American Panorama Is an Interactive Atlas for the 21st Century
For many of us, the word “atlas” evokes memories of tattered roadmaps stuffed into a glove compartment. And while atlases are technically just collections of maps (be they of roads, outer space, the world wide web, or the human body), the good ones also have a way of presenting a more holistic picture of the things they document. American Panorama, a cool new project from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, is a great example.
American Panorama aims to be an internet-era update to Charles’ Paullin’s sweeping Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States from 1932. It recounts America’s history through interactive cartography, letting users drag sliders and click on bubbles to take an even deeper dive into specific moments in history.
American Panorama comprises four maps created by design studio Stamen. And these maps have depth. Adding a layers of technology and interactivity to an otherwise daunting trove of data helps us make connections we might otherwise miss. For example, in a map that looks at the foreign-born population from 1850 to 2010, I was able to see that my ancestors’ arrival to Nebraska in the 1880s coincided with the influx of Swedish immigrants at the time. Dragging the scrubber along the dateline reveals how, a century later, the foreign-born population in the state was mostly Asian (the map explains that 1980 was the first time the country’s largest immigrant population was not European), and how, by 2010, European immigrants had been largely superseded by people from Latin America, Vietnam, China and Iraq.
Paullin’s atlas examined the country’s social, economic and political history through a hyper-focused lens. The maps at American Panorama are similarly incisive, with titles like “Forced Migration of Enslaved People from 1810-1860,” “Canals from 1820-1860,” and “Overland Trails.” That there are currently just four maps to choose from means that—unless you’re a history buff—there’s probably a slight barrier to entry. And, if we’re being honest, these aren’t perfect data visualizations. The interaction is still a little clunky, and I found myself wanting to be able to drill down even deeper into the data.
Despite all that, as American Panorama develops into a full-fledged digital atlas, it’s only going to become more powerful and compelling. Because as it turns out, the addition of even the simplest interactions can make it feel as though you’re looking at history with a very powerful magnifying glass in hand—and that’s a very cool thing.
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) December 13, 2015
Book covers have to do a lot of work. In his review of 2015’s best book covers, Matt Dorfman, art director of The New York Times Book Review, describes that kind of work. “The covers that lure me into the pages,” he writes, “often do so by posing questions that I don’t want to ignore.”
What’s cool about this, at least right now, is that book cover designers seem to have more devices than ever at their disposal to pose these questions. There are certain rules, for sure, as master designer Peter Mendelsund—who has a design in this round up—has told us before. But designers can still thank Amazon and other e-outlets for this newfound liberation: because book covers often appear next to titles and the author name, designers are less beholden to promoting any kind of information hierarchy. To wit, if you scan the Times’s 12 picks for dust jackets, you’ll see that art, in the form of lavish illustrations, sometimes trumps legibility. Consider the excellent GIF cover for César Aira’s The Musical Brain. Designed by Rodrigo Corral and Zak Tebbal, it’s a killer merging of two technologies—one ancient, and one new.
It’s that time of year, when designers, consultants, and thinkers in general start talking about themes to watch for in the coming year. Fjord is one such design firm. The company, which consulting firm Accenture bought in 2013, puts out an annual trends report to capture, in broad strokes, the topics designers should “expect to tackle in the coming year.”
You’ll probably recognize some trends. The rise of voice recognition technology, virtual reality as an emerging medium, and the uptick in health data are developments that we’ve all talked a lot about this year. But embedded in the report are some burgeoning applications of good design that we’ve talked about a bit less. They’re worth mulling over.
Take the “atomization of apps,” or the end of the standalone app. Omnipresent services are happening already—Fjord uses the example of Spotify, which exists as much on your laptop as it does in your Uber—but are likely to seep into other parts of our lives. From the paper: “Visa is researching the commerce-connected car that pays for groceries, takeaways and fuel—literally payments (and collection) on wheels.”
There’s the rise in employee experience, or “EX”, design. “It was the fastest growing category of work at Fjord in 2015 across many industries, from banking to telecom to pharma,” says the report. When it comes to workplace tools like T&E reports or timesheets, even some progressive companies are woefully behind. To lure better talent from younger generations, businesses might want to pay attention to this decidedly unsexy category.
There’s also a section called “For the people” that looks at how governments are finally embracing design for social good. Some of this has to do with introducing in-house design standards, but the report highlights ways agencies can work with citizens. Consider the Mobile Justice app, made in tandem with the Black Lives Matter movement: “The app has a simple feature allowing smartphone owners to send video footage directly to the American Civil Liberties Union—all with the simple shake of a phone. The ACLU then systematically reviews it for potential legal action.”
Read the full report here.