Spending a day at Schema’s comfortably funky office is like finding the smartest kids on campus and hanging out with them until your brain hurts. As a collegial creativity buzzes in the background, computer screens dazzle with colorful pixelated visuals, and a big white wall dominates the room. Used for data projections, it represents the team’s shared intentions. Founded in 2012, the Seattle-based data visualization and design company is now at the forefront of using data to propel research in areas as diverse as biotech, journalism, education and quantified-self applications that can drive behavior change in fields like life science and finance.
Most view data as somewhat cold and intimidating, but Schema founder and principal Christian Marc Schmidt thinks of data as a way to tell stories and share knowledge. “It’s about the experience,” he says. “You can craft really compelling and human experience through the lens of data.”
With design degrees from Parsons School of Design and Yale University, and an ironically self-described “superpower” for combining design and programming, Schmidt started writing code when he was eleven and hasn’t stopped since. “I think I’ve always had a right brain/left brain approach to design, and what has always interested me is the interplay between data and the expressive potential of design and aesthetics,” he says. “It sparked my interest in creating these interactive programs that are human centered and explore the difference between perception and reality.”
Having worked as a senior-level designer at Microsoft and an associate partner at Pentagram in New York City—which included working with Lisa Strausfeld, an industry leader in data visualization—Schmidt founded Schema in his tiny living room, with Sergei Larionov as the first designer on the team. “The driving factor was that data visualization had matured to a point that … it could create real-world experiences,” Schmidt explains. “There weren’t a lot of other companies doing the work, but I saw there was a strong demand for it.” Despite a small team of eleven designers and software engineers, Schema has gone from one success to another with clients ranging from the educational reading platform Actively Learn to the Airbus Experience Center in Washington, DC, to the hip-hop duo OutKast.
Schmidt is clear that Schema’s “high-level mission” is to disseminate knowledge and turn that information into action. “At the risk of sounding grandiose, the idea is that Schema exists in order to confront the issues of our day, which is ultimately what inspires us,” he says. “It is a strong ethos on the team and within the company. People have told me that Schema has a style, which I don’t believe is true. It’s more of a relentless pursuit of simplicity to get at the essence of something. If there’s anything that defines us, it’s the visual outcome of that.”
For Larionov, now design director at Schema, the company’s competitive advantage lies in its standardized creative process and the type of work it does, along with, as Larionov puts it, “the conceptual, intellectual, technical and design rigor that we stand for. We have authorship, and we develop platforms for discussion or discourse so that the client has a central repository for their knowledge. We hope that clients come to us because of our quirky perspective on issues, but the real value comes from what they say—or feel—and get at the end of the project.”
BUILD, EVALUATE AND DISCOVER
Fresh off a science and design presentation at South by Southwest with biotech giant Amgen, Schmidt exudes a boyish energy, giving credence to Larionov’s description of him as a “machine that keeps on going.” He’s excited about the potential for breakthroughs in curing disease through big-molecule scientific research—research that Schema helped to identify and visualize. The company created Insight, a tool to enable Amgen scientists to visualize large molecules that take up to fifteen years to develop, molecules that are used to create or administer medicines for diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer.
“Insight is one of the highlights of my career thus far,” says Schmidt. “A biotech explosion has taken place where we’re moving from small molecules to large molecular structures, and that is a game changer. By scaling up that much, you need new tools to make sense of the data and to evaluate the potency of each molecule. What Insight does is visualize all the data in a single place and give scientists the ability to make decisions in a fraction of the time—from months of work down to seconds—to draw insights from the data.”
The process used to create Insight is a prototype for any project Schema takes on, he explains. The design team started in meetings with scientists and product developers across Amgen, getting different perspectives to pull out the main perceptions and use cases. They simultaneously brainstormed with management, conducted surveys of analogous teams to find relevant applications to provide key views of the application, created sketches that were rendered in low-fidelity design mock-ups and worked on the code, ensuring that the design and programming processes were integrated. By the time Schema started showing the prototype to scientists, the design team could incorporate feedback into several iterations that improved the project and moved it into a minimum viable product. “In the end, it comes down to learning—an oscillation between ‘make’ and ‘learn’ that lies at the heart of our process,” reflects Schmidt. “It’s cyclical and iterative: build, evaluate and discover.”
Schema recently introduced a sister company called Arrays, the platform upon which Insight is built. Arrays gives Schema’s clients as well as the public an opportunity to create and easily maintain their data online. It’s been compared with Tableau Software, another Seattle-based data visualization agency. “It’s a great company, but we’re approaching the problem from a design perspective, thinking more about stories people want to tell and giving them the tools to drive insights from data,” says Schmidt, adding that Schema’s human-centered design approach offers greater opportunities for feedback. Arrays has been making the rounds of web conferences, and several organizations are piloting it at the time of this writing.
Another Schema project was the reinvention of Bloomberg View and the creation of Bloomberg Gadfly, a mobile-first website that uses dynamic charts and interactive data visualizations to offer audiences fast commentary. The clean and intuitive interface can be easily shared on social media. “We wanted mobile first to look elegant, but cutting-edge,” says Timothy L. O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg View and Gadfly. “Presenting interactive data in a mobile environment is challenging … [Christian is] just superb, a very unusual designer not just in that he understands how important design is, but because he’s so intellectually curious and gifted. He’s invested in his clients’ own goals and doesn’t trample those while still being able to design thoughtfully. He doesn’t lose the magic.”
DATA FOR THE GREATER GOOD
Aside from monster projects for clients with big budgets, Schema is committed to data visualization that informs and educates the public about key issues such as the government and investigative journalism. Legislative Explorer was one such project. An interactive data visualization that explores patterns of how bills become law in the US Congress, Legislative Explorer can be searched and filtered according to topic, gender, committee, chamber, party and congressional sponsor. The challenge was making such an abstract, complex process so simple that viewers could almost touch it. Schema literally mapped the floors of the House of Representatives and the Senate to do it.
“It was like diving into a martini glass, going from the general to the incredibly specific,” recalls Larionov, who played a major role in the project. “To me, it highlights what we’re good at—the content, the format, the conceptual framing, the collaboration with the experts in the field that made the project really interesting.”
Catching Tigers and Flies was another project with a journalistic twist: tracking corruption in China. Schema worked with ChinaFile, the online publication of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, to make an interactive data visualization showing officials who had been identified as corrupt using data from the Chinese government and its official media. “The hope was that the public would access it and journalists would also use the tool to identify patterns among the people that were being targeted,” says Susan Jakes, the editor of ChinaFile. Updated weekly, the data drills down to details such as how many mistresses an official has and how much money they took and if officials are a big “tiger” or a small “fly.”
The company is already working on another project for ChinaFile that will act as an information hub for foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China now that the government has passed a law to systemically regulate them. “When we began working on the NGO site, [Schema] did an 80-slide research project to find a website we might use as a model,” recalls Jakes. “We were blown away. There is so much intellect and dynamism that it’s a total pleasure to collaborate with such incredibly thoughtful, talented and decent people.”
Schema is also exploring potential projects based on quantified self, a burgeoning trend that uses data to motivate people to manage their health, finances and transportation. Now that the format the data take is less important than what users do by being able to see the data, the use cases matter more than they did in the past. “We’re passionate about quantified self,” says Schmidt. “It’s the most main-stream example of productized visualization, … a way to reach your goals and become a healthier, better human being. The future of data visualization will be more actionable products and services and the ability to verify and visualize decision making.” Whatever the future holds, Schema has every intention of leading the way. ca