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To visualize today’s ‘big data,’ exhibit peers into Swiss design legacy

From social media to supercomputers, the technological advancements of today are yielding a massive amount of data about the world and its people. This has led to a furious rush across the globe to present this data in ways that are easily organized and understood, using methods such as infographics and visualizations.

Now, a new exhibit premiering at Northeastern is peering into the past for solutions that will help make sense of all this data in the future. Specifically, it is spotlighting the dynamic visualization work from Switzerland during the 1950s and 60s, which has been recognized for its clear and functional design.

“Swiss Style Reboot: New Perspectives for Information Design” opened earlier this month at Northeastern’s Gallery 360. Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design collaborated with swissnex Boston and Presence Switzerland to sponsor the exhibit, which runs through July 17.

Rania M. Masri, who will begin Northeastern's new Master of Fine Arts in Information Design and Visualization program in the fall, tours Gallery 360 during the opening reception for "Swiss Style Reboot." Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Rania M. Masri, who will begin Northeastern’s new Master of Fine Arts in Information Design and Visualization program in the fall, tours Gallery 360 during the opening reception for “Swiss Style Reboot.” Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Swiss graphic design has been defined by its impeccable clarity. It incorporates sans serif typefaces, bold colors, and iconic imagery, as well as a grid system and geometric concepts and symbols.

“We’re trying to draw lessons from Swiss design. The style at that time is very well suited for today’s information design,” explained Benjamin Bollmann, the exhibit’s curator from Geneva-based SwissInfographics. “The Swiss developed a very clean, clear, and functional style for structuring huge masses of information.”

The exhibit is primarily split into two sections: work from the mid-20th century pioneers of “Swiss Style,” and current examples of graphic design from across the globe. Also included are video interviews with well-known information architects from all over the world and interactive computer stations that highlight new research by international designers.

“Swiss Style Reboot” features infographics, visualizations, and interactive interfaces on a range of topics, from economic policy and world maps to transportation data and sports. One featured item is a Swiss Railways station clock that hangs in the center of the exhibit; designed in 1944, the clock is viewed as perhaps the single most important masterpiece of Swiss information design because of its clarity and precision.

Michelle Espinosa, a graphic design major, explores the Gallery 360 exhibit. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Michelle Espinosa, a graphic design major, explores the Gallery 360 exhibit. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Nathan Felde, professor and chair of the Department of Art + Design, said this exhibit underscores Northeastern’s efforts to serve as the educational leader on this critical understanding of “big data” and complexity through information design. On June 20, the Department of Art + Design, swissnex, and SwissInfographics will convene an all-day symposium called “Information Design and Data Visualization: Boston 2013” that will bring together many of today’s major theorists, researchers, and practitioners from around the globe who are working in these areas. The symposium will focus on the principles of information design and the challenges presented by “big data.” This fall, Northeastern will launch a new Master of Fine Arts degree in Information Design and Visualization that will prepare designers for this work at an advanced level.

“All of these components focus on answering essential questions such as ‘Do you see what I see?’ and ‘Do you know what I mean?’” Felde explained. “By taking these huge, complex amounts of data and visualizing them in clear way, we’re hoping people will say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ That’s the essence of what these efforts are all about.”

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, left, said the exhibit exemplified the value of building global partnerships between academia, industry, and government to explore and create new realms of research. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, left, said the exhibit exemplified the value of building global partnerships between academia, industry, and government to explore and create new realms of research. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

More than 200 people packed Gallery 360 at the exhibit’s opening reception last week. Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun said the exhibit exemplified the value of building global partnerships between academia, industry, and government to explore and create new realms of research.

“We are leveraging our expertise here with the expertise of the world,” Aoun said.

In his remarks, Xavier Costa, founding dean of the College of Arts, Media and Design, noted the college’s commitment to the field of information design.

Felix Moesner, Swiss consul and director of swissnex Boston, added: “We have to think about the value of all this data and how it can be visualized.”