and humility to teach it to others around you. You’re also an asset on group projects, best friends with developers, and adored by clients.

At the moment, we’re only looking for people located in (or willing to relocate to) the Boston area.

Please send résumé or CV, links to relevant work, and cover letter to inquire (at) fathom (dot) info. Please do not write us individually, as that may void your contest entry.

Changing Fortune

This sketch started as something I wanted to build using the Fortune 500 ranking data, out of curiosity about the rise and fall of companies in a (subjective) editorial ranking.

I did most of the work while taking the train down to New York one morning, and since then have spent a couple hours here and there fixing it up further. Since it’s a sketch piece, it’s not perfect, but it’s a fun example of how you can interact with a really large amount of data in a very fluid manner.

Additional details for the curious:

  • Many companies have merged, separated, or otherwise been renamed. I didn’t have time (nor interest) in going through tens of thousands of entries to figure out what’s what.
  • The left and right arrow keys will move back and forward by year. The up and down arrow keys will move up or down through the list of companies. This isn’t perfect, because of how things reorganize, which is why it’s not advertised in the piece.
  • No scale is shown on the vertical axis. It’s just not useful for how much it would interrupt the overall design. The point of the plot is to see an overall trend, and then look at individual values more closely.
  • A log scale is used for revenue and profit. It’s the perfect example of why a log scale is useful because without it the plot looks like jumbled nonsense. On the other hand, because logs don’t play nice with negative values, there are breaks in the profit plots. Of course, this could be handled with some additional work, but I decided to move on instead. Nevermind, went back and fixed the negative values (losses on the profit view). If it’s on the internet is has to be perfect.
  • The piece uses Java. I spent a few hours on a JavaScript version, but it ran at 3 frames per second (instead of 60; it’s like 1998 again!) It also required a 6 megabyte JSON file for all the data. All likely fixable, but no thanks. Three years later, I’ve ported the piece to JavaScript. The process does feel like 1998 again, but I suppose it’s better than old work disappearing from the web.

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.

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