First Semester – Research and Concept Development

Discovering our strengths and the focus of our year-long research

The process for this project started all the way back in March of 2020, where, at this point, the global pandemic that would affect everyone’s studies had not reached Australia yet. At the very start, we had to figure out what our strengths in interactive and visual design were, and what area we would focus on in our individual research. From the start, I knew that my strengths lied within website and app design/user experience, data visualisation, music, electronics and wiring, and designing and building physical prototypes. Furthermore, I also knew that I wanted to have my research situated in the areas of sustainable design, tangible interaction, and data visualisation/information design. 


Once I knew my strengths and areas of interest, I had to find an issue that I was passionate about, and design for it. Based on my own personal life, I found that the issue of the Australian drought was significant to me, and I was really keen on designing something that would raise awareness for the drought and how it affects outback Australian communities. Overall, I wanted the design to be informative, evocative/emotional, thought-provoking and include a narrative. At this point, I started to do lo-fidelity sketches of very early ideas. However, more importantly, I started going through the process of researching the high-concept key words, and looking at contextual examples. 


Research and contextual examples

Research began with looking at high-concept key words, in particular, focusing on sustainability and narrative. Over time, my focuses would narrow, with sustainability turning into designing for social sustainability, and narrative would turn into visual storytelling. Furthermore, I also began to look at data visualisation and how it related to social sustainability and visual storytelling. In the end, I was able to construct a structure for my first literature review that explored designing for sustainability, problems in environmental and social sustainability, visual storytelling and its role in sustainability, using visual storytelling to represent data, and finally, looking at the principles of designing for social sustainability using visual storytelling and data visualisation. 


Next, I looked at contextual examples of work that related to what I was researching. The first example, ‘Silent Tides’ by Nori Takagi, is an interactive installation which aims to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on coastal communities, showing how rising sea levels would affect communities such as Lennox Heads (Takagi, 2019). The biggest strength of this piece is how it uses data to inform how the ‘water table’ can alter the user’s surroundings when interacting with it (Takagi, 2019). Takagi uses this interaction with the intention of “encouraging self-reflection on how we are impacting the environment” (Takagi, 2019). This is a good example of designing with the intention of changing attitudes and behaviours towards a sustainability issue (social sustainability), and it provided inspiration on how data could be used to inform an evocative device which is designed for tangible interaction and social sustainability. 

Figure 1: 'Silent Tides' by Nori Takagi (Takagi, 2019)

The second example, ‘Australia is Burning’, by Anthony Hearsey is a 3D rendered visualisation of a map of Australia, showing all the bushfires which occurred from the 5th of December 2019, to the 5th of January 2020 (Hearsey, 2019). Much like ‘Silent Tides’, this design uses data relating to a sustainability issue to create an evocative image which shows Australia “on fire”. This use of data to convey how bad the bushfires were in an evocative manner is particularly inspiring. However, a negative for this visualisation was that it looked too realistic, meaning that many users thought this was a single image taken from space by NASA, rather than a visualisation of data which spanned across a month. Once users discovered this wasn’t a single photo taken from space, this visualisation was labelled as “fake news”.

Figure 2: 'Australia is Burning' by Anthony Hearsey

Finally, I also had to find examples of drought data (rainfall, dryness data etc.) that could be used to inform the visual data story. One example of such data can be found below (figure 3), which shows the average rainfall across Australia from January 2017 to October 2019 (Hannam, 2019). Another example below (figure 4), shows the Australian annual average rainfall, spanning from 1900 all the way to 2019 (Bureau of Meteorology, 2020). This data was extremely helpful in informing different design concepts throughout this first semester, especially the design concept I presented at the end of the first semester.   

Figure 3: Dataset #1 (Hannam, 2019)
Figure 4: Dataset #2 (Bureau of Meteorology, 2020)

Early concept designs and iteration

The process of designing a device for this project started with initial design concepts which took the form of early ideation sketches which showcased how data which relates to the Australian drought could be visualised and made interactive. Seen below are sketches of early design concepts which were discussed in the first design proposal for this project.

