When you walk into the atrium of the Unisphere, the headquarters of biotech company United Therapeutics in Silver Spring, Maryland, the first thing you see is a 40-foot-tall wall sculpture resembling a giant sundial. Two dozen mirrored rectangles, arranged in a circle, radiate intersecting beams of light, creating intricate mandala-like patterns on the wall.
This Energy Dial, as it’s called, was created by the Brooklyn-based experience design firm HUSH, and serves to visualize the building’s energy consumption. Equipped with 3,000 solar panels, the Unisphere is one of the few “net-zero” buildings in the country, meaning it uses only the energy it generates within its footprint. When the building is using energy, the Energy Dial’s rays of light point toward the circle’s center; when it’s generating energy, the rays of light point outwards. Drawing from hundreds of thousands of data points, this visualization enables the Unisphere’s employees, who are working to develop an unlimited supply of transplantable organs, to get a sense of how their power consumption habits contribute to the building’s sustainability.
The Energy Dial is just one example of how HUSH transforms massive, chaotic swarms of data into elegant, interactive visualizations that pretty much anyone can intuitively understand. “We like to wrangle really complex subject matter with the goal of making it super simple,” cofounder David Schwarz says on a recent afternoon at the firm’s light-filled office in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
HUSH was founded in 2006 by Schwarz, who attended Harvard University’s graduate prep program in architecture and received an MFA in media design from Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, and Erik Karasyk, a self-described “animation nerd” who studied visual effects and motion design at Savannah College of Art and Design. After meeting in their late twenties while working in commercial production in New York, they came to suspect that their unique blend of architecture skills, interactive media skills and traditional filmmaking skills could fill a hole in the burgeoning experience design industry.
“We had this entrepreneurial bug that most people don’t have—we wanted creative control,” says Karasyk, who primarily handles operations and technology vision. The confidence of youth was a key factor in the company’s founding. “We were young enough to be naive enough to start something new, but old enough to know we worked well together,” says Schwarz, who oversees creative strategy.
When considering how to make their work stand out, they created a spreadsheet compiling information about various design firms that comprised the competitive landscape. They were struck by the industry’s homogeneity and penchant for self-congratulation.
“We quickly realized that if you shuffled up the firms’ names and logos and pithy little statements about how they’ll change the world, it wouldn’t really matter,” Schwarz says. “It was total noise. That’s where the name HUSH came from—the idea of ‘do great work and don’t yell about it.’ The work will speak for itself.”
Clients appreciate this aversion to yelling. “My takeaway from dealing with HUSH was that they were really good listeners,” says Thomas Kaufman, associate director, corporate real estate at United Therapeutics. “They spent a lot of time getting to know us culturally, understanding what was weird and cool about us, which was why we were ultimately successful in creating these nuanced, out-of-the-box visualizations that captured the building’s mission.”
In the twelve years since HUSH launched, the firm’s quiet approach has landed it commissions from some of the world’s biggest corporations. Its projects, which often feel like sleek digital fun houses for grown-ups, include permanent installations for the offices of Facebook and Google; dazzling retail environments for Nike and Under Armour; and an interactive gallery for architect Zaha Hadid’s first New York City residential property.
HUSH bills itself as an experience design firm, a term that often proves too nebulous for non–design nerds to understand. “Experience is a terrible word,” Schwarz says. “It means everything to everyone.” Whenever he explains experience design to the uninitiated—his parents, for example—Schwarz stresses that “everything HUSH does exists in the real world. We’re creating spaces you can walk around in—spaces that engage your five senses in ways that optimize your learning, feeling and enjoyment.”
Take, for example, the Light Forest, an installation that HUSH designed in 2018 for the lobby of Instagram’s San Francisco office. Sixteen towering columns of frosted acrylic are equipped with color-changing LED lights, which glow in gradients of pink, purple, orange and yellow—Instagram’s signature colors. When you touch the columns, ambient chimes sound, and pictures sourced from various artists’ Instagram pages appear supersized and refracted across the columns’ facades.
The aesthetic recalls the work of minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd and light artists like Robert Irwin, whom Schwarz cites as influences. (“I’ve embargoed James Turrell,” he says, noting the overdone trend of Turrell worship, but there’s clearly a bit of Turrell’s DNA in HUSH’s work.) The installation also happens to be a picturesque backdrop for Instagram snapshots, which means that visitors’ photos of the Light Forest are broken down into data that, in turn, gets visualized in the Light Forest, creating an infinite loop.
