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Data visualization and Metro maps

Data visualization blends left brain analytics and right brain creativity. The result is a piece of visual communication that reduces a complex information into a simple, understandable, and engaging experience. Many employers list data visualization skills among the most-desired qualifications in the visual industry. Their reasoning is simple, too: The rise of a visual culture has created readers who are interested in consuming large amounts of information quickly.

As I’m preparing my fall courses, I have contemplated ways to include data visualization into the curriculum. This is especially true for my JOUR 4900 course, which focuses on multimedia design. The course hasn’t been taught in a while, and everyone I’ve asked about its expectations has said something along the lines of “it’s whatever you want it to be.” Given that the course is geared toward advertising majors, I’ve put in a portfolio component, an ad-design component (for print and digital), and a data visualization component.

Which brings me to my Metro map. The idea of rail-based public transit has always intrigued me. It’s definitely the metropolitan thing to do — riding a train to work.  It’s great for tourists, because they can get around a city without having to rent a car. It helps ease congestion on roads. It’s cheaper than driving. And it’s a great equalizer; people from every social class use rail transit for urban mobility. Many cities in the United States have extensive rail systems: New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Other, smaller, cities have popular light-rail systems: Pittsburgh, Charlotte, St. Louis, and Miami. However, my favorite has always been the Washington, D.C., Metro system. Why, you ask? I have friends in D.C. who curse Metro every day. True, it’s busy and sometimes there’s a long wait. But it does exactly what a system like this should: 1. It connects far-flung suburbs to the city center, 2. It serves as an easy way to get through downtown, and 3. It makes it easy to be a tourist. The new Silver Line connecting to Dulles Airport will make the third part even more true, but for now, the connections at Washington-Reagan and Union Station have done sufficiently well at serving visitors. Only once have I opted to actually DRIVE through Washington while visiting, and that was for a late-night run to a liquor store before a wedding. Further, the system’s distance-based fare structure means you can travel a short distance, say, one or two stops, without having to waste a full-fare price; this is another advantage for tourists, who might not feel comfortable walking freely a long distance in the city.

So I chose Memphis, my new home and a tourist destination in its own right. The city that brought the likes of Elvis and Justin Timberlake has long been a draw for its music scene. It’s been called the barbecue capital of the world. It’s home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Patients worldwide come to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for care. The Memphis Zoo is one of the best in the country. The Tigers and Grizzlies bring in national sports travelers. And there’s Tunica, the third-largest gambling destination in the United States. Memphis has a lot for tourists to do, and a well-designed metro system would make it easy.

As for me, a commuter from the near suburbs to the University District, my 20-minute commute probably wouldn’t be shorter, but I would save on gasoline. And I could work while I commute; I can’t imagine it’s safe to grade papers while driving down Sam Cooper Boulevard, but on the Green Line Train, it’s probably not bad.

So with Memphis in mind, I visualized a system that would connect tourists to hotspots, locals to their jobs and to the booming Midtown neighborhoods, and commuters to the city center. In the style of the famous Washington Metro Map, I opted for big lines and circular stations. I chose sharp corners instead of rounded ones. I didn’t highlight parks or other attractions, largely because I finished this at 2 a.m. and had ran out of steam, but a “real” map should do this. Type is set in Swiss 721 in varying weights, including the system logo.

My thought is that data visualization skills can come from anywhere, even if it isn’t real, yet. My idea shows what a system in Memphis could look like. Someone else could have a different idea. In my class this fall, I’m going to have my students hypothesize their own systems, using Illustrator to draw the maps. I’ll show students mine as inspiration.

Left brain analytics + Right brain creativity = 21st century job skill.

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