Infograph Epoch

By Kate Welsh

How does a corporate behemoth build trust in a world that is—to put it lightly—increasingly skeptical of big businesses?

Last week, Wolff Olins had the opportunity to meet Camille Kubie, the founder and former leader of GE’s visualization team, at our weekly Share in New York. GE, inspired by MoMA’s 2008 Design and Elastic Mind exhibition, decided to take advantage of the massive amount of data that they had accumulated from the sale and usage of their industrial, healthcare, and energy manufacturing products (GE sources their data from sensors attached to their products, as well as reports from utility companies and the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency). They believed that consumers wanted to see more transparency from corporations, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Kubie showed us Smart Money’s “Map of the Market” and Aaron Koblin’s gorgeous visualization of flight patterns as her inspiration. Both manage to synthesize almost laughably huge amounts of data—the stock market and global airline flights—and present them using innovative visual displays and rich graphs and maps. One of GE’s early experiments with data visualization engaged consumers with their own energy costs. A visitor to the site could choose a home appliance and see how much its usage cost in watts, dollars and gallons of gas per year, month or day, state by state. If I stopped making toast in the morning, I could save 19.65$/year. (ATTN popcorn popper users of New York: That appliance uses more energy than your unit A/C, refrigerator, and computer combined.)

GE has definitely tapped into the “turn everything into an infograph” trend. Since the 2011 launch of the community platform Visual.ly, which allows users to easily create their own infographics, the Internet has become saturated with data visualizations as varied as one about the borough-to-borough artistic merit of graffiti in NYC to the process of hearing loss. In 2011, GE’s “Stats of the Union” was the second most popular iPad app in the U.S. Kubie herself uses the visualization platform, visualizing.org, which uses beautifully designed visual analytics to illuminate weighty policy issues.

Infographics utilize the idea that the brain can more easily process dynamic images rather than lists of numbers. But the best visualizations do more than animate bits of data. They elicit visceral comprehension and moments of insight that make viewers want to discover more. News outlets such as the Guardian, The New York Times, and Newsweek have made high profile use of data visualizations (see NYT Olympics Men’s 100 Meter Sprint, Newsweek best countries)—thus solidifying their positions as prescient, intellectually curious idea generators, rather than just news aggregators.

What does this mean for brands? GE successfully engaged people who might otherwise never think about the greater implications and responsibilities of the global manufacturing company—except in the context of the financial crisis. Brands can take engagement a step further. Data visualization helps companies gain insight into consumer behavior, but they can also show how their products respond to their consumers’ needs. GE could show how a new line of washing machines saves water and money. A foundation could show the far-reaching impact of their grant making. Data visualization can do more than offer a patina of transparency—it can help a brand achieve a higher purpose and become more useful to its customers.

Kate Welsh is a strategy intern at Wolff Olins New York.

Image via Aaron Koblin

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