City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


Regarding the previous post on The CLOUD, the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed the visualisation I layered over the third of my AAA exhibition boards. This was no more than a quick sketch, rattled together very late one night – by hand, direct into InDesign (not a good idea, by the way) – illustrating the emails to and from my in-box relating to the CLOUD’s design process. Although it was produced quickly, there’s a little more thinking behind it than meets the eye, and like most sketches, it’s development rather than destination.




It covers one month’s worth of emails to and from my in-box concerning the CLOUD project, leading up to the submission of the initial concept designs. I was a little intrigued that the team had never physically met in its entirety – although this is not uncommon in many design sectors, it’s relatively unusual in architecture and engineering for the obvious reasons that the work generally concerns particular physical spaces. Yet this virtual team was dispersed across numerous organisations, cities, disciplines and other projects, and so meeting up was out of the question.




My interest in plotting out the pattern of emails picks up on the ‘new smokestacks’ theme I’ve been developing here, here and here – how to capture the essence, identity or character of knowledge-based work. The emerging thesis goes like this: heavy industry and physical trade once helped define the character of a city ad its people through its sheer presence; it helped create a local identity. As that work has shifted to globalised service- and knowledge-based work in many cities, so it has become invisible or homogenous, and so part of the identity of a place has also become ephemeral, intangible, imperceptible.

Saskia Sassen has written on the resulting “homogenised landscapes” of most global cities, due to “standardised built environments” of most global business centres (“Re-assembling the Urban”, 2008). Yet she notes that there are major differences in, say, what Chicago and Los Angeles (in Sassen’s research) actually do, and the way they do it.

These differences are perhaps largely expressed through data rather than built form, and leaving aside the glowing possibility of a return to manufacturing in the city (a theme I’ll keep returning to here) we can nonetheless discern a character, rhythm and pattern to this new work. We simply have to look for it through the lens of data. While we could probably discern the new built forms relating to this work – the equivalent of the factory, terrace, docks, slag heaps, mills, warehouses, etc. – but we can certainly glean the essence of the work by assessing the digital traces it leaves.


With the CLOUD, I found myself exploring just one aspect of the metadata of project in non-place – the contrails of email. Even this most basic side-effect was revealing to make.

First of all, perhaps confusingly, time is read from top to bottom. So the first emails to/from my in-box are to be found close to Sydney on the right of the diagram towards the top of the arc. Lines representing each email then fan across the globe from right to left, and top to bottom, with the name of the sender and date indicated, and with the line ending in the location of the recipient, or sender, if it wasn’t me. (I had to cheat a little and bend the lines back towards the US and UK quite a lot by the end of the diagram. This is what happens when you improvise a diagram rather than plan it – and don’t have time for any iterations.)

But the legibility, in this case, is neither here nor there – it was designed to blend with the large, complex image of the CLOUD on the  exhibition board as a kind of spot-effect with a bit of meaning, but with the meaning conveyed mainly through density and scale rather than detail and repeated interpretation. It was not designed to be Tufte-ian in any sense.


What I glean from it nonetheless is perhaps privileged by my position inside the project. Studying the names indicates the key role of particular designers, acting almost as project managers, nudging the thing along all the time (people who wouldn’t usually be highlighted when reviewing a project). They’re absolutely key to the project, and you can see them punctuating the email traffic as a rhythm. Equally, some people who were there at the start of the project quickly fade as it develops in different directions.

You can see focal points of Turin (home of Carlo Ratti’s architecture practice), Cambridge (MIT), London (Atmos, Arup) and Sydney (Arup). You can see the names of all the teams superimposed on the project (and so partly obscuring the detail of some emails, unfortunately). You can also see how the project, from my perspective at least, ends up in a flurry of emails to/from Cambridge, Mass. (Carlo Ratti) and London (Alex Haw) and I, as the final presentations are tweaked and commented upon.

Had I then visualised the second phase of the project – which, having been shortlisted, was the more detailed design phase – you’d see that I shifted far more into the background, as other colleagues at Arup, and at Jörg Schleich + Partners, got deeper into the engineering, or the likes of GMJ started developing the renders and so on. So this shift from concept design to detailed design would’ve been clearly articulated through such a visualisation.

The whole thing would work better as an animation, of course, perhaps with a ‘scrubbing’ control, indicating this sweep of people, skills and inputs. And of course this is a very simple visualisation – one type of data rather than multiple, laid out for effect rather than insight, and covering a series of digital signals rather than anything more ephemeral, experiential, emotional. It also owes something to those standard visualisations of internet traffic over the world, or this very lovely recent variation on the classic global aviation ‘visualisations’ – ‘Air Lines’ by Mario Freese:

Air Lines by Mario C. Freese

But email does have a few extra facets. I thought about making certain lines weightier if they related to an email carrying an attachment – on the basis that these emails probably had more ‘weight’ within the project, perhaps containing key sketches. This clearly wouldn’t be ‘scientific’ yet might have had a loose value. However, in retrospect it occurred to me that many of the key concepts, insights and breakthroughs were delivered via text in the body of an email and so this would not just be loose, but an entirely false relationship between email weight and significance in terms of the design process. (Nonetheless, it could easily be scripted and might be worth exploring.)

Of course, this is only the view from my in-box, and so very skewed. It could’ve been, for instance, that Team Member Eco was sending all kinds of emails about clouds, visualisations, or the durability of ETFE to Carlo et al, and I just didn’t see it. Again, that position inside a project means the visualisation is insightful to me, as a reflexive tool, but perhaps not others (a nod back to self-centred design perhaps?) 

At Arup we happen to have a way of scooping up all (or most) of the emails around a project very easily and so, within a project team, we could run a script over such a directory of emails and produce these visualisations automatically. And we plan to do just that, to see what entails. One of the trickiest things to get design teams to do is reflect on the previous project – something in the designers’ sensibility means the next project is always more interesting – and techniques such as this might provide some handy automated insights, produced as a side-effect of the design process (always a desired mode in content management).

Of course, these scripts wouldn’t capture the chance meeting in the corridor, the breakthrough idea developed over a coffee, the phone-calls and whiteboard sessions and so on, and that shortcoming means the insights can only be useful to a certain extent.

Moving on, informatics as I see it entails two primary relationships with the street – sensors and actuators. As well as drawing data from activities (sensors), we can also project representations of this data back into the street, or in this case, the office, the studio, the project (actuators). Making multi-sensory representations of the otherwise imperceptible traces of knowledge work manifest in physical space is a focus of several projects – from our major urban development projects to our creative clusters research

More on those later, but for me this small visualisation begins to reveal a simplistic yet intriguing glimpse of the potential within these ideas. Imagine such techniques casting a wider net over many of the real-time digital traces emitted from a place (opt-in, of course) and then casting that data around the urban environment through visualisations, installations, media facades and the like. Would this help create something of the sense of place previous forms of industry did?

Anyway, there you go: a picture in a thousand words.

NB. The typeface is Archer by Hoefler and Frere-Jones, which I’ve been using incessantly for the last year.


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