How can data inform design?

Helena AmbrosioHelena Ambrosio, Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Science and Technology, explores the intersection between product design and computer science. Her current project, Data Informs Design, utilises data generated from social media to create vases that bridge contemporary practice with historic artistry. Here, Helena discusses the data-driven nature of modern life, the process of translating code into objects and the ways in which her work can develop further to connect form with meaning.

Developments in data and 3D printing

The use of data is becoming pervasive in our everyday lives: weather data, traffic data, personal data and much more. Even insignificant actions, such as a click on a webpage or a search in Google Maps, create data that is used to tailor advertising on future websites visited and to make a detailed consumer profile.

Data also allows us to create physical objects in a more direct manner than was possible 75 years ago. The advent of computer numerical control (CNC) and computer aided design (CAD) meant that a data file created in the computer could be fed directly to a machine that then produces a form, either by removing swarf from a block of material or by adding material. The latter process, called additive manufacturing, is commonly known as 3D printing.

The advances in 3D printing and the ubiquitous presence of data spur interesting opportunities for the design industry. What if it was possible to embed data in objects? What metaphors could be created? Could it be used to customize products? Would it enable a moderated co-creation between consumer and designer?

Launching the project

Our ‘Data Informs Design’ project aims at exploring the above questions. The project is a collaboration between the disciplines of product design and computer science. I lead the project with Michael Heeney, with programming by computer science students Timbo Cole, Adam Jarzebak and Nick Fitton.

In our first attempt, live Twitter data about Middlesex University was collected and analysed by a script that counts the number of tweets per hour, per day, over a period of seven days. This information was collected by another script that used the data to generate a computer model. These models were then fed into a 3D potter to build the ceramic designs layer by layer. On the resulting object – a vase – the bumps represent spikes in Twitter activity.

Creating patterns and connections

Our project sits between data sculpture and data visualisation. There is a level of information that can be derived by looking at the vases. For example, there is a clear distinction between night and day. Furthermore, when looking at vases from different weeks, one can also find patterns and connections such as the fact that Saturday and Sunday are usually quiet times for Twitter activity about the university.

However, the vases are more than just data visualisations – or data physicalisations as it’s a three dimensional object. After being printed, the vases are glazed to make unique works of art. The translucent, celadon-like green glaze used makes reference to 14th century ceramics, thus attempting to connect the past with the future. Using a material that is long-lasting and a form that has been part of our object landscape for thousands of years means users intuitively know how to identify and interact with the object.

Data Informs Design

How will the project move forward?

This project has just started. We are investigating the possibilities and limits of the ceramic 3D printer, seeing how we can use algorithms to generate organic complex forms, and brainstorming what types of data can be used. Then, most importantly, we want to explore how to connect the form algorithms with data to create objects that are meaningful embodiments, and evoke a deep emotional and intellectual response by the public.

For more information on this project, please contact Helena Ambrosio via email on

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