Verra Budimlija: the chief strategy officer at MEC
Verra Budimlija: the chief strategy officer at MEC
A view from Verra Budimlija

How the art world is inspiring new visions of marketing data

Art offers the potential to arrive at an objective and clear outcome, and we are getting comfortable with displaying our personal data visually.

Data is everywhere, making the human interpretation of it a central issue for the advertising and media industry. An issue that’s the central theme for MEC’s talk in Cannes this week that will consider whether we’ve reached the point where the more data we have the less we actually know. It will consider how we can deploy creativity and invention to find better ways of telling the story provided by data and ensuring that the interpretation is pure.

The art world offers one potential way forward, which is why I’ll be onstage with the renowned visual artist Stephen Cartwright. Since 1999 he has tracked his life through data patterns, incorporating his location data and other personally recorded information into his digital and sculptural work, representing his huge personal data footprint in a holistic way, conveying years of activity in one visual.

This approach potentially sidesteps the issue of human interpretation. A team of strategists each inevitably bring their own interpretation of data into play because there is so much of it to analyse and get lost in.

The humble emoji arguably represent the most universally understood language. Spotify has used the simple design graphics of emoji brilliantly.

There is something quite pure in the way artists like Cartwright take the raw data and find a way of visualising it without attempting to understand its meaning.

Art offers the potential to arrive at an objective and clear outcome. In the simplest way we have all begun to convey our personal data visually.

The humble emoji arguably represent the most universally understood language. Spotify has used the simple design graphics of emoji brilliantly – of over two billion user-generated playlists on Spotify, over 35 million have at least one emoji in their title.

This has led contributors to the Describe Artists project to examine the relationships between those emoji and the music they describe. The result? Three interactive data visualizations.

Scientists working in a little-known branch of psychology called perceptual learning have shown that it is possible to fast-forward a person’s gut instincts both in physical fields, like flying an airplane, and more academic ones, like deciphering advanced chemical notation. The idea is to train specific visual skills, usually with computer-game-like modules that require split-second decisions.

Over time, a person develops a "good eye" for the material, and with it an ability to extract meaningful patterns instantaneously.

This is no gimmick. In 2012, IBM set out a bold vision - to flood its ranks with hundreds of designers and train its entire workforce (some 377,000 employees worldwide) to think, work, and feel like designers. 

In just the past three years, IBM has more than tripled its design staff, with 1,300 formally trained designers working in 31 studios across the world. It acquired four digital and branding agencies, and built the largest studio network in the world. IBM is quickly assembling a kind of Noah’s Ark of designers working on product, graphics, interface, branding, and even an in-house typographer.

Among this new tribe of creative people at IBM are design researchers - formally trained ethnographers with MFA degrees to probe how their solutions work in the real world. Having researchers with "open minds and open hearts" allows developers to validate their ideas and better anticipate the needs of their clients.

The potential for our industry to build on this is significant. Agencies that have vast amounts of client data need to take the lead in terms of introducing a genuine blend of art and science, hiring people who appreciate bringing data to life with a strong design element and encouraging their chief data officers to build an appreciation of the art of visualisation.

Visually-oriented designers have an aptitude for storytelling, they’re able to surface correlations and angles that traditional analysts might overlook. This approach is fresh and provides a new perspective for the industry and its interpretation of patterns and meanings.

Advanced computing produces waves of abstract digital data that in many cases defy interpretation, there’s no way to discern a meaningful pattern in any intuitive way.

To extract some order from this chaos, we must continually reimagine the ways in which we represent data.

The art world provides a route to make it more human and accessible, opening the true meaning and potential of marketing data.

Verra Budimlija is the chief strategy officer at MEC.

Verra Budimlija and Stephen Cartwright’s talk, Data – Human Creativity Without Intervention will be on the Innovation Stage at Cannes on Tuesday 20 June at 3.30pm.