LOCATION: San Francisco / BEST-KNOWN PROJECT: Digg Labs: http://labs.digg.com / BIGGEST CREATIVE INSPIRATION: “A 1969 Atlas of Alberta that’s 2 feet by 3 feet and has 158 pages of some of the most beautiful information graphics ever made—all done before computers” / WOULD RATHER DIE THAN DESIGN: “Something that the CIA might use to pry into innocent people’s lives” / GOAL FOR THE YEAR 2020: “To make real-time maps for spaceships!” / TITLE OF IMAGINARY MONOGRAPH: It’s Not Called Stamen for Nothin’
Stamen founder Eric Rodenbeck, 38, was working as an art director for a company that produced sports websites during what he calls “Delusion 1.0”—otherwise known as the ’90s dot-com boom—when he first began to appreciate the narrative potential of complex data sets. To connect fans with an around-the-world yacht race, he equipped the boats with GPS transceivers, email, and cameras, and fed the data into online visualizations that told the story of the competition. When the project ended, he was hungry for more. “The impulse to tell stories with data dovetailed with all the data that was suddenly flowing onto the internet,” he says. “It seemed like I could do it for everything.”
In 2001, he launched Stamen, a San Francisco–based interactive design studio that specializes in data visualization and mapping projects for clients ranging from museums (SFMoMA, the Exploratorium) to nonprofits (MoveOn, NARAL) to business and tech. Rodenbeck trained as an architect, but he says that the company, now seven strong, never starts out with comps or drawings. Instead, Stamen begins by observing the data’s behavior and collectively determining what shape it seems to want to take. Rather than building an edifice to house information, it’s more like gardening, Rodenbeck explains: “We plant a few seeds and see which way they grow.” The company’s Digg Swarm—which depicts, in real time, users of the popular social news site Digg “swimming” among different stories—is a prime example: With its dynamic, molecular shapes, the visualization communicates, at a glance, the constantly changing structure of the Digg ecosystem.
It also looks beguiling, which is key to Stamen’s strategy. “We have a strong desire to make data clear, but we also want to entertain you,” Rodenbeck says. Stamen’s best works straddle art and service. The formally elegant Cabspotting, a mapping project recently acquired by New York’s MoMA, charts the position and velocity of San Francisco taxicabs in real time using onboard GPS data; in a ghost map of the urban grid, cabs move like blood cells through the city’s arteries. Then there’s the more utilitarian Crimespotting, another urban cartography project that uses color-coordinated symbols to fold data communicating recent criminal activity directly into a map of Oakland. Ben Cerveny, strategy advisor to Stamen, compares the company’s approach to fashion design. “Functionalism is only half the battle,” he says. “The way you actually elicit engagement and interest from someone is to appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities.”
The company hopes to tackle projects for the scientific community, which is rife with data but primitive in its methods of representing it, and for rapidly developing countries like China, where data sets are particularly volatile. “We’re all pretty interconnected now,” Rodenbeck says, “and we need to be able to create spaces to imagine the future.”