Nicholas Felton is a data guru. For the past five years and counting, he has been keeping a detailed catalogue of his daily life from what music he listens to, to meals spent alone or with company, to miles traveled per day. Felton, or more commonly known by graphic designers as Feltron, gathers all of his collected data into a visually stunning annual report. Recently hired by Facebook, Felton also runs an online website called “Daytum,” which empowers users to track whatever data they choose to amass. Felton has also compiled an impressive collection of other data visualization work for clients such as GOOD magazine, The New York Times, Esquire, and Metropolis.
When did Felton turn to Feltron?
Feltron originated in art school. I was initially referred to as Feltronix, but its shorter form survived and thrived. When it came time to register a URL, most friends knew me as Feltron so it was an easy choice.
Where did you go to school? After that, what path did you take before starting the annual report and working at Facebook?
I attended RISD where I studied graphic design. After graduation, I moved to New York and worked in advertising for a few years. While I didn’t love the profession, I was able to work on numerous identity projects and tempered my naivite with practical experience in positioning and selling design. I went out on my own after a few years, designing magazines, managing clients and freelancing until I found my niche and began focusing exclusively on information design.
What are your plans for the annual report in years to come? Do you have any ideas on how long you’d like to do it?
I would like to create 10 years of reports and then publish a book on the project.
When did you begin plotting your everyday activities? What came first: the idea of the project or the idea of recording what your were doing? (chicken or the egg)
The first Annual Report was based on information that I was collected for no other purpose. If you look at the 2005 report, you’ll find that much of the underlying data is available to anyone. I analyzed my photos, remembered where I had traveled and what books I had read. It was an archaelogical exercise based on data at hand. Following the success of that Report, I chose to intentionally record my life and to explore my habits with more depth.
How do you think online services and technology have played into the annual report in terms of aiding you? Do you use Daytum to record figures for the report?
I used Last.fm to record all my music listening habits for the first Report and have relied on it ever since. As practical sensors and technologies are developed, I try to incorporate them. The iPhone has been a godsend and I use a fitbit to record my steps each day. The Internet has also been invaluable as I can plot distances on a map months after the fact, identify restaurants I forgot to record and in the case of last year’s Report… identify the location of my father’s photos from 40 years ago.
I still record daily with Daytum, and use it as a backup for the other data I record each day for the Report.
Was Daytum the product of working on the annual report? How did it come about? When did it start?
Daytum was inspired by our interpretation of the reception to the Annual Report project. My partner and I concluded that much of the interest in the report arose from a self-reflective response. We worked on the presumption that people wonder about their own activity and would want the same product for themselves if it were easy to record the data and the aggregations were designed in a beautiful manner.
We started working on Daytum at the beginning of 2008 and opened the private beta in August.
How long do you typically spend designing the annual report?
The Annual Reports typically take a month to design, but the time committment has been growing each year with the last one requiring 5 weeks to complete.
What is the focus of your 2011 data as of now?
My data collection for 2011 has continued the pattern I established for 2010. I am recording my location with 15 minute fidelity. I am recording every place that I visit, and how much time I spend with the people I am closest to as well as the usual topics like food and drink and distance. The 2011 data will be added to last year’s data to produce a 2010/2011 report.
Can you tell me about “Hello China, Goodbye Nepal”?
In 2007 I was intruiged by the on-demand printing technologies beginning to emerge. I wanted to test out services like Lulu, Blurb and MagCloud and also wanted to see what China was all about. I decided to capture as much information as I could along the way including photos, writing and artifacts with the intention of creating a travelogue when I returned to New York. “Hello China…” was the result.
You taught at SVA this spring? What was the class like? What do you think you gained for the experience?
SVA was the most rewarding teaching experience I’ve had with the best batch of students I’ve encountered. Their achievements in 3 months exceeded what I thought was possible, and they wound up tackling larger data challenges than I’ve ever considered. We ran the course like a lab, so problems were posed without set answers and experimentation was encouraged. Within the class wiki we attempted to cement approaches and techniques… all of which helped me rationalize my approach and consider new ones.
If someone was looking to start doing information design, but didn’t know where to start, what would be your advice to them?
The work of Tufte is invaluable, but a foundation of strong typography and grid composition is required. I am also convinced that computational techniques must be employed in order to test data and approaches with reasonable speed.
Out of the other infographics you’ve done, what have been some of your favorites?
The wine label I recently designed was one of my favorites. Extending the medium into unexpected places braided information and design in a way I found aesthetically successful as well as informative for the novice and wine expert alike.