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.

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.

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.”

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.”