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When people look back at the year 2020, likely every story will be seen through the lens of COVID-19. The pandemic in action was an exercise in data management: tracking the outbreak across regions, comparing daily cases to death rates, flattening the curve.

To not be overwhelmed by the raw numbers, we had to find the stories in the data, parsing out some kind of meaning.

“There’s a lot more in this world than you can see in front of you,” Gert Franke says. “Finding new perspectives is tough. It’s up to us as communicators to put the magnifying glass on it.”

From left to right: Cofounders and directors
Thomas Clever and Gert Franke.

He and Thomas Clever are the cofounders and directors of CLEVER°FRANKE, a design studio in Utrecht, the Netherlands, whose client roster quickly expanded outside the country. “We connect people to data and technology through design,” Clever offers as their short pitch.

Clever and Franke met on their first day of classes at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht, where they found that their working styles complemented each other. Both are driven by playfulness and curiosity, traits they also hire for. Over the past twelve years, they’ve grown CLEVER°FRANKE to a team of 35.

“Knowing team members’ strengths makes your life a lot easier when you’re dealing with complexity,” Clever says. When working with data projects that are so complex, they try to keep their lives as simple as possible. “I have ten black Lacoste sweatshirts,” Clever said while wearing a black Lacoste sweatshirt. He and Franke were accidentally twinning on that day in March. Clever is stout and looks like he’d be game for a pint, while Franke is exceedingly tall and used the phrase “holy moly” twice in my presence.

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Humble beginnings
Clever moved his computer into Franke’s attic in 2007, and they officially founded the company on April 1 of the next year. They made their first hires in 2010, and now their 35 employees include one designer in a Chicago office they plan to expand this year and two salespeople in Dubai, their gateway to the Asian market.

Aside from project and office management, the team is split 50-50 between designers and technologists. “We’ve got design nerds and nerd designers,” Franke says.

“Gert and I tried to make a company that we’d like to work at,” Clever says. “We’re just as much employees here as anyone else. In a way, we’re the most difficult employees.”

The Netherlands is just a little larger than Maryland and Delaware combined, with more than double the population. And Utrecht is the country’s fourth-largest city, a college town of approximately 358,000 people. The narrow streets and winding canals make the city feel a lot like Amsterdam without the crowds. By comparison, “there’s not that much happening, which makes it a perfect place to get creative,” Franke says. Rotterdam is known for its architecture firms; Amsterdam, for advertising and design. But Utrecht has possibility, an underdog spunkiness. Possibility is part of why CLEVER°FRANKE went with Chicago for its US office—it already had clients there, and New York seemed too expensive and also too obvious. And the high-speed rails that connect the entire Netherlands allow CLEVER°FRANKE’s employees to live where they like.

A physical data visualization in a conference room uses string and eye hooks to show how staffers commute—walking, biking, public transport, trains or driving—for how long, how far and with how many transfers.

When they moved into their current office in 2017, they needed space for the growing staff, but they also wanted a place where they could invite in the public. The ground floor is now home to the Sensor Lab, where they explore questions of data use in communal spaces and have room for public events. Last year, CLEVER°FRANKE worked with cultural city lab RAUM to put on a local circus show about data collection called Cirque du Data.

Knowing team members’ strengths makes your life a lot easier when you’re dealing with complexity.” —Thomas Clever

Making data visible
“In any collaboration, if you’re up-front about the things you’re good at and not good at, it’ll be a better ride for all of us,” Clever says. “We’re here to help you be successful, and the only way we can do that is together.” CLEVER°FRANKE cherishes its long-term relationships with clients. “It’s fun to work with people you know well,” Clever says. “It’s hard to build trust and very easy to lose it.”

The staff gets polled about their dream clients every year. Nike and adidas are often on the list, along with NASA and the European Space Agency, Tesla, and SpaceX. “If Elon Musk wants to come for a coffee, we’ll keep it hot,” Clever says. The common denominator is that they’re all companies and agencies that are trying to push the boundaries with technology. “But I like working for the underdog, because there’s something to win,” Clever adds.

Design director Wouter van Dijk had been doing user experience consulting for a company working with CLEVER°FRANKE, and found he fit well with the cofounders and their small team.

