Ben Fry Finding Methods of Visualizing Data Accepts Nierenberg Chair of Design at Carnegie Mellon
The Carnegie Mellon School of Design has appointed graphic designer Ben Fry as the Nierenberg Chair of Design in its School of Design for 2006-2007. Widely regarded as the one of most prestigious appointments in design education in the U.S., the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design’s Nierenberg Chair of Design is a visiting professorship at established through the generosity of Carnegie Mellon alumnus and Emeritus Life Trustee Theodore D. Nierenberg.
A Carnegie Mellon alumnus, Fry received his undergraduate degree in graphic design from the School of Design with a minor in computer science. In 2004, he went on to earn his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, where he was a member of the Aesthetics and Computation group. Much of Fry’s research and design work focuses on creating methods of visualizing large amounts of data from dynamic information sources. Currently, he is involved in the design of “Genomic Cartography” at MIT, researching new ways of representing data found in the human genome using isometric blocks. This type of study employs both graphic and scientific design elements.
When comparing the genome of two different people, one can determine a single letter changes (called SNPs, pronounced "snips") every few thousand letters. An interesting feature of SNPs is that their ordering has distinct patterns, where sets of consecutive changes are most often found together. There are many methods for looking at this data, isometric blocks combine several of them into a single visual display.
The groupings of patterns are sometimes referred to as "haplotype blocks.” The colors in each row depict one of only two variations possible for each SNP, the most common in dark red, less common in a paler color. At the bottom of each column, a category for those variations occurring in less than 5% of the population. At a glance, this diagram can be used to quickly discern the general structure of the population in question, with roughly 75% of those studied exhibiting the haplotype block shown in the first column, and others that continue towards the right. Such an image is used in contrast to simply showing a chart with percentages, which requires the viewer to consider the relative importance of each percentage, rather than simply “seeing” it. Because size information can be processed pre-attentively the mind processes the basic structure of the diagram before conscious thought is given to it.
One difficulty is that with each SNP having a width equal to the distance to the next SNP, causing markers that are close together to be lost, and the frequency of transitions between each block (the gray bars) predominating, when they are only secondary information.
Some find the block definition controversial (mostly because it can be taken too literally), so the use of an interactive software program that allows one to modify the parameters of the mathematics used to set boundaries on the blocks helps reinforce the notion that the blocks are themselves are not meant as rigidly as might be implied by their name. In the lower left-hand corner, a series of parameters for the statistic can be modified: Cut High CI is the "high cutoff for the confidence interval" used in correlating the blocks (the algorithm used is described in Gabriel, et al, 2002). "Rec" is short for recombination, and "LD" means "linkage disequilibrium". Moving the parameters in the opposite direction would produce a far more mixed picture than the original. This method of directly manipulating the values helps reinforce for the user how the algorithm itself works. The rapid feedback of simply manipulating the cutoff rate as an on-screen slider allows changes to be made in a way that is non-destructive, allowing the viewer to test different values but easily return to a previous state by a 'reset' function.
As another alternative, the block diagram can be shown in 3D (above), where each block offsets slightly in the z-axis, so that the lines depicting the transitions between blocks can be seen more clearly:
The view helps expose the transitions between blocks that are immediately adjacent one another. A “false” 3D isometric projection is employed that allows the data to be shown while preserving the linear scaling of the nucleotide scale in the horizontal axis.
It is likely placing too much emphasis on a few lost transitions to assign an additional spatial dimension to them. To make better use of the z-axis, the 3D with LD Units view will set the z-axis to “LD Units.” This mixes the block diagram with an additional level of confirmation which works well because the stair stepping seen in the LDU map is reminiscent of the block definition. When the user enables this mode, the software slowly moves each bar to its new position, so that the transition can be seen.
Fry hopes to share his work on these complex collections of information with students at Carnegie Mellon during his visiting professorship. “I'd like to help the students learn to think more deeply about complex information design problems, and increase their abilities to address such problems,” said Fry.
“For the type of work that I do, one of the most common questions that I get is; how do I do this? and where can I find other people that can do this type of work? addressing the first part is a personal goal, that I'm always trying to learn how to explain it better. if I'm successful in that, then I'll have a better answer to the second part because there will be more students exposed to this kind of thinking.”
Theodore D. Nierenberg. A founder of Dansk International Designs, Nierenberg has played an important role in the development and promotion of design in the world through his contributions to the university.
The goal in establishing the Nierenberg Chair of Design was to enhance the vitality of the School of Design for students and faculty by encouraging dialogue on important issues of the field, encouraging the exploration of contemporary forms of design practice, and promoting research that will affect future practice and understanding. Particular objectives are established for each appointment that supports this broad goal, identifying specific benefits to the School of Design and to the individual holding the Nierenberg Professorship.
Nominees for the Chair are identified by the faculty and individuals are selected to meet the needs of the School at the current stage of its development. In turn, it is important to the School that the individual selected for appointment also consider how his or her appointment may contribute to personal growth or to the advance of a personal vision of design and design practice. In short, appointment to the Nierenberg Chair offers the opportunity for mutual benefit.
“The opportunity to work with talented students like those in the School of Design made me accept this position. Because of the reputation of its design and engineering programs, I think it's an amazing place where these fields can be mixed, and while it's not something that happens naturally, all the pieces are in place for it,” said Fry.
“We look forward to Ben's presence in the School of Design as he brings his expertise in computational information design to our students,” said Dan Boyarski, head of the School of Design. “Ben represents a new breed of designer, one who is adept at mapping complex information with visual and computational means. It's going to be an exciting year!”
The Nierenberg Chair affords its recipient an opportunity to influence and advance the practice and understanding of design in a variety of ways extending beyond Carnegie Mellon. The current holder of the Nierenberg Chair is the designer Kees Overbeeke. Previous holders of the Nierenberg Chair include David Gresham , Ron Kemnitzer, Marc Rettig, Patrick Jordan Hiebert, Ken Schory, Shelley Evenson, Dennis Doordan, Patricia Moore, Tony Golsby-Smith, David Smith, and Richard Buchanan.
To view more of Fry’s work, visit his two websites at
His current project work can be seen at