Figure 5: Concept #1

Figure 5 shows an outline of Australia separated into three sections, with each section showing data for one part of the story (eg. Part one: average temperature, rainfall etc., part two: how climate change has affected the drought, part three: how the drought has affected people and communities). This Australian outline visualisation would use digital screens as the medium and people could interact with the data through touch. One problem with this concept was the scope of creation, as creating digital touch screens in the shape of Australian state outlines shown above would be incredibly difficult. Therefore, I figured data could be represented in the shape of Australia using physical mediums rather than digital mediums such as touch screens.

Figure 6: Concept #2
This design concept (figure 6) uses a vanity and tap to represent average water usage for an individual person and how it affects the country in terms of the drought. In this concept, when users turn on the tap, it would activate a sensor which tracks how long the water has been on for and displays this on a digital screen in front of the user, showing how their average water use affects the country. Compared to the concept in figure 5, this concept was much more achievable in terms of scope and creating the object. Furthermore, this concept related to the project aim as it informed people and showed how their behaviour was affecting rural communities in the drought, and could perhaps encourage them to think about changing their behaviours for the better.
Figure 7: Concept #3
The design concept in figure 7 is a close iteration of the vanity mirror concept, with the length of water droplets coming out of the shower-head representing average water use across the country over time, comparing this data to how dry the country has gotten over time in relation to the drought, and how it has affected rural communities. This concept was more of a static installation piece, with the design not affording tangible interaction. Therefore, to add tangible interaction to this design, I thought the users could perhaps push and pull the water droplets, therefore changing the data, allowing them to see how changing that data for the better/worse would affect the issue differently.

Figure 8: Concept #4

This concept (figure 8) is a table-top device that used the density of dry cracks to show how dry it has been on average in Australia during the drought. The users could interact with the tap next to it, which activated a sensor which triggered a screen above showing the average rainfall in Australia during the same time. Originally, the sensor in the tap would trigger a projector which would show the average rainfall over the top of the physical cutout of Australia showing the dryness data, however that concept was out of scope of creation. The visual narrative in this concept is that it showed how bad the drought had gotten in terms of rainfall and temperature, and then showed how climate change had affected that, before finally showing how it had affected rural communities. 


The next section of design concepts looked at iterating upon feedback from the first proposal (the fourth concept in figure 8), as well as feedback from peers, this time with the intention of going into further detail with concept sketches, and moving into more developed, lo-fidelity prototypes.

The first stage of conceptualisation in this part of the process looked at moving some visualisations from sketches to Adobe Illustrator. The image below (figure 9) shows a screenshot of a visualisation in Adobe Illustrator, placed over the top of the original data. This visualisation is an iteration of the concept seen in figure 8 (from the first project proposal), and represents below-average rainfall across Australia using dry cracks.

Figure 9: Visualisation in Adobe Illustrator
Feedback from the development of this concept was directed at whether a map was the best way to represent this data. In particular, it was noted that something which the audience could relate to easier would be better for representing data which occurs on such a large scale like this rainfall data. An example of this was a data visualisation which represented the number of asbestos deaths across Australia. To represent this, the designer visualised the number of deaths by showing them as the length of the bus route from the QUT Garden’s Point Campus to the QUT Kelvin Grove Campus. This visualisation meant that the university students who looked at it could understand the scale of it more easily. This feedback and this example would be used as inspiration, as I would go back to sketching more conceptualisations.
Figure 10: Concept #5
This design above (figure 10) was conceptualised based on the feedback from the design in figure 9. This water tank concept would use a small amount of water to represent the below-average rainfall, which was seen across Australia during the drought, with a full tank representing what the national average is. The user would be able to interact with this visualisation by turning on the tap/hose themselves. Finally, the water would then go down the drain and back into the original tank where a new user can turn the hose on and watch the small amount of water go back into the tank again.
Figure 11: Concept #6

This next concept (figure 11 above), is a clock concept which made use of more visual imagery, rather than physical visualisations like the water tank in figure 10. The 12 numbers of a clock would represent each month in a year, and once the clock goes through the hour, then a new year would be displayed in the middle of the clock. In the background, or perhaps on a different screen, would be a display of visual imagery and statistics which takes the user through each month of the drought.