Pamela Chen, a creative director at Instagram, describes the installation as “emblematic” of the social media platform’s San Francisco office. “Instagram is a visual platform, which is why we design our workspaces to look and feel as if you are walking into the app in real life,” Chen says. “HUSH’s commitment to technology, simplicity and human connection resonated with Instagram, and together, we created a memorable first impression that pays tribute to our company’s commitment to community and creativity.”
The low-tech elegance of projects like the Light Forest and the Energy Dial illustrates what Schwarz describes as the firm’s “technology agnosticism.” They strive to make “work that still looks cool when you switch off the power,” Schwarz says. “We’re so bored with screens. It’s such a failure of design that we’re beholden to these rectangles.”
To avoid getting trapped in tired conventions, HUSH seeks out hires with “weird interests and eclectic backgrounds,” Schwarz says. They’re less drawn to people who “eat and drink nothing but design,” especially since their work fuses a variety of creative disciplines—graphic design, architecture, sculpture, sound—with code and technology. Among their 20 employees are a jazz guitarist, an economist, a floral designer and a pro skater. Every project team features a mix of architects, designers, data analysts and technologists, a balance that ensures their imaginative proposals can be practically executed in the real world.
When designing a sprawling series of data-visualization installations for Facebook’s offices in Dublin, London, Singapore and California, HUSH considered how, in the wake of the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal and other mass privacy violations, the word data has accrued a lot of baggage. “If you say data, people think about dystopian William Gibson stuff,” Schwarz says. “They don’t realize that, from a user experience point of view, when used in a good way, data can be very valuable. We want to change people’s Pavlovian response to the word.”
The installations adorn the Facebook offices’ Partner Centers— floors used primarily for meetings with VIPs—and serve to visualize the intricate networks of communication between Facebook’s 2.4 billion users. The first is a shimmering light sculpture called the Spark, which decorates the ceilings of the Partner Centers’ lobbies. It’s composed of a huge array of LED cylinders that vaguely resembles a retro Lite Brite toy. In aggregate, the lights act like a giant screen: they flicker on and off in complex patterns, abstractly visualizing data about the global spread of various viral social good campaigns across Facebook, from the number of participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge to money raised by Facebook fundraisers after the 2017 bombing at an Ariana Grande concert.
“When you look up, the Spark is just a cool light show,” Karasyk says. When you look at a touchscreen that sits beneath it, however, you find literal, granular explanations of the data it’s visualizing. HUSH’s installations function as stand-alone art pieces first, impressionistic visual metaphors that sum up numerical information without getting bogged down in quantitative specifics.
The centerpiece of the Facebook series is the Globe, an imposing, wooden spherical structure that resembles a high-design yurt. When you step inside, you’re surrounded by ambient music and five huge touchscreens that picture a swirling, abstract map of the world. Each country is represented by a brightly colored bubble. Tapping a given bubble reveals data about the country’s Facebook engagement, like the number of users nationwide.
“The Globe integrates old-school physical architecture with digital technology in a way that plays with your perception,” Karasyk says. “You feel like you’ve entered into a cocoon space; you’re transported into what feels like a very intimate, private experience of play.”
Play is central to HUSH’s work culture. Strewn around the office are what Schwarz calls “sloppy prototypes”: a miniature model of the Globe, inhabited by tiny plastic people; a glowing Light Forest column; an aluminum rectangle from the Energy Dial. On a back wall hangs a framed magnetic whiteboard, adorned with 20 magnetized glass prisms, which emanate beams of rainbow light. Called Lenses, it’s an experimental piece that HUSH made to illustrate its collaborative creative process. Each prism represents a team member. You can move the prisms around the board, creating different constellation-like arrangements, which trigger different sounds. There are thousands of possible arrangements and thousands of possible sounds, signifying what Schwarz calls the “infinite ways to create.”
This sense of endless possibility drives the born tinkerers at HUSH, who are striving to scale up their projects. They’re currently designing light sculptures for Uber’s new global headquarters in Mission Bay, San Francisco, and collaborating with one of New York City’s top developers to integrate experience design into its architecture and the urban landscape. Soon, digital installations by HUSH will grace the sidewalks surrounding Penn Station, making invisible data visible to thousands of pedestrians every day, bringing the amorphous cloud of information looming around us down to Earth. ca