Materialising data – getting to grips with slippery concepts

Michael Smyth, Caitlin McDonald, Inge Panneels, Ingi Helgason

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

Abstract / Description of output

Data is ubiquitous in the 21st century, we voraciously create and consume it, it can be the driver of innovation and it can replicate the world through digital twinning. Data is rapidly becoming our primary point of contact with reality and, in many instances, reality itself. But data is a slippery, shapeshifting material that can take a myriad of forms which makes it challenging to engage with in a critical manner.

This paper will explore how design can address the challenge of revealing the complex and sometimes hidden relationships with data through the creation of physical artefacts and the process of making (Huron et al, 2023). The role that materiality in this process will be considered from the experience of two projects that have explored novel ways to represent data. It will be argued that the act of making tangible representations of data can reveal themes and issues that are difficult to conceptualise and communicate to a wider audience.

The first project entitled There Be Dragons commissioned five pieces from artist/designers that challenged them to represent data in a way that was meaningful to their lived experience of being a creative practitioner. The five responses sought to untangle personal relationships with data through the application of techniques such as interaction, storytelling, and wayfinding. The four-month project concluded with a public exhibition over four days which was visited by over 200 people.

The Picture Your Poisons project has charted the medical journey of a breast cancer patient through the medium of glass making. Six glass casts were made from the affected breast to materialise the abstract compounds that are not ordinarily visible or relatable. By materialising the chemicals ingested in various cancer treatments, the work has explicitly revealed data which is more usually embedded in the small print of the safety sheets of medicines.

The importance of materialisation in these projects will be framed by the theory of constructionism which describes learning as a reconstruction of knowledge rather than a transmission (Papert, 1993). The learner constructs knowledge through artefacts, or “learning through doing”. A key part of this process is communication with and through the artefact that Schön (1983) refers to as “talk back” when the act of making reveals unanticipated consequences of the design action.

The paper will conclude by critically reflecting on the challenges posed by the abstract nature of data and how this was addressed by the two projects to reveal facets of our relationships with data that normally remain inaccessible and hidden. The approach shows early promise both to create “talk back” about the nature and representation of data with producers, but also to create thought provoking experiences for audiences. The work is viewed as a contribution to the wider discourse that seeks to critically reassess our relationship with data and how the digital representation of the world maps onto the actual experience of place, society, and local context.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPreferences of Design: Cumulus Conference Proceedings Budapest 2024
PublisherCumulus Association
Number of pages12
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 May 2024
EventCumulus 2024: P/REFERENCES OF DESIGN - Budapest, Hungary
Duration: 15 May 202417 May 2024

Publication series

NameCumulus Conference Proceedings
ISSN (Electronic)2490-046X


ConferenceCumulus 2024: P/REFERENCES OF DESIGN
Internet address

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • data
  • exhibition design
  • creative practice


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