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How to transform data into beautiful stories

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Data is a powerful device. It forms part of the legacy of an organization and is the thread to understanding the mystique, ethos, and motivation to choose that brand over another. Data is not just information, it is a differentiator.


By Caspar Lam, Partner at Synoptic Office and Assistant Professor of Communication Design at Parsons School of Design

That differentiator is painstakingly collected and archived, yet rarely activated to its full potential. While companies are extremely adept at gathering and protecting their information, most struggle when it comes to retrieving and using data. Part of the challenge is maddeningly complex, as it requires filtering the slow, detailed process of stockpiling data through the lens of outside consumers, who need curated information they can absorb effortlessly. By nature, these two points of the process are at odds with one another.

Brands that fail to use their data to tell stories miss a vital opportunity to communicate their relevance in the world. Design can help bridge the gap between curators and consumers, so that the collection phase of data can be activated and reactivated, purposefully, thoughtfully, and with both the organization’s needs and the customer’s experience in mind.

Data as a connector

Applying design-thinking to your data breathes life into archival information that would otherwise be collecting dust, there for “reference” but never for connection or growth. Leveraging data to understand why customers want something, rather than what they want, helps ensure the resulting story is centered around their needs.

Data is not a resource you stockpile in case you ever need to go back to it. It is a living element of any business that should be in constant interplay with future initiatives. As designers, we’ve seen this work and played a role in converting swathes of data into meaningful storytelling for organizations like Carnegie Hall and the US Congress. One point of data, when nurtured through design, has the potential to cultivate limitless stories for a broad audience.

When an organization is brave enough to dive deep into its history and design pathways to bring that history to life, it will unlock human stories that it can translate endlessly into new methods of communication, connection, and growth.

Create compelling experiences

To create beautiful and compelling experiences, brands must build in time within the design process to take a step back and ask if the story told fulfils a higher wish beyond a transactional need to communicate an idea.

When Carnegie Hall set out to refresh and reimagine its Timeline of African American Music, our goal was to translate the original research and analysis (used to create a seminal book on the history of African American music in America) into an experiential wonderland that anyone could relate to, not just music scholars. That shift meant decoding how complex layers of data could be integrated into an accessible visual format where stories would come to life.

The 2022 iteration of the Timeline of African American Music visually layers the original research with new contributions from additional scholars and specialists, along with 400 years of archival history and key audio clips made available through a collaboration Apple Music. Synthesizing these components into a dynamic timeline means the user encounters a journey rather than an overwhelming wall of data. A focus on user-friendly experience is critical for any company looking to activate its data archive: the end story should be just as easy to navigate as it is compelling and beautiful.

Every brand has a story to tell

The Carnegie Hall Timeline project hopes to inspire all organizations to question how they can innovate and parlay their data into immersive stories. For a museum or cultural institution, unpacking its archival data is a self-evident approach. But activating data can be a powerful way for any commercial organization with a bank of information to tell the story of its brand, engage people, and reveal its value in the world. Consider Nike, a brand that continues to impact culture. With digital Department of Nike Archives, and a secret physical archives house, Nike understands the value of its legacy. The question is, can its data drive its mission further and engage with its audience better?

One brand doing this to great success is Spotify. The platform’s annual Spotify Wrapped feature harnesses user listening data, customized by individual listening habits, and packages it up into easily shareable slides. The format lends itself ideally to storytelling on social media, where the use of memes—like this from Senator Chuck Schumer—sees brand-owned data take on a life of its own.

Elsewhere, news organizations clearly have the extensive archive and data repository to help them pioneer new modes of digital storytelling. This can be observed with The New York Times, in its moving The 1619 Project. Based on the long-form journalism developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, and other writers from both the Times and Times Magazine, the organization reframed 400 years of America’s national narrative about the consequences of slavery and the overlooked contributions of African Americans.

A long-term investment for brands

Data is not a single-use device, it is a continuum. Nurturing your organization’s data means understanding it has endless activation potential as culture progresses, and as data systems become more sophisticated. A museum or gallery may exhibit the same relics or paintings in new contexts over time; brands can use real-time insights—like the sophisticated analytics of customer relationship software—to contextualize short-term pivots without compromising their long-term vision.

For any established organization, data is money in the bank. To make the most of the investment, brands must continually reassess how to extract, consolidate, and activate insights to tell beautiful stories that speak to their audience at that moment.

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