Ford Foundation

Change By Design

Ford Foundation

I didn’t get into the Communication field because I’m a numbers person.  Words are my tools, not pixels or bytes or zeros and ones.  Pie charts are interesting – when someone else explains them.  Even spreadsheets make me uneasy.  I’d rather write a narrative. But the Ford Foundation’s Change By Design conference I attended in New York City in late June may well have been a game-changer for me. For the first time I could really see how facts and figures – when put into the hands of designers, researchers, artists and statisticians– can pack a dramatic punch large enough to have a room full of foundation veterans oohhing and aahhing.

The event featured leaders in the fields of design, social innovation, art, and journalism, all of whom are thinking creatively about digital storytelling.  During the day-long event presenters shared case studies on topics ranging from experiential data visualization to data for news reporting to collaborative mapping.  It was a day of inspiration more than it was a day of skill-building. It was a profound shift in your thinking kind of day.  I left feeling like I’d seen the future of social change. And the future, let me just say, is information design.

Below are some highlights.  For more details and video, you can go here and here, and you can also take a look at #changebydesign. Wherever possible I linked the name of the presenter with his or her Twitter feed.  In most cases they are chock-full of the “what’s next” of our profession.

Jake Barton, the founder and principal of Local Projects kicked the event off by sharing visionary examples from his work with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the Lumiere project at the Jacob Burns Film Center and from PlanNYC2012, which eventually led to the adorably inspiring @bronxchicks project. (Check the feed out is all I will say.) In all of these cases he’s pairing written narratives with graphics, photos and data to create  “meaningful adjacencies.” Put another way, Local Projects takes big groups of facts and makes them into moving and personal multi media experiences.

Amanda Cox, graphics editor at the New York Times, shared an analogy that really resonated for me.  “You’d never write a headline that says, here are some words, hope you find something interesting,’ she said, “nor should you do that with data.”  Subtracting and adding information, scaling patterns and giving context are some of the ways the Times brings data stories to light through graphics.  Follow @nytgraphics for a steady feed of examples.

Jer Thorp, data artist in residence at the New York Times, is the founder of, where his “digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science, data, art, and culture.”  In other words, he’s on the cutting edge of wow.  His work is based on the idea of an exploratory tool, or “cascade” that shows how social media stories get passed on.

Thorp is also the creator of a site that – get this – lets us recapture our own data from our phones and computers, and voluntarily share it with researchers.  It’s an “outward facing utility that lets people look at their own data story.”  Being able to reclaim data from the hands of third-party providers means that researchers, many of whom are working on social change, can have access to the data that can power their findings. As a very cool example, he showed us the exact timestamp and geo-coordinates of the moment he met his girlfriend – data points harvested from his iPhone.

Laura Kirgan, co-director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, and Leah Meisterline, co-founder of PRE-Office, provided us the latest on cartography as a powerful tool for engagement.  Kirgan discussed the project, Million Dollar Block, which uses criminal justice information to collect, analyze and propose solutions for highly regressive, high concentration crime areas. Foundations interested in communications for criminal advocacy and urban rehabilitation will want to look at her work.

Leah Meisterlin shared the story of using “extreme mapping” to both highlight the problematic aspects of a purely mathematical plan to restore New Orleans and propose meaningful, data-backed solutions.  Foundations interested in using communications for urban renewal as well as anyone hoping to use infometrics to disprove outdated models should check out

Rosten Woo, the third member of the “Collaborative Mapping” panel was my personal favorite because he offered hope for the rest of us by sharing his belief that “you can do data visualization with excel and an iron-on decal.”  His work in urban pedagogy takes complex regulations and data sets and makes them easy to understand using print, sculptural and yes, iron-on decal forms.  See his simple, elegant communication solutions at

Zack Lieberman is co-founder of openFrameworks, an open source creative coding collective. Lieberman’s work runs the gamut from whimsical and mischievous to life-changing.  His philosophy of DIWO – do it with others – undergirds all his work.  As a designer, artist and programmer he might partner beautifully with a foundation interested in leveraging cutting edge design and information art to further a key message or mission.  Read more at

 Now it’s your turn: Whether your point of entry on “design for good” is how to use infographics to present your social media metrics to your stakeholders, or how to partner with program officers to gather, visualize, disseminate and leverage their grantee data, we want to be a part of the conversation.  What’s your information design story? 



  1. Will SullivanWill Sullivan07-09-2012

    Thank you for the great recap, Courtney. Would have loved to attend this conference. I’m curious, did the speakers talk at all about how to become good stewards of data? I find that while the tactics associated with great information design can create an enormous and positive impact in providing context, organizations (especially cause and mission-driven organizations that have capacity challenges) find it difficult to begin the process of gathering and then contextualizing their data.

    We have evangelized about data-driven storytelling for some time, and the challenges that we most often see are that most people agree it’s important, but don’t know where to begin.

  2. Will, I am so with you! This conference was as inspiring as it gets, but it did, for me at least, begin at a level that I only aspire to – which is to say, these practitioners already have harvested their data and have methodology for doing so well and continuously and are now mastering the art of what happens after that. Most of the people I know who are directing communications at nonprofits are asking really different questions – like yours. When that was my primary role I was just trying to get people to think past how many “likes” we had – including myself.

    I guess I have two responses and maybe we can get some dialog going with some others.

    1) I want to know what people are doing at our level – nuts and bolts stuff on the measurement front. Who’s recording? How? What? Is it being benchmarked? What sort of reporting is there? How do we solve for issues of capacity and staffing? That sort of thing. What’s the methodology and practice that can be analyzed and standardized that we need to know about? I hope the Network can reply!

    and 2) I just saw this blog post on Beth Kantor’s blog and it seemed to be answering – or starting to answer just this type of question:

    In it, Zan McColloch-Lussier guests posts about Katie Paine’s webinar which is about her work with the Society for New Communications Research. (Umm that’s a guest post about a webinar on a blog…how’s that for layered?)

    What I took from the post is that Katie is helping to spearhead a new effort called whose mission is to “simplify and unify the measurement of social media.” It looks really promising to me as a template for the rest of us – something we can use to drill down to real tactics for our measurement work. I will be following this and will replay the webinar for myself – I’ll share anything I find that I think might be useful…

    • Will SullivanWill Sullivan07-26-2012

      Thank you for the reply, Courtney! I certainly like the idea of moving toward not only a better collection of metrics, but a more appropriate standard for what we’re measuring in the first place.

      The idea of moving toward a new kind of metric such as SEO – Social Engagement Optimization – where we are not measuring within the set frameworks of analytics and native insights necessarily, but asking deeper questions and looking for new Key Performance Indicators that let us know what kind of stories and data are truly impactful. I love the Lucy Bernholz (beyond brilliant Philanthropy 2173 blog quote that “stories need data and data need stories.” Perfectly said.

      Part of the challenge I think sits with the idea that we’re often times overwhelmed by the challenge of trying to tell the entire story – this seems especially prevalent in mission-driven organizations with smart, heavily engaged subject matter experts. But if we can learn to become more strategic storytellers and story curators, we might be able to break that challenge up into more manageable pieces. And more manageable pieces would seem to lead to more measurable pieces.

      This is why I’m really excited about platforms like Sparkwise which is moving toward the dashboard approach. I’ve also heard that they’re releasing an API this fall that could make the tool even more customize-able and powerful for organizations who want to draw back the data curtain.

      Here is a fabulous article on FastCo.Design about what they’re trying to do –

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