Media Perspective: Tough times ahead for the numerically challenged in media

I enjoyed maths at school, would have done it for A-level except I wanted to do some arts stuff too and that didn't fit in the curriculum.

And then I got shovelled into a university system that didn't like to cross the education streams and ended up in an industry that, despite being founded on research and data, is often wilfully ignorant of the number sciences.

You can get a long way in media and marketing without understanding statistical significance, as almost any market research presentation will demonstrate.

But I fear for the numerically challenged out there. The days of keeping maths out of the business are rapidly slipping away. Examples of data-based creativity are lapping round our doors, threatening to trip us up with integers and bludgeon us with long division.

Look, for instance, at the new iPad app Flipboard. On the surface, there's no maths in there - or, well, just all the usual maths that clever coders need to build effective apps. Flipboard takes your Twitter or Facebook feed - or all sorts of other stuff off the web - and makes it look a bit like an iPad magazine. The things your friends have pointed at are excerpted, the pictures are embedded: it's a personal magazine based on what you and your friends are interested in. And it's laid out on the fly: there's a basic design template, but the articles, Tweets and headlines are placed on the page according to rules embedded in the software.

A friend of mine described it as "algorithmic art direction". The application is trying to do, automatically and instantly, what a print designer would do by eye - so years of experience and judgment have to be embodied in the maths. The result with Flipboard is still pretty primitive, but these are early days, and as media owners seek to drive costs down for their digital output, the next obvious step for many of them will be to automate the design process. Many print publications have already gone this way: magazine publishers can even buy off-the-shelf designs for different magazine genres - food, travel etc.

Which means "algorithmic art direction" is a skill we're going to have to learn - not deciding how a finished product will look, but setting the software parameters that will determine various instances of that look. It reminds me of the conversations everyone had to have with art directors at the beginning of the web: "No, we can't tell you how the final thing will look, it'll look different in every browser, you can't control that any more."

And who are the designers who'll cope best with this world? The ones who have sympathy for software, and some facility for maths. It's the triumph of the numerate.

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