Design by Data

How can we move beyond the pragmatic application of big data and instead apply a creative lens to produce unique data-driven designs and experiences that enrich our physical world?


In a new interpretation of the phrase “The data doesn’t lie,” Nike has created an entire menswear collection by taking performance data collected from athletes and feeding that data into a knitting machine.

The process incorporates the apparel company’s proprietary Flyknit technology – a nylon-spandex yarn that can be woven into any desired footwear or piece of clothing virtually seamlessly.  The resultant collection – known as the Advanced Apparel Exploration 1.0 – is a series of high-performance garments that provide ventilation, coverage and movement as dictated by the data.


In an extension of data designed creations, early this year, US-based Southwest Airlines partnered with digital artist Joshua Davies to create one of the most personalised loyalty rewards available: digital artworks using the data contained within their passengers’ travel history.

The project, called “Heart of Travel”, uses a specially-designed algorithm to convert flight data into one-of-a-kind works of art. The colours of the ‘brush strokes’ invoke the season of travel, while the thickness represents the frequency of journeys undertaken. Available for the airline’s most loyal members, it is certainly an innovative way to reward customers.


However, perhaps the ultimate in personalised data-directed creation is the offering put forward by Biota Beats, a collective of biologists and scientists that have used the human microbiome to make music. The microbiome is made up of bacteria from our bodies. Researchers took swabs from their armpits, belly buttons, feet, mouths and, well, other body parts, and applied it onto laser-cut records which were then left to be incubated to grow bacterial colonies. With the help of an algorithm, images of the colonies were distilled to data points such as density and ‘translated’ to sound, resulting in a rather intimate soundtrack. Of course, the broader ambition is not to become music producers but to drive greater public interest in biotechnology.

So What?

For some time now, “big data” has been in reference to large data sets which can be manipulated computationally to drive greater functional benefits, largely enhanced efficiency and productivity. But rather than pure mathematical applications for data, there are increasingly creative demands for its use that are proving to find an unexpectedly emotional benefit.

In a similar fashion, how can we shift conventional design paradigms to look beyond the obvious applications of available tools and datasets and derive new appreciation and reward?