Ben Fry, Information Designer

The most innovative and practical thinkers of our time.
Aug. 16 2011 11:17 AM

Ben Fry, Information Designer

In the golden age of data visualization, he helps designers think like programmers, and vice versa.

Ben Fry. Click image to expand.
Ben Fry

The information designer is a relatively new figure on the cultural landscape. The field—devoted to the sophisticated display of data, and the idea that visuals can often tell stories more efficiently than words can—was pioneered by the legendary Edward Tufte in the 1970s and '80s, and recent years have seen an explosion of data visualizations in print and online.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast

Ben Fry is bringing information design into the digital age by helping designers think like programmers, and vice versa.As a kid, he loved tooling around with computer code. (He even sold a bit of software he'd developed—a stock market game—as a youth.) He also loved graphic design, which he learned about from a family friend who ran an advertising shop. But he never grasped how fully he could combine the two until he arrived at MIT's Media Lab as a graduate student.

There, he became excited about interactive information design, and how it could help mankind process the wild amounts of info that bombard us daily. He remembers sitting in genetics courses and learning that there are 3.1 billion letters in the human genome, only a small percentage of which are actually used for anything. "I thought, 'What does that look like? Can I print that out?' " The result was a series of projects and installations that used a teeny-tiny custom font to make sense of the scale of the genetic code that underlies our existence, and how well (or poorly) we currently understand it.

Slate's list of the 25 Americans who combine inventive genius and practicality—our best real-world problem solvers. Read more about how we chose them.

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With a partner, Casey Reas, Fry developed Processing, a popular open-source toolkit for creating interactive designs. Its key advantage: It's very easy to learn. That helps designers, researchers, and other people who have data to visualize (but are intimidated by the idea of writing code) find canny ways to display information themselves. Processing also allows seasoned programmers (who may not be used to thinking visually) to immediately start creating and manipulating shapes and images on the screen. It's a tool that helps information designers—who, before the rise of the personal computer, were constrained to small data sets and static displays—take full advantage of modern technology.

Fry is sometimes bewildered by the current craze for infographics, which he says is in some ways like  "a gold rush." What had been a sleepy academic backwater 10 years ago has since become wildly popular among journalists and corporations alike. (Recently, he's done work for clients as diverse as the New York Times and GE.) But he is bullish about the power of information design and its ability to open minds. With visuals, you can make people curious about data, he says,  and "wind up reaching a broader audience."

He recalls the skepticism of a Darwin historian when he set out to map the revisions Darwin made to On the Origin of the Species over 14 years and six editions.  The historian said, "Who cares about this stuff?" Fry remembers. But the resulting project, which elegantly shows how Darwin hedged his theory in later editions of his book, tells a fascinating story about how scientists' ideas evolve over time. Fry has created tools that give laymen the power to tell similarly spellbinding tales.

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