Research Lenses

Fluid Encodings is an inquiry into the many different ways of encountering through observation: seeing, listening, noticing, reading, and witnessing. Through the lens of information design and visualization, this practice seeks to offer reflections on the art of intimate, enriched, and deep observation and reclaim that art as a vital act of civic expression. These reflections aim to reorient ourselves to subtlety, defend complexity as an ethical imperative, and interrogate the cartographies of space that exist between the assumptions we hold in our encounters with the world and one another.

The work of Fluid Encodings is organized around the following research lenses:

Technologies of Seeing

Data visualization is one of many “technologies of seeing”: technologies that make choices (both deliberate and not) about what can be, should be, or is worthy of being rendered visible in the eyes of others. In visualization, we make design choices about what data to collect, how to analyze them, and how to express them through visual encodings, and these choices determine whose voices or identities get privileged or displaced in public discourses. Likewise, other design-motivated practices, like archival work and photography, are similarly driven by choices of visibility that determine what is kept and what is left out. All such practices of design are tightly wrapped up in questions of seeing; each can offer lessons to one another about what it means to think of seeing as a political and compositional act, especially at a time when “crises of seeing” threaten the integrity of our individual and collective identities. This lens interrogates the role of visualization as an act of bearing witness, particularly when situated in a world in trauma, transition, and uncertainty. (In 2020, Steven gave a talk at TEDxNortheasternU: “The privilege and responsibility of seeing radically“).

Ethical documentation

In moments of profound social change, the burden of responsibility to capture, or document, the expression of that change should not fall on those who are speaking. With that being said, in many contexts, those who do have the power to document — through design, journalism, photography, or any other media — often do so from a position of privilege, without being aware of the ways that privilege mediates the methods through which they document. Such documentation then becomes something that is consumed by distant observers, who may perform that observation from positions of privileged abstraction. This lens seeks to consider the act of documentation through one question in particular: If data visualization and information design are also regarded as media for documentation, what does it mean to perform that documentation in a way that is ethical, self-aware, participatory, and situated in the complexities of systems of privilege?

遡り · Sakanobori · Undoing

Since the start of 2020, much of global affairs has endured a process of undoing: the failures of social institutions and systems rendered visible and deconstructed in the light of racial, political, economic, and epidemiological crisis. Many different modalities of inquiry and practice offer different ways of bearing witness to this process: restorative justice, participatory design, and more. In Japanese, the verb sakanoboru means to go upstream, go back in time, or trace back to origin, and this word offers a reflective and generative framing through which to reckon with design as a necessary actor in the undoing and reconstruction of those systems. This lens, inflected by Japanese traditions and methods for documenting trauma and disaster in Japanese history, considers what it means to deliberately participate in that process of undoing, through using information design and visualization as a medium for deprivileging canonical perspectives to make space for those voices that must be a part of the rebuilding that follows.

More Work

Interactive Visualizations for A People's EPA

A People's EPA (APE) is a project of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) that provides public resources for understanding the history, function, and purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency. In collaboration with Leif Fredrickson and Jessica Varner, co-curators of APE, I designed and engineered a series of interactive exploratory data visualizations that allow users to examine the agency's history of enforcement of environmental policy.

Proxies of Resistance

In May 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the months that followed, demonstrations erupted across the country protesting against police brutality and racial violence, including in the Minneapolis neighborhoods surrounding the location where Floyd was murdered. Many months later, some of the ephemera of these demonstrations — street art painted on the walls and windows of businesses, demanding justice — persisted long enough into the end of the summer of 2020 for my sibling and I to photograph them. This project reflects on an attempt to document a fading record of a summer of turmoil, situating the street art in larger narratives and experiences of trauma.

Creative Coding for the Web

Many existing textbooks that provide an introduction to programming for the web are designed with programmers and developers in mind. For designers, this developer-oriented approach to programming can feel overwhelming and discouraging. As an alternative, Steven teaches web programming through the notion of code as medium of design, considering the many ways that a sample of code functions as a designed artifact. The tutorials embedded within this work, Creative Coding for the Web, offer a design-forward approach to web programming fundamentals, aimed towards design audiences.

Silenced Histories

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University (Boston, MA) conducts research and supports policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence in the United States. In collaboration with CRRJ, the NuLawLab, and the NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks, I helped design and engineer an interactive map and timeline to enable exploration of primary source materials in the Burnham Nobles Archive.

See more work here →