Pedro Cruz is a data visualization designer and explorer. He is currently finishing his PhD in Information Science and Technology of the University of Coimbra and holds a Master of Science in Informatics Engineering from the same university. Prior to coming to Northeastern, Pedro taught several undergraduate and graduate courses at the intersection of design and technology at University of Coimbra (2008-2015) and in Porto Business School (2015). He was a researcher at the Computational Design and Visualization Lab/CDV, leading an initiative in visualization for big data in a partnership with Sonae, the biggest retail company in Portugal. He passed through MIT Senseable City Lab in Cambridge and Singapore, working on visualization for cities. Prior to that he collaborated regularly with design studio FBA on new media design.
At the 4th Ibero-American Biennial of Design in 2014 he was given an award for Design and Social Movements. He won the ACM SIGGRAPH Student Research Competition in 2010 and was a semi-finalist in 2011. His work was featured in several exhibitions around the world such as CES, MoMA’s Talk to Me and SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival as well as in magazines such as Fast Company (Co.Design & Co.Create) and Wired (US & UK) and in specialized books. Pedro enjoys sharing his vision on information visualization, and has done so through several lectures and presentations in the United States, Brazil, France, Spain, and Portugal.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background within engineering and information science in relation to your design experience?
I studied Engineering Physics for two years before changing to Informatics Engineering. In engineering I learned how to solve problems and loose fear of the unknown. Whenever I had the chance in this context I always sought a visual approach to the challenges that I had, be it in the process or in the outcome. Only during that period I came in contact with good graphic design and started opening my eyes to really understand it. I was mesmerized by how visual cues can be used to communicate clearly, in a simple, elegant and subtle way. As much as I knew how to technically execute those pieces, I also knew that such elegance wouldn’t come without practice and without failing. Amid my early freelance work in graphic design, I spontaneously applied to collaborate with FBA. (www.fba.pt), a graphic design studio whose work carried the know-how and subtlety that I was looking for. I learned a great deal with them, from typographic excellence and meticulousness, to aligning and balancing graphic elements, to what works and what doesn’t. My collaborations with them always had a technical or new media component, doing book trailers, interactive exhibitions or building a tool that generates abstract book covers based on the content of the book. At that point I was also getting much better in building my own software and using more advanced computer graphics techniques. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I value excellence in the visual output, I’m as much passionate in using programming to do so. My code is also my work: it is my low level line of thought, and it should be as integer and elegant as possible. My coding blocks are my LEGOs and hence the process brings me much more satisfaction when you build a whole system from scratch with an outcome visible to anyone.
I spent one year abroad in Brazil, and while I was there studying computer science, I took an internship at a creative studio called 3bits. I did web development and it was there that I did my first work on information visualization called Sync/Lost: an interactive installation that enabled you to learn in a fun way about the genres in electronic music. At that point in time there was an explosion of information visualization projects and I was eager to experiment within the field, since it was the perfect playground to exercise my set of skills, from computer science to new media design. I believed that the field had the potential to let me explore unique narratives, through complex but elegant visual representations, telling meaningful stories and connecting with large audiences.
Can you describe your work Visualizing Empires Decline?
That visualization was my first attempt at displaying information with a ludic intent, and for that, making use of very specific figurative metaphors. The objective was to display the apogee and dissolution of the four greatest maritime Empires (by land area) of the 19th and 20th centuries. For that, I produced a system that graphically emphasizes independence events that occurred throughout history, being able to depict how much of the world was once part of these four Empires. The Empires are soft circular bodies that interact with each other and having events, such as independences, triggered in a data-driven environment. I built this visualization with two strong figurative metaphors in mind: the first is a sense of dissolution as the Empires give birth to new nations; the second is a sense of competition, with the Empires colliding with each other aggressively and having their shapes distorted by these collisions. I didn’t build a static a animation, I built a system that simulates data-driven agents that tell the same story every time the simulation is run but in a slightly different way (e.g. the bodies can collide with each other in different configurations each time) (paper: P. Cruz and P. Machado, “Generative Storytelling for Information Visualization,” Computer Graphics and Applications, IEEE, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 80–85, Mar. 2011.). The collisions themselves have no data significance, but they have a metaphoric one. I use those metaphors as I communicate data stories as an author, trying to cause an impactful and emotional response in the viewers. This is very significant in my work as a whole, since I use those metaphors to present provocative perspectives on common topics. I do visualization for the masses, with an emphasis on communication and emotion. Another good example of this is my visualization called Ecosystem of Corporate Politicians.
What courses will you be teaching at Northeastern and how will you tie your research into your teaching?
I don’t know yet which courses I’ll be teaching, since I’m only starting in January. To speculate a little, the courses I teach are studios or have a strong project component. I will try to explore with students how we can do things differently in visualization, what we can do to communicate with broad audiences and how we can be provocative to communicate strongly and generate parallel conversations. For this, it is of the utmost importance to look for data and themes that really interest people, mainly from social and historical perspectives.
If you had three pieces of advice you could give students interested in this particular field, what would they be?
— References, references, references. Look for visual order in complexity, and for the elegancy in simplification. Know your references and build a critical opinion about what works and what doesn’t. Have references from the 18th to the 21st century. Have references from what you see in books, to what you see in nature.
— Know the rules. In academic visualization there are several sets of rules that give us a safe playground to build visualizations that work. Know what they are and how to use them.
— Break those rules and have a good reason for it. How did your rule-breaking affect the message and what did it add? We are designing to communicate data-driven stories that matter to people. As in design, you can break some rules. As in design, execution is paramount.