Aaron Koblin

[Ed note: Print will be
featuring one New Visual Artist per day while the issue is on
newsstands. Keep checking back every weekday for new profiles on printmag.com. You can view
the entire list of winners here.]
 
Still from New York Talk Exchange, which visualized volumes of AT&T long-distance phone and IP data.
Designer: Aaron Koblin with SENSEable City Lab at MIT.
 
Aaron Koblin
From: Los Angeles
Live in: San Francisco
Age: 28

URL: http://aaronkoblin.com 

 
As Aaron Koblin walks me through the two floors of cereal bars, scooter parking, and conference rooms in Google’s New York office, he apologizes. “I wish I could give a better tour,” he says. “But it’s just so huge.”
 
Koblin is used to seeing the big picture. His data visualizations make art out of floods of information—SMS exchanges that create a digital skyline of Amsterdam, flight patterns across the U.S. that sketch out a glowing map of the country, or millions of particles that swarm into a portrait of Radiohead band members. He likes his data “super fun”—that is, messy. “There’s a tendency to take rich data with tons of stories within it and boil it down,” he says. “Like a pie chart: clean and digestible but totally dehumanized.”
 
Using the Processing programming language, developed by his UCLA thesis adviser, Casey Reas, with Ben Fry, Koblin turns the messiest sets into beautiful, if equally complex, images. These days he’s playing with Mechanical Turk, an Amazon.com crowd-sourcing tool that pays tiny sums for menial tasks. For his project the Sheep Market, 10,000 users drew left-facing sheep for two cents each. The human error made it interesting. “Six hundred and sixty-two of them didn’t meet sheeplike criteria,” Koblin says, so he cut them out. But in another project, Ten Thousand Cents, he left the mistakes in—one contributor wrote “$0.01!!! Really?”—to see if the data, warts and all, could resolve into a convincing image. It did.
 
For Koblin, order hides even in chaos. Which is why his new job as technology lead of Google’s experimental marketing department, Creative Lab, is tinged with irony. “The first thing you realize here,” he says, “is that you’re never going to understand the entirety of everything.” 
 

Ten Thousand Cents, in which thousands of people painted part of a $100 bill. Designers: Aaron Koblin, Takashi Kawashima.

About the author:
William Bostwick is a former editor at I.D. He currently writes “The Draft,” a blog about beer, for GQ.
 
View the entire list of this year’s winners here.

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