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PLN8 Ep. 11- Amira Hankin & Designing Without Rules

The intersection of the physical world and human consciousness is a playground for designers like Amira Hankin, who know how to leverage both to influence the behavior of an observer. Trained in visual arts and biology, Amira is a lead product designer at Stamen and one of the minds behind Stamen’s award-winning project 12 Sunsets. In this episode, we’ll discuss the brilliance and mystery behind Ed Ruscha’s photography of the streets in Los Angeles and how Amira threw the rulebook out the window to create a novel interactive archive for the Getty Institute.

Amira Hankin, Lead Product Designer at Stamen

With a beachside upbringing in Pacifica, Amira found a love for nature and the ocean in her time spent watching clouds or running on the sand in middle school gym class. When she wasn’t hanging out at the most scenic Taco Bell in the world, she was camping with her family and finding artistic inspiration through plants and hiking. This overlap of creative energy and the natural world led her to pursue both in the light-filled art studios and plant-rich science building at Bennington College in Vermont.

Amira was most interested in how human and non-human beings perceive the world and how that perception informs behavior. She explored this notion through sculpture and video art installations alongside her thesis work in the physiology of the brain and consciousness. These pursuits converged into an interest and career path in data visualization and design, where she believes her role as a designer is to “clarify and communicate” everything from scientific findings to app workflows.

The “drive view” in 12 Sunsets (Ed Ruscha / J. Paul Getty Trust)

One of Amira’s first projects with Stamen was 12 Sunsets, an interactive photo archive for the Getty Institute that visualizes a vast collection of images of the Sunset Strip taken by the artist Ed Ruscha. Stamen was approached to create a way for the public to explore these photographs, which were taken by Ed Ruscha and his team from the back of a pickup truck driving through Los Angeles over a number of decades. For Amira, the project was a dream come true: creating a novel and dynamic experience to explore never-before-seen data and images taken across space and time by one of her favorite artists. 

A diagram of Ed Ruscha’s camera setup for photographing the streets from the back of a pickup truck. (Ed Ruscha / Getty Research Institute)

The project is imbued with palpable passion and lets users play with and discover a rich repository of Los Angeles history. The interface is composed of two main views, the first being the drive view, where users can pick a vehicular avatar and “drive” along a map to explore the photos and see the location where they were taken. The sort view offers a direct search of the metadata within the photos assigned by machine-learning models, allowing users to explore the archive outside of the map.

The “sort view” of 12 Sunsets, showing images that received the “brick” tag (Ed Ruscha / J. Paul Getty Trust)

One of Amira’s favorite aspects of the project is interpreting the beauty of the pictures and their tags. Whether it’s photos of buildings tagged as “house” and not “home” or a lone palm tree next to a car, the framework lets you “create your own poems” and find your own meanings in the art. Below are few of Amira’s favorite images and tags.

 One of Amira’s favorite images where you can see Ed’s reflection amongst the images tagged with “window” (Ed Ruscha / J. Paul Getty Trust)
An image of what appears to be a tunnel with a tag of “computer wallpaper” (Ed Ruscha / J. Paul Getty Trust)
Another of Amira’s favorite images, one of the many photos receiving the “advertising” tag (Ed Ruscha / J. Paul Getty Trust)

The 12 Sunsets won a Webby award in 2021 in the Architecture, Art and Design category! You can explore the project and its alluring photos of the Los Angeles roadway for yourself at 12sunsets.getty.edu. Find any tags and images that really speak to you? Or do you just really enjoy driving around the map and seeing the photos fly by? Tell us on Twitter! And as always if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please help us share it.

Transcript +

[music]

You’re listening to Pollinate, a podcast on data, design, and the people that bring them to life. Brought to you by Stamen Design.

Ross Thorn (RT): Clouds that look like a seascape from below. Wielding our innate assumptions to influence users through design and finding poetry in half a million photos of the Sunset Strip, these are a few things that come up in today’s episode. I’m Ross Thorn, a cartographer at Stamen. Today I have the honor of sitting down with one of Stamen’s own brilliant designers whose curiosity for the natural world and how we perceive it catalyzed the creation of 12 Sunsets, our playful and award-winning collaboration with the Getty Institute. Please welcome my guest.

Amira Hankin (AH): My name is Amira Hankin, and I’m a lead product designer at Stamen Design.

RT: Hi, Amira.

AH: Hi, Ross.

RT: Thank you for being here. I’m so excited.

AH: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here and to be chatting with you.

RT: We’ve chatted once, it was about me playful maps. Now we’re going to chat about you and the Getty and 12 Sunsets project. And let’s just get right into it. Let’s learn about you. First, I’m going to start with, like you said, you are a lead product designer here at Stamen. You’re a wonderful person to work with. It’s just so inspiring to be on the same team at Stamen as you, as many folks have said, even when we are prepping for this episode. So just want to start it off with that.

AH: Thank you so much, Ross. That’s wow. Can every conversation I ever have start that way? I really appreciate it. And likewise, I mean, you’re such a joy to work with, and I’ve really enjoyed being able to do podcast episodes with you in the past and in other capacities. So really fun to be on this side of things for once.

RT: I always think to myself of part of my even decision-making in accepting a job here at Stamen was working with you and Nicolette really closely on this offshoot of our actual work, too, and how good it felt. It was just like, “Wow, these people, they care. They’re supporting me in ways and they’re excited to do this.” And it was influential for me to even be here. So thank you. And I just wanted to put that out there for everyone to know and to know exactly who I’m talking with today.

AH: Thank you so much. Wow, what an intro. I mean, what can I tell you now? It’s all downhill from here. [laughter]

RT: Not true at all. Well, let’s start with some of your upbringing, your background, and inspirations that maybe– and education that led you to sort of take your desired career path of where you’re at now.

AH: Sure. Yeah. There’s a lot to cover, but I’ll do my best. I was born and raised in the Bay Area with a brief stint on the East Coast for college in Vermont, but I grew up in Pacifica, which is just down the coast from San Francisco. It’s kind of this sleepy surfer town whose main claim to fame is being home to the most scenic Taco Bell in the world. And I loved growing up in Pacifica. I mean, besides hanging out at the most glorious Taco Bell in the world.

RT: Yeah. Can you tell me– can you tell me about that? Can you tell me what makes the most scenic, most glorious, and bio-worthy Taco Bell?

AH: I mean, you really have to see it to believe it. You have to experience the full glory of this Taco Bell. But essentially, it’s just right on the beach. From the outside, looks like a pretty normal Taco Bell. But if you go out back, there’s this beautiful deck that overlooks the ocean. It’s westward-facing view. And the coolest part is they have a little window that you can order at from that deck. So you can just roll up after a day of surfing or whatever, sandy feet and all, and just order your crunch-wrap supreme, and it is wonderful.

RT: Were you a surfer? Are you a surfer?

AH: I am the biggest wanna-be surfer. I’ve been surfing a couple times and I really want to pick it up again but it’s always one of those things for some reason, everyone else had their surf buddy already figured out by the time I got into it. And so I was not advanced enough to go hang with the cool kids who knew what they were doing. And I needed a lot of assistance and coaching and so I just never really took off with it. But I’ve always loved the water and I spent a lot of time at the beach growing up and being by the ocean has always been a very grounding force for me. So it makes a lot of sense. I should just do it. So who knows, maybe next time we chat, I’ll have picked it back up.

RT: Right, well, good luck. I hope you do.

AH: Yeah. Thank you. But yeah, I mean, I guess that’s kind of a perfect segue into inspirations because really nature and the ocean have been one of my biggest inspirations. I spent a lot of time at the beach growing up and even the school that I went to in middle school, it was a few blocks away from the beach and we would have PE on the sand. We’d run up and down the beach and that was how we got our physical education. So I spent a lot of time outside. My parents were always big advocates for getting out into nature and going camping and I think that really fed into my love of plants. And whenever I’m looking to kind of replenish my creative juices, I turn to nature in my garden or a long hike or the sky, the clouds.

RT: The clouds because you are a card-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

AH: I sure am.

RT: Yeah, and what’s your favorite cloud type if you have one?

AH: I absolutely do. My favorite cloud type is the undulatus asperatus which is often described as a seascape as seen from below. So it kind of combines two of my favorite things, the ocean clouds, and you really got to look at pictures of this, if you haven’t already. It’s unreal. And I only saw it for the first time in person quite recently which was one of the coolest experiences because I’ve been looking at pictures of this cloud form for so long and I was like I can only be so lucky to see this. But it’s usually a precursor to a really big thunderstorm which we don’t get a lot of on the West Coast. And so it wasn’t until I was on the East Coast that I saw it for the first time right before a big kind of end-of-summer storm.

RT: Wow, that’s incredible. Yeah, I believe I’ve seen it once and it was so cool. I took a picture of it and I had to because it sounds exactly like you’re describing and it’s super surreal of that combination of sea and sky and it looks exactly like that. It’s such a good description of it, the sea-top as seen from below.

AH: And which I also only experienced for the first time kind of later in my life when I went scuba diving for the first time and I was like wow, when do you actually get the chance to look up underwater like that and to actually see from the great depths what the surface of the water looks like but 50 feet below.

RT: Right. Yeah. It’s definitely different and kind of a scary experience too. Unsettling a little bit.

AH: Yeah. It fills you with a sense of awe, I think, of just how big and the massive scale of it is really cool and inspiring.

RT: Yeah. Going back, drawing that inspiration, I totally can relate. Whenever I’ve done either in creative slumps or something like that, I’ll go on a hike. I’ll go sit in a river and just with a notebook or write some stuff.

AH: In the river, specifically.

RT: Specifically, there is a rock in this river here in Duluth that I would go sit and write in.

AH: I love that.

RT: It was perfect. Yeah, I wrote some of my favorite stuff there. But I totally know what you mean it being inspirational. And so you took this inspiration from nature and this love of nature into your education, and.

AH: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think so much of my every day and sort of what I love to do is observing how something like the tiniest plant changed over time. And sometimes just focusing all of your senses on what’s going on around you is the best way to kind of reinvigorate your sense of wonder and when I was thinking about what I wanted to study in college, I knew deep down that there was an interest in studying both science and art, and specifically that I was interested in studying the intersection of both of those things. I went to Bennington College, which is in Vermont, in the southwestern corner of Vermont. So it’s super beautiful, surrounded by the Green Mountains. And the second that I set foot on that campus, I was, like, in complete awe. I mean, I was like, I can’t wait to spend four years just, like, figuring out what I want to do with my life and being able to really focus deeply on these two disciplines that I was interested in studying. And they had this beautiful art building big windows, lots of light, gorgeous art studios, but they also had a science building that was filled with plants, and there was a beautiful greenhouse and pressed flowers everywhere. And there was such a clear appreciation for the biological sciences and just sort of like a connection to the natural world. So I really felt that that was my place. Being from the West Coast, though, I did have it in my mind that I wanted to study marine biology. And I was really fascinated at the time. I was able to study marine biology a little bit at Bennington, but I was especially fascinated with how marine organisms, specifically ones that can’t move like sponges or soft corals, adapted to their environment and how they evolved to have complex descent systems because they were stationary and needed to kind of defend themselves. But being in Vermont, even though I was able to study that a little bit, I eventually pivoted to studying more of evolutionary biology as a whole because I couldn’t take daily trips to the ocean as much as I wanted to.

RT: Yeah, to those little tide pools or whatever.

AH: The tide pools. I did get to go scuba diving, which was wonderful, and I did some research in the Caribbean for a couple of years.

RT: Oh, wow.

AH: That was really cool. But I think basically I developed this interest in evolutionary biology, and I really became obsessed with this idea of how animals, human or nonhuman, perceive and understand the world, and specifically how we’re taking in information, how we’re processing information, and how that ultimately leads to behavior. And in studying both art and science, it kind of that central inquiry kind of manifested in two different ways. And in the arts, it really manifested in a practice that revolved around sculpture and video installation. And I worked to create spaces that people could navigate through and that really kind of challenged them to modify their behavior or how they were walking or experiencing something in response to the kind of external stimuli. But in the sciences, it ultimately led to me doing my thesis work on the evolutionary basis of consciousness and really exploring the idea of how our brain as a physical structure can give rise to subjective experience. And I could talk at great length about that. Maybe that’s a podcast for another time.

RT: That’s the bonus content.

AH: Yeah, bonus content. Stay tuned after the episode. But really, all of that, for me, was an entry point into becoming interested in science communication and data visualization and ultimately design. And it was after graduating that I realized what I really cared about most was this idea of promoting better accessibility or entry points into scientific research. When I was in school, I would read all these research papers, and I was so struck by how much cool, amazing research was just completely inaccessible. The reports were really dense, the charts were badly designed, and I was so sure that if there was a way to provide better, more compelling entry points into the research itself, that one could really truly change minds and change the world. And what was interesting, I think, is that I could very much lean on some of those same scientific principles that I had studied about perception and cognition to promote better understanding of that dense material and that thinking about better ways to visually organize information and to categorize information to make it easier and more intuitive to understand, that was the way to do it. And I think that’s ultimately when I realized that I was a designer

RT: Well that’s awesome. Is that what you would describe a designer as? Let me just back that up. What would you describe a designer as?

AH: Great question.

RT: Is that too generic of a question? I feel sometimes it’s–

AH: No, I think it’s a good question. I just think every designer might answer it a little bit differently. And there are so many different types of designers. But I think maybe that is true. Let’s workshop this definition in real time. Why not? I do think that, at least personally, I feel that it is one of my duties as a designer to design in the face of being inundated with information. And that is my goal to help clarify and communicate anything, whether that’s some scientific research buried in a report, or if that’s just how to use an app better or more intuitively to make sense of the chaotic, complex world. And I think at the heart of most design practices that there’s some element to that. Whether or not that defines what being a designer is, I’m not sure at this point. But maybe still figuring it out.

RT: And I think that’s okay. Still figuring things out and putting labels on yourself remind me I found a bio that you had put online at some point, and you talk about a lot of this stuff. Your inspiration in natural phenomena as well as the objective and subjective interpretations of the world. It was really cool. One of the things that you had put in there was you worked to establish new perceptions of space through honest and dishonest representation of what is preexisting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

AH: Oh, gosh, yes. Wow. That artist statement bringing me straight back to senior review 2013.

RT: Was that when you wrote that?

AH: I think so. It’s awesome to be reminded of that. I still feel like a lot of that is true, and in some ways my thinking has maybe evolved a little bit. But I think getting back to this idea of subjective experience, our brains are constantly taking in information and trying to make sense of the world. And in a lot of ways, we’re not really in control of that. We think we are, but we’re very much informed by our past experience. And our brains are just kind of making stuff up and filling in gaps. And I think at that time and still– I think it’s really interesting to think about how we can kind of play with that notion a little bit and either make it easier for people to understand things or to force behavior or cognition in a way that thinking about kind of designing an installation that challenges people’s assumptions about what they’re seeing, for example, can be a really interesting space to work. I think we often just take everything at face value based on what we’re seeing. But I often think about the way that our eyes work, which is very similar to a camera lens. Light is coming in through our eyes and actually images are coming in flipped upside down. And it’s our brain that works to flip them upright. And the fact that there’s that trickery kind of happening behind the scenes and that at any point it could just be totally distorted. Or there’s all these issues that one can have with perception or within the brain that lead you to having a completely altered sense of the world. It’s just wild to me.

RT: Within this too of these different perceptions and– there’s honest and dishonest representation and these perceptions of space. It just made me think about that. I was in Denver recently and went to Meow Wolfe. Have you ever been?

AH: I’ve never been, but I’ve always wanted to.

RT: And it was incredible. And it totally got me thinking now about this experience as you’re talking about it, is that when I went in there as a person who makes maps and tries to orient myself and tries to make sense of space both graphically and just around me, I went in there and I just could not do that. It almost totes that line between an honest and dishonest representation, which I think is just such a great descriptor and it’s playful. I’m going in there. I realize at first that I have no idea where I’m going. This is a door. It doesn’t look like I’m supposed to walk through this. You walk through it, you get into this a totally different experience. And at one point I just had to be like, “I’m done trying to make sense of this. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m just going to enjoy this wonderful sense of being lost.” Your installations, too, of manipulating how people move is something great in that. And it just made me think of a well designed, space like that.

AH: I absolutely love that because I think that’s exactly what we’re talking about, which is this idea that your brain, through lived experience, starts making assumptions about the world and how things work and what a door should do and where a door should go. And when something challenges that, that’s when the exciting shit happens. That’s when you’re like, “I don’t know everything,” or my brain is trying to make sense of this new information. And it’s that little jolt that you need to kind of get out of those typical brain patterns. I think there’s something just really exciting and playful about being able to seek out experiences that do that.

RT: So I think this is a great segue into the Getty in 12 Sunsets project because first off, it is something that you can interact with in ways that you maybe haven’t before. And it’s playful and it’s intriguing and it makes you want to interact with it more. So can you maybe just give a little intro and a little thesis summation of what the project is and maybe how it came to be?

AH: Yes, absolutely. I guess first of all, working on 12 Sunsets, this project that we did with the Getty Research Institute, was truly one of the wildest, most interesting, and least traditional projects I’ve ever worked on. So really looking forward to telling you all about it because I still think about it all the time. But I guess starting at the beginning a few years ago, so in early 2019, the Getty Research Institute reached out to [inaudible] with a very compelling ask– and that was, will you help us visualize half a million never before seen photographs taken by a very famous photographer over the last several decades? And I’m pretty sure without even batting an eye, we were just Obviously, yes. How can you turn that down? We work with weird data sets all the time, but half a million never before seen photographs taken by a famous photographer, okay over time and space, the greatest mystery data set of all. And we didn’t find out until a little bit later that artist was Ed Ruscha, who’s a famous painter and photographer who did a lot of his work in the 60s and 70s and still practicing today, but also, very coincidentally, one of my favorite artists when I was in school and who I studied. And I knew him for more of his early photography, where he looked at gas stations in America, and he did this book called 26 Gasoline Stations that I really, really loved. And he also did a lot of painting around gas stations. And he really had this sort of thing for American car culture and how it can sort of tell us about the state of the world. And in 1966, he worked on a piece where he drove up and down the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, and he photographed all the buildings on both sides of the street out of the back of his Datsun pickup truck using a motorized camera mount. And there’s all these really cool photos of him actually doing this project in the 60s and some cool diagrams that maybe we can share showing how this camera was set up. But he turned all of those photos from that first project into an artist book called Every Building on the Sunset Strip. And it’s this amazing, long, accordion-style book that folds out. And at the time, I think, really challenged the way that people saw Los Angeles and the way that they thought about photography and the intersection between photography and other art forms. And the coolest part is that he didn’t stop photographing Sunset Boulevard, and in fact, he returned to Sunset Boulevard and also a bunch of other streets in LA to take photos in the same way. And he’s done that for the last 50 years or something, and he’s still doing it today.

AH: And essentially, the result of that is a collection of nearly a million artifacts that were then acquired by the Getty. And they began this very meticulous process of archiving every single thing in that collection. And that included reels of film that had never been developed before, a bunch of notebooks and sketches that Ed and his team had made documenting the process, and including notes about film strips that were shot and things like that. And so it presented this really incredible opportunity for the public to see this work, but the Getty needed help visualizing that content. It was just like so much of it, much of it stuff that Ed himself had never seen before. It was negatives that had never been developed. And so good old Stamen was called in to help out with this challenge. And starting off, making sense of the archive was truly the hardest part. We initially just needed to wrap our head around what was even in that collection, and say like a million artifacts, but only about half of it was actually digitized, meaning that it was workable material for us. So there’s a bunch of stuff in the archive still that’s nondigitized, and if you have half a million photographs, but from hundreds of different shoots and spread out over half a dozen different streets in LA over almost 50 years, so it’s still, like, a lot of information. And then even though Ed was shooting over all these different streets over many years, the Getty really wanted this more public version of the work to focus on what they called the most continuous data set that they had, and by that meaning, data that they could track most clearly over a single place over time. So instead of showing every street that he had– what was maddening about this, we’ve talked about as a designer, just wanting to make sense of the world. But a project like this goes in direct opposition, I think, to any of that. In fact, Ed sort of famously has not talked about this project and why he did it. He was very evasive around that question of why he undertook this work. But sometimes I’m like, man, there’s no rhyme or reason to how this data collection happened, and there’s something just so frustrating and just so amazing about that because you’re like–

RT: Yeah. Something really alluring because you don’t know why.

AH: Right. And you instinctually are like, “I want to put this into categories and I want everything to line up. I want there to be the same photographs over every area of this one street over every year.” And instead there’s gaps. It’s like he didn’t shoot every street every year or he didn’t shoot every part of that street every year, or he would skip a few years and yeah, again, just like maddening, but also just like fascinating and so fun to dig into. But I will say the most sort of continuous data set was looking at Sunset Boulevard over a 12-year period of time. And that was the most, again, like continuous data that we had and what we ended up using for the project and also where we ended up getting the name 12 Sunsets.

RT: That’s incredible. Yeah. So that sounds like such an alluring, like you said, a very exciting proposition. And so the project, which is live at 12sunsets.getty.edu, which we will include in the blog post and everyone, I’d encourage everyone to go play with, and that’s, that’s actually one thing I want to talk about too, is that like it is something that is certainly playful, but it’s not gimmicky. It’s sort of what we were talking about before is that it’s got this element of wonder and maybe that’s also rooted in the fact like you said there’s these questions that even you behind the scenes had that no one really had the answers to as to why all of these photos exist. Why was this project happening? But still just leaning into it like, “Let’s make this into an experience that people can actually interact with.” Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for how it manifested as I guess describe maybe what the interface looks like and how it actually works right now and maybe some of the inspiration that you had behind that?

AH: Yeah. Well, I would definitely recommend going to check it out and kind of playing with it yourself. But the interface is kind of separated into two main views. There’s one view called The Drives View, and that allows you to essentially drive up and down Sunset Boulevard and there’s a map showing where you are on that street, which fun fact was designed around. Some folks might remember The Thomas Guide maps of your– with these beautiful atlases that essentially acted as driving maps that you would keep in your car. And so we styled, we created a new kind of base map style around the Thomas Guide. And I will give a shout-out to my colleague Alan McConchie for initiating that effort. But as you’re driving up and down the street, you’re able to see the photographs on both the North and South side of Sunset Boulevard. And it very much mimics and this was part of the inspiration for the final interface. It very much mimics the design of his accordion-style book, every building on Sunset. And there was a lot of work that we actually had to do to figure out the mechanism or sort of the mechanics, rather, of what it should look like when you drive up and down the street and if it was too much kind of visual stimulation to show photographs going in either direction. Because this is going to be a challenge really hard to articulate just in words and not visually. But we did a lot of diagramming of the different options of, “Do you have photos that are upside down to show the North-South distribution or do you have them going in opposite directions like we eventually settled on?” Or do you have them stitched in a different way so that they don’t look continuous, but they’re actually going in the same direction and there are all these sort of little pieces to kind of work through like that to make it kind of come together. And then there’s a feature that allows you to select different years to look at, so you can actually compare more than one year. If you want to look across time, there’s a search bar so you can type in a location that you’re interested in to get driven there and you get sort of dropped into a different part of Sunset. But yeah, you can sort of just explore from there. The other view is something that we call the sort view and that’s also a different way of exploring the photographs we also called it the contact sheet view at a certain point, sort of a nod to darkroom photography and looking at your negatives on a contact sheet as you’re developing them. But this is really intended to be a way to search more of the metadata behind the photograph. So that was another huge part of this archive and something that the Getty worked very diligently to add to the photographs was two different types of tags. One of them is called Optical Character Recognition, and it looked at any recognizable text in the photographs themselves. So you might see a fragment of a word or something that was on a sign or an advertisement, things like don’t, which means he was taking photos of all of– he’s basically stopped at red lights up and down Sunset Boulevard. And so he was capturing every Don’t Walk sign on Sunset Boulevard.

RT: So that’s one of the number one words and kind of a quirk of just that data collection.

AH: Exactly. Yeah, there was a lot of insights that could be gathered from just looking at that Optical Character Recognition and the type of words that were showing up, especially over time. You can see languages changing over time and in different neighborhoods. You can see where there were areas that had more food. There were signs like Meat or Butcher or things like that. So that’s just fascinating to look at. But the other tag that we were using was what we called a visual tag. And this is where we actually used a machine learning model to look at what it saw in these photographs and to kind of categorize what it was seeing. And you also get some really interesting artifacts from that. And sometimes it’s pretty spot on. It will indicate that it sees a car or a house or a shrub, all things that are clearly in that photograph. But other times, it will indicate that it sees something like snow. And you’re like, “I’m sorry. We’re in LA. There’s no way.” [laughter]

RT: I don’t think so [laughter].

AH: There’s no way that there’s snow. But then you realize that AI is essentially seeing every pavement, every paved surface, and recognizing that as snow because they’re black-and-white photographs.

RT: And it wasn’t trained in photographs of the upper Midwest.

AH: Yeah, [laughter] the parking lots of America. Or it will see something that it calls an astronomical object, which is my personal favorite, which are just weird lens flares or dust on the lens or kind of weird artifacts from taking these photographs. And I think that’s a really cool reminder that these are physical objects. These are real. Sure, they might be digitized, but there’s a real kind of human hand that made these, and that there’s a physicality to them. And so the Sort View allows you to go in and kind of Madlib style, find images based on different words that you can search by. So those are kind of the two different views. And my other sort of secret favorite is that when we were working on this project, we actually did review it with Ed Ruscha, which was a dream come true for me I mean in a lot of ways. If you had told me when I was in school that I would get to build an interface looking at unseen work from one of my favorite artists, I would be like, “You’re joking. There’s just no way.”

RT: Yeah. too good to be true.

AH: But we reviewed the site with him. And his feedback was that he actually wanted an additional view, one that stripped everything else away and just allowed you to kind of drive up and down the street, no map, nothing else, no color. And so we call that the Focus View, although it’s really, in my mind, the “Ed View.” And so if you find that can kind of explore this work, maybe through Ed’s eyes a little bit more.

RT: Cool. There’s just so much in here that is fun and very interesting to explore. Going off of those pictures and all of the interesting quirks and interactions that you can have with them, did you have any particular favorite pictures that you remember that stuck out while you were interacting with this?

AH: Oh my gosh. We kept an entire deck of our favorite photos. And for me, I mean I think there were so many that I was attracted to just based on the aesthetics of it, to be honest you would capture something, mind you, in motion on the back of a pickup truck, and it would just be so raw and emotional and beautiful, like a lone car next to a palm tree or something just so evocative.

RT: Like it looks like it should be some sort of album cover.

AH: Yeah, totally. Totally. There’s also quite a few images at the start and end of roles that were more test shots that include either Ed or one of his assistants holding up signage indicating what the shoot was, the role of film, etc. I think we’re tagged, by the way, as Vision Care, which I think is really like, yep, that’s what the computer sees. So there’s a lot like that. And then there’s some really beautiful poetry that you can find through some of the tags themselves. One of my favorite things to run is, in the sort view you can look at photographs that are classified as house but not home, or you kind of create your own poems and the photographs just really fit within that framework really beautifully.

RT: Wow, I’m just coming to this now, but I love that, this intersection of this natural world that was observed with these humans. And like you said, there’s just so many reminders of that and how the photos themselves look and then also the test photos, but then with this very modern interface, with this very modern technology that’s tagging them, but then bringing it back to that subjective experience of you can make it what you want. What do you see in this? What do you find beautiful in these photos? And what’s the meaning that you give them? So I think it sounds like you said a dream come true project and perfect for the way that you even presented yourself coming out of college too. That’s just so awesome.

AH: Yeah, I mean, it was fascinating. I mean, there’s so many good learnings for me as a designer too, I think, wrapped up in that project, kind of learning in real-time. It was definitely an opportunity to also flex my design brain in new ways and think through for an institution like the Getty how the visual design for a website like this could come together. And to kind of go on a really fun kind of history of design with them. To think about more of a visual inspiration or influence leaning more on modern and postmodern design to kind of inform that. So that was really fun because so rarely do you have a client that really wants to go there with you. But it was truly a dream to work on.

RT: One thing I definitely want to touch on too before we wrap up is this element of this playfulness that I’ve been teaming with this whole time to try not to be too excited about. But part of the interface, too is you get to select a car to drive with and you can move it with the keyboard, and as that moves, you can see the screen accelerate like you’re driving. And then if you quickly go the other way, it skids to a stop and goes. And so I was playing around with this, and my partner was like, “Are you playing a game right now?”And I was like, no, I’m doing work. Okay.

AH: It’s work, I promise.

RT: Which makes me feel so full that this is something that we’ve done, that this is something that is fun and it’s so enjoyable. I just want to give you a kudos on how elegantly this playfulness was implemented in something like that. And I wonder if you just have any other reflections on that in your design within this project and elsewhere, too.

AH: Yeah. I mean. I think as fun as this project was and when people have had a positive experience using the site and it could inspire them to learn something new or just go sort of in-depth and get lost in these photographs in some way. I think the biggest challenge for me on this project was kind of throwing the rule book out the window a little bit and knowing when to do that and trusting that that was okay. I think so often in my career, I lean on best practice as most designers do and should, especially when designing a public website. But it’s also so rare to have an opportunity to create a website that needs to be both functional and also art. And you do have to make your own rules, and you have to– there’s no best practice necessarily to fall back on. And that’s really exciting and also terrifying. And I think in this case, it more or less worked out. But I think there’s absolutely things we could have improved on and done better and done more testing around. But I think that maybe my favorite part of this project was just having the ability to really go out on a limb and just try something new and have fun with it. So I think you’re exactly right. Not only is it playful, but it felt like a playful experience in the creation process as well and kind of giving ourselves permission to have fun and to say, what’s the worst that can happen? Let someone compare every single year side by side, and if their computer fan blows up as a result, so be it. They want to do that. They can do that and kind of just pushing the limit of what could happen and running with it.

RT: Well, thank you so much. The project is super cool. We didn’t even talk about this, but it won a Webby Award, which was incredible. So you did some award-winning work with the folks on the team, and thank you so much for talking about it today. I’m really excited for people to see this and interact with it and read about it more in the blog post too.

AH: Thank you so much, Ross. It’s been such a joy talking with you. I really appreciate it so much.

RT: Thank you for listening to Pollinate. Thanks to Amira for our wonderful conversation today. This episode of Pollinate was written by Nicolette Hayes, Eric Rodenbeck, and myself, Ross Thorn. Music for Pollinate was created by Julian Russell. You can interact with the 12 Sunsets Project at 12sunsets.getty.edu. If you like the show today, please share it. You can also tweet at us on Twitter @Stamen using the hashtag PLN8. For a summary and full transcript of today’s conversation, along with some of the visuals discussed in the episode, check out the blog post at stamen.com/blog.

Published: 10.17.22
Updated: 10.17.22

About Stamen

Stamen is a globally recognized strategic design partner and one of the most established cartography and data visualization studios in the industry. For over two decades, Stamen has been helping industry giants, universities, and civic-minded organizations alike bring their ideas to life through designing and storytelling with data. We specialize in translating raw data into interactive visuals that inform, inspire and incite action. At the heart of this is our commitment to research and ensuring we understand the challenges we face. We embrace ambiguity, we thrive in data, and we exist to build tools that educate and inspire our audiences to act.