Design Computing Graduates Establish Data Visualisation Firm

8 May 2012

Andrea Lau and Jack Zhao are two data visualisation specialists working in Sydney's Surry Hills. As founders of data visualisation firm, Small Multiples, they are at the forefront of an exciting and expanding field.

Andrea and Jack are both alumni of the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. Andrea completed one of the first intakes into the Bachelor of Design Computing and graduated with honours and the University Medal in 2007. Jack came to the faculty for the Master of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts (IDEA) and graduated in 2009. Despite both being at the University and in closely integrated fields, it was their involvements off campus that showed they could work together.

"In our spare time, we were very active in industry competitions," Andrea says. "These 'hackdays' would test our skills and push us to do more than just our uni work."

"It's important that students do more than the minimum required of them," Jack says. "It's impossible for a subject to teach you everything: you have to go out and look for competitions and other opportunities."

The pair went on to work at private companies before applying for positions in the same team at the ABC as user experience and interaction designers. During their time at the ABC, the idea for Small Multiples was conceived. Their first major project was a data journalism project for the ABC working with a range of media professionals - journalists, editors, producers and researchers.

Andrea says that governments and businesses are beginning to understand how opening up data is beneficial for their organisation and the people they serve.

"In the past, we were more reliant on organisations holding the data to tell us about the insights that they held. But now, the public is empowered; we can download datasets and visualise them to find our own insights and come to our own conclusions."

It's because of the skills and the insights from their degrees that Jack and Andrea have been able to establish themselves as data visualisation specialists so quickly.

"The studios in the Bachelor of Design Computing and the IDEA program force you to consider the brief and understand users' needs. That's essentially the same as industry: you need to know what you're working with, who is on your team, what are the deliverables, how do we present to both clients and the public, what feedback do we need to improve. The courses set you up to be a great project manager as well as technically skilled at the design aspects," Andrea says.

Jack agrees. He adds that the studio-focused teaching encourages you to become a problem-solver rather than simply becoming proficient in a set of tools.

"It is more important to teach people to solve problems than to use tools," Jack says. "Tools become out-dated very quickly, particularly in the design and technology industries: something good this year will be totally redundant next year."

It's these skills that led to them hiring their resident developer, James Hiscock. A graduate of Design Computing (Honours) himself, Andrea and Jack were confident he had the necessary skills and approach to tasks that would enable Small Multiples to develop its client portfolio.

"One of the challenges we face is cost. The people we need are highly skilled developers and designers. They're in demand and there aren't enough of them. It's difficult to find people that have the skills we need and they cost a lot to hire, but when we find them the results speak for themselves," Jack says.

"Data visualisation is multidisciplinary," Andrea says. "You have to be able to understand the visuals and how to make your content engaging and also understand the theoretical side that underpins the work you do. It's hard to find people who tick all those boxes, so we're very pleased with the graduates of Design Computing."

Jack and Andrea have advice for those at school and considering a career in design computing or a related field. They say the key is to expose yourself to design.

"You have to have a genuine interest in design," Andrea says. "Expose yourself as much as possible to books, imagery, blogs. Start collecting things. The technical elements come later - that's just a matter of finding the right medium to express your designs."

"Every design is a reference to a whole lot of precedents from other designers," Jack says. "It's great to be able to go back and refer to previous projects and work that others have done."

With exciting new projects in the pipeline and a growing industry interest data visualisation, Andrea, Jack and Small Multiples show just one of the many rewarding pathways available from a career in Design Computing.