Beyond the Bounds - June 1, 2019
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Designing data portraits with common listening statistics

By Matt Norton

Designers constantly analyze current-day applications, tools, and experiences in an attempt to reapproach the concepts in new ways. With this, designers must think past current-day possibilities and social norms in order to create provocative ideas that can inspire the work we do in the present.

This work is the culmination of a studio involving a lot of making, thinking, writing, reflecting, making again, and a little bit speculating. The result is The Final Thing (a term used throughout our studio), which is a “finished concept” inspired by the seven workshops throughout the semester. Each workshop revolved around a trend from AIGA’s Designer 2025, along with supplementary material. While all the workshops affected my thought-process, two specifically informed my formal choices throughout my strategy and creation.

The core of the Final Thing derives ideas from the data portrait workshop. A data portrait is “a graphical representation of users based on their past interactions. Data portraits inform users about each other and their overall social environment” (Xiong, 1999). During the workshop, I collected “recently played” statistics of music and podcasts from my listening platforms and then organized that information into a handwritten collage within my portrait (Figure 1). During the process I enjoyed removing data from a digital interface and physically displaying it on a poster; I found myself reflecting on my listening habits. Furthermore, this data is never seen outside of the application, which made me want to see what it could look like outside of context.

Image 1. Data portrait created during Workshop 4 using my “recently played” statistics from my Spotify and Apple Podcasts applications. The bolder names are the artists and shows that were most frequent..

The Final Thing also pulls concepts from the workshop regarding bridging digital and physical experiences. We discussed how “people transition across devices, environments, and activities in continuous communication and service activities. Users expect technology to provide seamless, unified experiences” (AIGA, 2018). The workshop used a group chat interface to see how conversation differs between the digital and physical; and then created ideas to bridge those gaps. Reflecting on this workshop initiated an idea of interacting with a data portrait in a physical manner.

The Final Thing is a dynamic and interactive data visualization created with “recently played” statistics aggregated from audio applications, such as Spotify. The visualization continuously changes throughout time depending on the listening data at that current moment. These statistics are filtered to create a unique data visualization for each individual. The goal of this is to give people a deeper connection with their digital listening experience and impact their listening habits. Before digital music was the norm, a record or CD collection served as a physical manifestation of someone’s love for music; the user can see the collection grow and evolve. Similarly, purchasing songs on iTunes somewhat still enabled the idea of music collection. Spotify, and other platforms, are much different since the user pays a monthly service fee to instantly stream any song or album. These platforms completely abandoned the collection aspect of listening to music. This data visualization is an attempted substitute for the missing “collection” of music while using streaming platforms.

Image 2. When the visualization is displayed on a touchscreen device, users are able to drag their finger across the screen to browse the albums and artists. When the visualization is moving, the original position of the data determines what is displayed.

The visualization (Figure 2) is created by filtering listening statistics and assigning visual elements. First, each artist is assigned a hue. Next, albums, if multiple within an artist, are assigned a value within the given hue. Finally, that collection of data points organizes into a specific sequence—for example, most frequently played. Together, these data points are a collection of colored bars that serve as the foundation of visualization. When the visualization is displayed, the colored bars blend together. The visualization becomes dynamic when music plays through the native listening platform.

Touchscreen displays are an interactive platform for the data visualization, allowing people to browse their listening habits. Sliding a finger across the screen searches the albums and artists within the data set and displays the corresponding information. While in motion, it uses the foundation of colored bars as a reference for what album or artist to show. The interface displays information at an equal pace to the finger moving across the screen. Hovering and selecting an album allows the user to stream through the native platform. This experience is reminiscent of running one’s fingers across the spines of records or books, but immediately gaining knowledge through that physical interaction since the information can be displayed on the screen simultaneously.

Image 3. The interface of this data visualization allows for adaptability across a variety of platforms and devices that may or may not currently exist. For example, an iPad/Desktop application, a lava-lamp, and a display built-in to a media shelf are a range of speculative environments in which it could live.

While I focused on data visualization as an interface, it needs a place to live. Many types of screen-based devices could house this concept. I initially thought of an iPhone, iPad, or computer application, but it seems to be something that could be quickly forgotten. I then thought of the interface performing as a lava lamp; over time the user could watch how their listening habits affect what the visuals of the lamp. Finally, I could not help but think about how this would act in place of physical records on a shelf. It is unlikely that a touchscreen will live in shelves—but I think it would be quite the experience to browse a friends’ music in such a way.

Matthew Norton (MGD ‘20) is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. He’s interested in visual identity systems and emerging technologies from a design perspective.


  • AIGA. (2018). Design Futures: Designer 2025. Bridging Digital and Physical Experiences.
  • Xiong, R., & Donath, J. (1999). PeopleGarden: Creating Data Portraits for Users. ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology.

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