Like Clever and Franke, van Dijk is a curious person by nature. He fiddles with programming and data visualization on the weekends, and in the spring was playing around with embroidery files, determining whether the company might be able to convey data stories in the textile medium.

van Dijk describes the studio’s work as “trying to make things transparent or at least visible or at least relatable.” “Most of the projects we do, people never see,” he says. “Even if it was online, it would be incomprehensible.”

But one very visible project was Google’s Consumer Barometer in 2014. Google had massive amounts of data about how people do research and make purchases, and CLEVER°FRANKE had to make the data accessible.

The iPhone had just become commonplace, and Flash was gone. “It was one of the first interactive projects on the web to have a completely flat design, getting rid of drop shadows,” Clever says. It was also one of the first projects the company created using D3 and Canvas, with a lot of coding from scratch.

The tool enabled you to explore and export data. “Now everybody offers that, but this was new at the time,” Franke remembers. To counter potentially slow server times, the team precalculated all possible data sets so they would be instantly available to download.

Another public project: CLEVER°FRANKE won a bid in 2014 to create a microsite for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) about transportation in the seven-county area.

“They asked us to visualize this plan that’s 600 pages long. Nobody’s going to read that,” Clever remembers. The scope of the project included public transit, roads and freight. The first step was a discovery process, where CMAP worked with CLEVER°FRANKE to inventory what data was available.

“It was clear we made the right choice early on because of their high capacity for detail,” says Tom Garritano, who was CMAP’s director of communications at the time. “They were interested in not just grabbing the low-hanging fruit. They wanted to find what was most meaningful from our perspective but also what would be the most compelling stories visually.” The microsite used zoomable maps, video and time-lapse data visualizations to convey targets and potential effects of the transportation plan. “They had an inquisitiveness that was exactly what we needed,” Garritano says. “When the project was over, we got calls from transport agencies around the country asking how we made this happen.”

And it doesn’t get much more visible than the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which draws hundreds of millions of viewers globally every year. Many Dutch design firms competed for the privilege of creating the identity for Eurovision 2020, which was to be held in Rotterdam in May. “Any design agency that says otherwise is lying,” Clever says.

For its pitch, CLEVER°FRANKE focused on what Eurovision is, was and would like to be in the future. It ended up creating a data-driven identity system for the event using the 41 participating countries’ flags, showing when each one joined the contest. Further visualizations depict each country’s results over time. The effect is almost floral.

We still haven’t figured out exactly how to do it, and that makes it interesting.” —Gert Franke

The future
I visited Utrecht in the first week of March, when COVID-19 was in the news but still seemed distant. Lockdown measures hadn’t yet started in Europe, but just two weeks later, the world looked very different.

“Luckily, we are used to working remotely with a lot of our clients, and most of our infrastructure is built for it,” Franke told me via email. “But I miss my colleagues, and I’m not such a lone wolf that I can adapt to working from home easily.” In lockdown, employees missed out on the daily communal lunch break when everyone, including Clever and Franke, eats together at a long table on the ground floor of the office decked with sandwich fixings, salads and spreads. The team was staying virtually connected via Google Hangouts, Basecamp and Miro, but Franke hoped for a swift return to physical connectedness.

Eurovision was also a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of the full song contest happening in Rotterdam in May, the organizers planned a noncompetitive online event. But Clever and Franke knew it was everyone’s responsibility to help slow the spread of the virus by flattening the curve. “I never thought some data visualization terminology would become the saying of the year,” Franke said.

As people tried to make sense of the pandemic, distinguishing signal from noise was essential for our sanity. “When we have important decisions involving quality of life, or even life-or-death issues, data visualization adds tremendous value,” Garritano says from Chicago.

Despite its reputation for successfully drawing out stories from incomprehensible data, CLEVER°FRANKE doesn’t think it has unlocked any secret code for doing what it does.

“We still haven’t figured out exactly how to do it, and that makes it interesting,” Franke says. “I like to be challenged, and don’t like to be bored. So, I hope in ten years I’m still being challenged.” ca

Grace Dobush (gracedobush.com) is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She has written about design, tech and cities for publications including WIRED, Quartz and Fortune, and in a past life worked for HOW and Print.


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