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Learning More Through Less at the Royal College of Art

Outside of the Royal College of Art. Photo courtesy of author.
Outside of the Royal College of Art. Photo courtesy of author.

The Royal College of Art (RCA) is an art and design institution situated in west London, across from Hyde Park and next to the majestic Royal Albert Hall. The school’s courses include everything from Architecture to Fashion to Service Design to Animation, but the program that I’m most closely affiliated with is called Information Experience Design (IED). IED is about using art and design to communicate information through experiences (which makes it a perfect home for my Fulbright project of mapping and visually representing the relationships of various Londoners).

One of the many perks I get from being a Visiting Researcher in the program is a studio space I share  with eleven other IED students. Because we all work in the same space, I get regular exposure to all types of    interesting ideas from the other students.

One concept in particular that’s been on my mind lately is the idea that humans construct visual meaning through exclusion. The idea was introduced to me by John Fass, a PhD student who I’ve collaborated with over the past few months. John’s research spans a number of topics, but one focus of his is on the role that narrative plays in meaning-creation for humans. The idea, as he explained to me a few months ago, is that humans make sense of the world by constructing and designing narratives, or ways of viewing and understanding things and situations. But these constructions work primarily by removing, not adding, information. In other words, we understand situations and designs better when we remove the aspects that aren’t useful to us.

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The IED studio space (somewhere under all these eccentric items are desks that people work at). Photo courtesy of author.

The idea is a bit abstract, so a concrete example might help, and the best examples I can think of are maps. As it turns out, maps are not always uniformly true representations of space. Rather, they are visual tools optimized for conveying one type of information, and in order to do this effectively, they must exclude other types of information. The London tube map, for instance, doesn’t show distances as they exist in actuality. But by showing distances the way that it does, it better serves its purpose of communicating information about the tube system.*

It’s a situation of negotiation. The things we create that are based in the physical world are constantly negotiating the boundaries of accuracy, truth, and communication. London may not really look the way the tube map represents it, but do you care about that when you’re south of the river in Peckham trying to figure out how to get up north to Camden Town? It turns out that the types of truth that maps need to convey are contextual to the situations they’re used for, and therefore it’s useful to exclude the information that isn’t relevant.

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The current London tube map.
alternativetubemap
An alternative London tube map, designed by Mark Noad, which aims to make the tube map more geographically accurate. For more, see here.

Part of the reason that I find this topic so interesting is because I initially thought it was one that I could avoid. When I first began this project I knew that I’d be making visual representations, but carelessly assumed that I wouldn’t have to answer the question of What needs to be left out for the sake of clarity?” See, my project isn’t like that of a traditional journalist, documentarian, anthropologist, or any other professional who gathers data through firsthand interactions with people. My collection of data is always mediated by devices that do the collecting for me. This means I’m not directly engaged in the process of constantly having to decide what stays and goes, which moments are banal and which important, what advances the story and what will be edited out. For me, that responsibility has been offloaded to machines. My participants give me digital data from their devices without filtration or curation. They hand over the data that they’ve generated on their devices for a month, and my job is merely to understand, analyze, and visualize it (so that others can do the same).

Unsurprisingly, that process has proved infinitely more complicated than it seemed at the beginning of this project. And sure enough, I’ve found that there’s a great deal of sifting through and categorization that’s involved in the procedure. There are a number of decisions that confront this question of what-stays-versus-what-goes. In order to understand the digital trails of people’s relationships, I am discovering that I do have to make choices about what doesn’t need to be seen.

I’m still in the middle of this process, so I’m still doing the hard work of deciding what gets eliminated for the sake of clarity. I think of the London tube map quite a lot in this process, because it’s a reminder that what’s being mapped is a way to understand a space. That’s the real work I’m engaged in: aiding in other people’s understandings of the spaces they inhabit.

But meanwhile, I have a new question that I find myself asking upon encountering any kind of visual work, and that is: what am I not seeing? What was omitted? It seems that the story behind that question is just as rich as the story that precedes it.