February 2012
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Month February 2012

A wordsmith and a worldly thinker : Interview with Todd Lief

Todd Lief is a unique bundle of skills and experiences – and he is fun to collaborate with. I have known Todd for about 17 years since we first met at Michael Glass Design while working to reposition Columbia College. I was impressed with his ability to listen, distill and create simple and powerful phrases that amplified the creative quotient. Since then we have kept in touch and have collaborated at Andersen Worldwide and on a few projects at Trope Collaborative.

Todd is a writer, but is more than that. He has a deeply curious humanistic mind that soaks up all sorts of knowledge and aims it at creative endeavors. He was shaped by the golden age of advertising where writers and other creatives collaborated on a wide variety of campaigns trying to articulate the essential truth about products and services to the public. This interview is one of my longest, not due to more time with Todd, but that he packs in a lot of thinking in the same amount of time.

He has spent time and effort exploring creativity and what goes into the act of being creative. With his work in Gestalt psychology, Todd developed a diagnostic tool called Working Impressions (a great name for a service) to focus on areas of agreement. It is a Swiss Army knife as it can be applied to any situation or industry with different meanings using the same tool.

Over the years, Todd has never been far from my thoughts as I can count on my hand individuals that have had a concrete impact on my thinking. His career choices are very close to my own career choices and our restlessness in finding new challenges and building on experiences for greater value ties us together.

Todd in his accessible and relaxed style exudes true professional empathy, curiosity and a desire to make a real impact. He once told me he is also a charter member of American Express where membership has its benefits. It has been a real benefit to know Todd.

What is Old is New Again

” . . . we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.” Kurt Andersen

In an era embracing technological change and where the familiar feels more and more unfamiliar, Kurt Andersen in his article “You Say You Want a Devolution” in the February issue of Vanity Fair describes an unnoticed backstory on our way to the singularity. It is not one of zeitgeists leading society to new forms, ideas and behaviors, but one that keeps eating around the edges of change and repurposing or slightly updating cultural artifacts.

Intriguing Visualizations of the Known Universe

A major conundrum of the human condition is “are we alone?” and “Is there a beginning, and an end?”

The American Museum of Natural History has developed a short visualization called the Known Universe. This is part of their Digital Universe Atlas which is creating a three dimensional map of the universe.

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The effectiveness of this visualization is that it starts out at Earth and then moves outward. The first minute of seeing the blue marble floating in space is quite humbling. The adding of data overlays such as tracked satellite patterns and nearby constellations was helpful. Within six minutes it goes from Tibet to the outer signals of the Big Bang and back again.

The production value and the contemporary visualization techniques of this video are well done. In a short amount of time it takes all the complexities and abstractions of the universe and distills it down to a visual storyboard. While compelling, this visualization is not the first to attempt to communicate the vastness of the universe.

Pale Blue Dot This conceptual and poetic visualization by Carl Sagan in 1994 was an extension of his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Carl Sagan had a way to intertwine both scientific and philosophical languages together into a compelling view of the universe, our the meaning of it. Looking at this film almost twenty years later, the actual visualizations feel more like a PowerPoint slide show. However, the images are supporting the concepts and narrative by Sagan which provides the imaginative depth that images alone could not communicate.

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Powers of Ten’s Scientific American teamed up with the office of Charles and Ray Eames (www.eamesoffice.com) in 1977 to develop the seminal Powers of Ten. The film is an adaptation of the 1957 book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke.

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I first saw this film in grammar school and then college and it caught my interest due to the understandable layers of information of forces I did not understand through direct experience. Looking at it now, it is a wonderful diagrammatic way to discuss the relative size of things using visualizations. This provides a more intuitive way of understanding mathematical concepts.

These three films had three different goals of using the universe as a metaphor. While the Known Universe feels more contemporary and uses sophisticated computer technologies that we are familiar with, the data overlays communicating distance and time are not effective and actually get in the way of the visualization. The Powers of Ten on the other hand, where communicating distance and time was the goal was much more effective even though it was flatter since the universe was always contained in a square field.
As visualization technologies become more sophisticated, seamless and pervasive, viewers expectations and biases will affect the effectiveness of visualizations. Vernor Vinge discussed this point in his PhD paper The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era but also saw a direct connection between humans and computers to Combine the graphic generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans.