Montreal–based FFunction is a data visualization studio made up of specialists in design, development and communication. The studio creates map-based applications, infographics, UI, motion graphics and, of course, interactive data visualizations for a variety of clients, including UNESCO, the Gates Foundation, Google, HP and National Geographic.
These days, many more companies are creating data-driven products. [Find out how designers can get more comfortable with data.] Read on to find out how FFunction consistently stands out from the pack, to hear what they believe about the future of interactive data visualization, and for a look behind the scenes of the small studio.
Data-Driven Design at its Best
When asked to describe FFunction in just three words, founder and director Sebastien Pierre answers: data-driven design. “We turn raw data into visual representations people can understand and engage with,” Pierre says. The team at FFunction succeeds at this by always putting the information first, and handling it with integrity.
This means doing more than just churning out effective infographics—what they take home the awards for is their interactive data visualizations. “It’s about finding the stories in the data and developing an experience that speaks to every level of user, from the clicktivists to engaged citizens, from policymakers to journalists,” says Pierre. “We want to make highly engaging visual interactives that are easy to share and to embed on third-party sites, but also link back to the unadulterated data so they become a credible resource for high-level, data-savvy users. I guess the fact that, as a studio, we understand how various users absorb information—that’s a real point of difference.”
FFunction embraces customization on a level that further sets it apart. “Effective information design demands customization, which is why the notion of custom tools is very strong at FFunction,” says Audree Lapierre, partner and creative director. “Internally, we use our own programming language, called Sugar. We built our own CMS for our website. We built our visualization and UI libraries. We have our own Python server, and a 3D printer. Actually we have a running joke at the office that only the coffee machine is not FFunction-made.”
The Future of Interactive Data Visualization
What might the future of interactive data visualization look like? Pierre notes that one of the big changes happening right now is the migration from desktop to mobile.
“Today, smartphones and tablets make up roughly 50% of the web’s traffic so it makes sense for dataviz to function across devices seamlessly,” he says. “So I imagine the future of interactive dataviz will most certainly put that requirement front-and-center—it’s starting to happen already.
“This also brings us to the Internet of Things; we’re starting to see screens pop up everywhere: on your Nest thermostat, your watch, your fridge, etc. Not to mention VR, which opens up to an entirely new field. Beyond the different form factors, all [of] these require us to radically reconsider the way we do data visualization, taking into consideration not only the data itself but the context and ‘information bandwidth’ of the medium.”
More generally, Pierre thinks that we’ll see fewer artistic depictions of big data and more dataviz/tools that are designed to offer us true insight. As Pierre says, “More (F)functional dataviz for everyone!”
Social Responsibility + The Small Design Studio
Another point of difference lies in the studio’s recent switch to becoming a certified B Corp. A B Corp company must meet specific standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability, and aims “to use the power of markets to solve social and environmental problems,” Pierre says. “Collectively, B Corps lead a global movement of people using business as a force for good.
Pierre invites us to go beyond what we know about the corporate social responsibility of big business, and consider the responsibilities of small creative businesses. “[It’s] a huge problem once you take a closer look at the data. Here in Canada alone, it’s estimated that the annual contribution of the creative industries is 7.4 per cent of real GDP, accounting for 1.1 million jobs. That’s actually more than Canada’s mining, forestry and fisheries sectors plus the Canadian Forces combined. Isn’t that nuts?”
Growth in the Digital Age
The FFunction team recently grew to eight people (plus two freelancers) after the studio won two large contracts last November. “Growing in terms of scale and knowledge as we go into our seventh year in business is so gratifying,” Pierre says. He notes that when FFunction was founded, people didn’t know what data visualization was all about. “Setting up a studio in that environment (during the Great Recession to boot) was a big gamble, but now people really understand what we do and see the need for data-driven design within the communications landscape. [According to Mark Wilson of FastCo], GE is one of the companies that has made major investments in dataviz, and now it’s a standard budget line for most big businesses and nonprofits.”
Hiring the right people remains a high priority for the studio, and they are continuing to refine their process. “Our best hires are people who actively seek us out because they know our work and understand our ethos,” Pierre says. “Take Chloé-Ève Levasseur for example. She’s our UX specialist and she’s excellent. Now, when she finished her Masters and started looking at where to work, FFunction was at the top of her list, and she didn’t have any second option lined up. She’s a huge asset to us, not just because of the quality of her work and the fact that she specializes in UX/UI and illustration, but also because she really gets who we are and what we do. That’s vital.”
As for the future of the studio, Pierre says they plan to remain “small,” but keeps an open mind about growth. “We don’t envision becoming some sprawling monolithic company. Once you hit a certain number, you need infrastructure, levels of management, more hierarchy. It’s better to stay nimble and agile, whilst still maintaining enough people-power to take on ambitious projects. I don’t imagine we would want to exceed 20 people in-house … but you never know.”