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What got you started in digital design and data visualizations? I was fortunate to start my career at Pathfinder, one of the first portals on the web. At the time, there was so much new territory to explore, and I was able to apply my fine arts background to my work. I also held senior design positions at several interactive agencies here in New York City and later at the New York Times. In 2007, I opened Concentric, a design studio primarily focused on editorial content, product and e-commerce experiences, as well as helping develop design systems for large organizations.

I joined Schema just about a year ago. I am really intrigued by merging content and data to create new types of user experiences.

How did you become a partner at Schema’s New York firm? Christian Marc Schmidt, the founder of Schema, and I worked together at the New York Times. More recently, we collaborated on a project that merged content and data experiences, and we quickly realized how much synergy there was within this type of work. Our collaboration became the stimulus to join forces. We opened a new Schema office in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn this past year, retaining our main headquarters in Seattle.

What tools do you find indispensable for creating effective data visualizations? We love using Figma for ideation and design; it helps align everyone on the project vision, and we can collaborate on the evolving work. Prototyping with code is also important to us, especially to validate the ideas we have envisioned for a particular project.

Tell us about the installation you worked on for the 2022 Morningstar Investment Conference in Chicago for financial services company Morningstar. What was it like to work with datasets on investing and sustainability? As part of the larger Morningstar Investable World campaign, we designed and built a number of interactive visualizations on the topic of environmental, social and governance investing. We worked in close collaboration with the Morningstar branding, research and design teams to help bring the project to life.

Sustainability is a relatively new topic within the investment community, and there are many different perspectives. Morningstar is known for the breadth and depth of its data coverage, as well as for the simplicity and clarity with which it communicates information. Making complex information accessible to individual investors—i.e., simplifying terms, mapping to a bigger picture and showing why something is important—was particularly challenging but rewarding.

With Google News Initiative and Axios, Schema also worked on “The New Normal,” a data visualization made in collaboration with designer and journalist Alberto Cairo on shopping trends during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the creative process for this project like? Our projects with Google tend to be open-ended and exploratory. At the beginning of the project, we discussed different directions to explore using Google Trends Data. We didn’t commit to any specific ideas but instead tried to capture all the possible issues and perspectives. Next, we started working on a smaller list of ideas with supporting materials and data to back up our assumptions. Once the idea became more succinct and preliminarily validated by data, we began a deeper dive into the design approach and data analysis.

For The New Normal, we were drawn to the idea of showing search interest in everyday products before and after the pandemic began. To validate our hypothesis that there would be a rise in search interest for pandemic “staples,” we started by looking up everyday products that became particularly sought after once the pandemic really took off: toilet paper, freezers and sanitizers, for example. The spikes in those products were so dramatic (and obvious) that we decided to pursue this idea further.

Later, we needed to figure out a way to represent a common “basket of goods” instead of listing random products. To do that, we used Google Product Taxonomy, which lists all product categories—i.e., Sports Goods—and the products that make up that category. Everything listed on Google Shopping uses that taxonomy, and we felt that it would make a great proxy for identifying common products that people are familiar with. Because this taxonomy is a nested tree, the lower levels actually were so specific that we could use them as search terms, like “soccer balls.”

After cleaning and formatting the data, we ended up with close to 300 products that showed visible trend changes around the time the pandemic began. With some shape trend analysis algorithms, we manually categorized the terms into three categories: Usual, Unusual and The New Normal, which we felt were an interesting yet simple way to present the information. This project ended up generating the most user engagement out of all the previous projects we’ve worked on with Google.

When designing with data, we often encounter this dilemma: Do we lead with simple takeaways or a more comprehensive representation of the system and all its complexity and nuance? Of course, it’s easier to say that both are preferred, but in reality, one always comes at the expense of the another.”

Schema collaborates with Axios and Google News annually on data visualization projects. How has it been cultivating this creative relationship? It’s been a great experience. We recognize everyone’s expertise and let everyone do what they do best. Google has a bigger vision for building a community around data journalism. Axios has a pulse on what‘s relevant and trending in the news. We at Schema have a unique perspective on communicating with data visually.

What particular challenges does data visualization present, like legibility and bias? How does Schema overcome these? When designing with data, we often encounter this dilemma: Do we lead with simple takeaways or a more comprehensive representation of the system and all its complexity and nuance? Of course, it’s easier to say that both are preferred, but in reality, one always comes at the expense of the another. By simplifying, we remove some of the nuance, and aiming to represent the nuance, we add complexity. We always have to find a balance depending on the audience for which we’re designing.

We focus on presenting the data objectively but understand that users will ultimately draw their own conclusions. It’s important to test, prototype and validate our ideas with different audiences and perspectives—this is fundamental to our process.

What emerging technologies and innovations will have the hugest impact on how you design in the next few years? Data-intensive processing and graphic rendering that used to be only possible using standalone technologies and applications are now becoming increasingly possible using standard web technologies. That means the novel visualizations and interfaces that designers produce will likely become much more commonplace and integrated into organizations’ existing infrastructures. Data is becoming an integral part of organizations not only for internal purposes but also to express or support a public-facing communications strategy. We see a shift in the way organizations think of data—instead of using it solely to derive insight, data is now also used as editorial content for telling compelling stories.

Do you have any advice for designers just entering the field? We’re in the midst of major changes to design processes and methodologies. Applications such as Figma have been a great disrupter, fundamentally changing how we ideate and design.

A client recently asked me, “What does it mean to be a designer these days?” On any given project, we work with people from all types of backgrounds and expertise; everyone is collaborating in the design process and helping contribute to a solution. It’s an important question that is undefined right now.

I think it’s an exciting time to be a designer—there’s so much potential to help improve and reshape things in our everyday lives. The possibilities only seem limited by our imagination.

Footnote: Special thanks to the Schema team—Christian, Sergei, Kenton, Heidi and others—for helping share their thoughts. ca

Sumin Chou is a partner at the research and design firm Schema. Previously, he was a founding partner of Concentric, a creative studio that worked with retail, publishing and media companies. Chou also served as the digital design director for the New York Times. He has also held senior creative positions at Time Inc. and at several design agencies. His work has been recognized by a number of leading industry organizations, including the American Advertising Awards, Cannes Lions, Communication Arts, Print, Society of Publication Designers (SPD) and the Webby Awards. Chou has been a guest speaker at design and media events and helps mentor fellow designers in his spare time. He serves as an executive judge of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences’s Webby Awards and has also judged annual awards competitions for the Art Directors Club and the SPD. 

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