Computational Information Design

Table of Contents

Basic Example
Advanced Example
Additional Examples

Benjamin Jotham Fry

bfa Communication Design, minor in Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University, May 1997
sm Media Arts and Sciences,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 2000

Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences,
School of Architecture and Planning,
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

April 2004
© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004

Benjamin Fry
Program in Media Arts and Sciences

John Maeda
Muriel Cooper Chair
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
mit Media Laboratory
Thesis Supervisor

Andrew B. Lippman
Program in Media Arts and Sciences
Chair, Departmental Committee on Graduate Students


The ability to collect, store, and manage data is increasing quickly, but our ability to understand it remains constant. In an attempt to gain better understanding of data, fields such as information visualization, data mining and graphic design are employed, each solving an isolated part of the specific problem, but failing in a broader sense: there are too many unsolved problems in the visualization of complex data. As a solution, this dissertation proposes that the individual fields be brought together as part of a singular process titled Computational Information Design.

This dissertation first examines the individual pedagogies of design, information, and computation with a focus on how they support one another as parts of a combined methodology for the exploration, analysis, and representation of complex data. Next, in order to make the process accessible to a wider audience, a tool is introduced to simplify the computational process for beginners, and can be used as a sketching platform by more advanced users. Finally, a series of examples show how the methodology and tool can be used to address a range of data problems, in particular, the human genome.

Thesis Supervisor: John Maeda
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
mit Media Laboratory

Doctoral dissertation committee

John Maeda
Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
mit Media Laboratory
Thesis Advisor

David Altshuler MD, PhD
Assistant Professor of Genetics and of Medicine
Harvard Medical School
Massachusetts General Hospital
Director, Program in Medical and Population Genetics
Broad Institute
Thesis Reader

Christopher Pullman
Vice President for Design
wgbh Boston
Thesis Reader


It’s difficult to explain how much I owe to these people.

Mom & Dad, for everything.

Mimi, Jamie, Leif, Erika, and Josh, for helping me maintain perspective.

Mentors, in reverse order of their appearance: John Maeda, John Lilly, Suguru Ishizaki, Mark Mentzer, Darcy Bowden, Mrs. Heinemann, and John Hillegonds.

Committee members, David Altshuler and Chris Pullman.

Fellow acg members, who provided motivation and kept me to a higher standard: Peter Cho, Elise Co, Megan Galbraith, Simon Greenwold, Bill Keays, Golan Levin, Casey Reas, Nikita Pashenkov, Bernie Manor, Allen Rabinovich, Jared Schiffman, James Seo, and Tom White.

The plw crew: James Dai, Noah Fields, Patrick Menard, Carlos Rocha, Marc Schwartz, Seung-Hun Jeon, Mariana Baca, Annie Ding, Quinn Mahoney, Ricarose Roque, Mimi Liu, and Jessica Rosenkrantz.

Architecture expatriats with temporary residence in acg: Axel Kilian, Omar Kahn, Afsheen Rais-Roshani, and John Rothenberg.

Those who ensured the smooth operation of all things acg: Connie van Rheenen, Elizabeth Marzloff, and Heather Childress; and all things academic: Linda Peterson and Pat Solakoff.

Pardis Sabeti, my bud.

Friends who helped keep me sane, especially through the past year: Scott Corliss, Ravi & Sonia Hampole, Eugene Kuo, Joshua Schuler, Amanda Talbott.

Still more students and professors at the Media Lab who made me happy to be here: Erik Blankinship, Bill Buterra, Mark Feldmeier, Jeana Frost, Saul Griffith, Hiroshi Ishii, jh, Joe Paradiso, Wendy Plesniak, Brygg Ullmer, Max van Kleek, Ben Recht, Parul Vora, and Paul Yarin.