After coming up with the concept in figure 11, I decided to start conducting photographic observations in outback Australia, in towns such as Roma, Wallumbilla, Miles, and some photos which were taken while on the bus trip back to Brisbane. This part of the process details the photographs that I took a part of this ideation process, which was used as inspiration for visual storytelling, as I started to move away from purely data visualisation and into a mix of the two (data visualisation and visual storytelling). Besides the figures of pictures which can be seen below in figures 13 to 18 below, a link to a time-lapse of the journey between Roma and Wallumbilla (roughly 20 minutes) can be found below as well in figure 12. This time-lapse details a truly heart-breaking scene, showing how dry the landscape still is in the outback, even after good rains in late January/early February.

Figure 13
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Figure 17
Figure 18

This final section in the project process/prototype work for the first semester looked at combining ideas of data visualisation and visual storytelling/visual imagery. In particular, I got inspiration for the visual imagery aspect of these ideas from the photographic observations I conducted in the outback. The emotional/evocative aspects of these images/videos were a key part of telling this visual story, and would be used in conjunction with data which would also be used as part of the evocative visual story.  


At this part of the process, I started working with physical prototypes, rather than design concept sketches, so I could more easily visualise what the concept would look like in real-life. I wanted to physically prototype using this imagery so I could explore how data could be visualised, and how a visual story such as this could be constructed in real-life. Figure 19 below shows a tub filled with water, which represents the below-average rainfall seen during the drought, compared to the national average (what the tub would be if it were full). This data visualisation was informed by the screenshot of data from the Bureau of Meteorology (figure 4), showing that the total rainfall for 2019 during the drought was 40% below average (Bureau of Meteorology, 2020). This 40% difference is represented through the tub of water in figure 19, showing the tub filled to 60%. Furthermore, a blank projector screen can be seen in the background, which was used as a “green screen” replacement, so that the visual imagery taken in the previous section could be displayed on the screen in Adobe Illustrator.

Figure 19: Visual Data Story Prototype

With this concept, I started to feel that something like this was a lot more evocative and told a linear and basic, yet effective story. For example, the story in this concept shows/tells the audience how the representation of the below-average rainfall in the tub has caused the brutally dry landscape in the evocative image on the screen. In future iterations, the water visualisation would be contained in a custom-built tank/tub, with buttons for tangible interaction being available as well. However, after reflection, I quickly realised that this concept was very similar to Nori Takagi’s “Silent Tides” sustainability prototype, even though the sustainability issue being approached is different. Therefore, the prototype concept and how the rainfall data is visualised in the tank would have to be changed. In further iterations then, a different way to visualise the below-average rainfall and use interactive buttons to show a visual story. However, I believe this was a good physical prototype that showcased what something like this would look like in real life, as well as a physical version of the visual story which would be portrayed in this research project. After hearing further feedback from this prototype, it was noted that I needed to further narrow the scope of what I was addressing, rather than targeting a broad area of what is already a very broad subject (the drought). Therefore, I concluded that to narrow down and specifically target something in this very broad issue, I decided that I should focus on man-made climate change. Therefore, this design would be using the visual imagery above to allow the audience to connect to the story, which would be showing how climate change has affected the drought, rather than focusing on something very broad such as how below-average rainfall has caused these dry landscapes, which can be seen in figure 19.

What I learnt from this prototyping is that using physical data visualisation and imagery to make a visual story is a very real possibility. When viewing the imagery seen in figure 19, as well as the timelapse video from the previous section, words which were thrown around included “nostalgic”, “eye-opening”, “illuminating”, “frightening”, “emotional”, and “upsetting”. These sorts of words suggested to me that people already started to connect with the imagery here, meaning that when it is clear, people can connect to the visual story that comes along with it, as discussed in relation to visual storytelling in the literature review.


Hannam, P. (2019). How Bad is this Drought and is it Caused by Climate Change? [Image]. The Sydney Morning Herald.

Hearsey, A. (2019). Australia is Burning / A 3D Visualisation. Anthony Hearsey.

Hearsey, A. (2019). Australia is Burning / A 3D Visualisation [Image]. Anthony Hearsey.

Takagi, N. (2019). Silent Tides. Imaginarium.

Takagi, N. (2019). Silent Tides [Image]Imaginarium.