For Data’s Sake: An Interview with Jonathan Harris

I’ve always been that person who brings a something to write on to every meeting — a sketchbook specifically. But for years I never used it to sketch; instead, I fill it with fairly rigorous notes of every meeting detail. Almost ten years of sketchbooks are archived neatly nearby (by size, then date), and their notes, historical artifacts of meeting narratives for later reference.

But last year, I had the pleasure of working with Jonathan Harris. After meetings with Harris, I watched my 10-year-old sketchbook-tradition change: what used to be pages of fairly rigid text notes evolved into charts, scatterplot graphs, four-quadrant diagrams, and Venn diagrams.

Harris’ work is currently on display at MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit. Image from the project site.

Without even realizing it, I’d started to think about conversations in terms of data that could be visualized. And these days, I have the transcripts of my meetings archived visually. That’s the thing about Harris: his love of visualizing data is contagious.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Harris for Adobe’s Think Tank about his process, his work, and his landmark way of telling stories.

When asked about his working style — working solo rather than in a group or with a company — Harris responded with:

“To make something really beautiful, you have to treat it like a lover. It has to be personal. It has to obsess you when you’re falling asleep. It has to be in your dreams. It has to be with you when you wake. It has to torment you.

If you allow the work to accompany you in those intimate moments, it will reveal itself to you, and the result will evolve like a life form, nuanced, and crafted with love. This is why I resist hiring assistants or interns, and certainly why I will never work for anyone else. This resistance to hired help limits my ability to produce more, but I think it makes each thing I do produce better.”

Thanks to Jonathan for a great interview. You can read the rest of it on the Adobe site.