Interview: Nicholas Felton

"Being able to play a part in how this technology evolves is thrilling, and it's why I am working at Facebook."


I'm a big fan of Nicholas Felton, the man who many refer to as the inforgraphic guru.  He has managed to make data look good and I give him credit, in part, for making me a data junkie.  For a number of years, he has created his own personal annual/bi-annual reports that weave numerous measurements into a beautiful display of graphs, maps and statistics that reflect the year’s activities.  I've been checking his site often waiting for the 2012/2013 to come out.  It made me realize that I've never actually written about him here, so I decided to share one of my favorites.  There have been a slew of articles and interviews with him, particularly since he has become a part of the Facebook team and because he is responsible for Facebook's "Timeline" feature.   However, this interview Thomas Houston did last year on The Verge is one of my favorites.  Enjoy.

5 Minutes on The Verge: Nicholas Felton

Even five years ago, personal data tracking was mostly a fringe activity, something you'd read about in Wired articles profiling lifeloggers that were forever coming up with new ways to gather and analyze data about their own lives. As those sensors shrank and came together in modern smartphones and sports gadgets like Nike+ and mixed with a flood of new, easy-to-use apps, data tracking has become increasingly mainstream. You've probably seen Nicholas Felton's gorgeous Personal Annual Reports that break down a year's worth of personal data into graphs, maps, and statistics (e.g. weddings attended, movies watched, cups of coffee consumed), and he just published his 2010/2011 Biennial Report. Named one of the 50 most influential designers in America by Fast Company, Felton recently joined the Facebook team and was instrumental in building Timeline. He took some time out of his busy schedule for 5 Minutes on The Verge, and you can follow him at @feltron and

Mac or PC (and all-time favorite computer, make and model)?

I've been using Macs since I was in 7th grade, when my mother brought home our first computer... a Mac Plus with a 30mb external hard drive. My favorite computer is whichever model is helping me get my work done today, but this Mac Plus may survive as the one I am fondest of.

What's the story behind you getting involved in Facebook? Did you take "the walk" with Mark Zuckerberg?

I received a message from Mark at the beginning of last year and began a conversation with him. A few months later, my Daytum partner and I came out to San Francisco for a couple of meetings including a trip to Facebook. The more we talked, the more we saw that our desire to make a platform for quantitative expression was aligned with what Facebook was building, and that we could have a much greater impact by joining their efforts.

What did you learn about yourself from your Annual Reports? Have they made a difference in your daily life?

The Annual Reports teach me something new each year. I have explored my habits and routines, how I am perceived by those around me and last year I learned much more about my father than I had ever known. For the 2010/2011 Report, I have investigated my habits with new levels of detail, but ultimately the macro behaviors are what amaze me. By tracking the same metrics across two years, I was able to measure very small changes in my life. For instance, I learned that while I am spending much more time in California now, my total time with friends and family has stayed fairly constant (a complete surprise).

The Reports once inspired me to be more adventurous and to say "yes" to activities that I would naturally decline as it might make for an interesting story at the end of the year. Now that they have become so ingrained in my behavior, I am far less likely to be swayed by their influence.

In general, I think the Reports have made me a much more aware of my routines and grateful when I can break from them.

What kind of gadgets / tools / habits do you use for the tracking?

My iPhone is my best tracking tool. I relied on iCal on the phone and my Mac for recording everything over the past two years. I currently have a custom iPhone app that is helping me record the year. I also rely on my Fitbit and have been using a Wifit scale.

Where is Facebook's design most lacking? Where does it work best?

One of the most difficult things about working on Facebook is that it needs to work for so many people on such a range of devices, screens, and browsers. These requirements can restrain what is possible. Thankfully, mobile devices today are powerful (enough) and unemcumbered by legacy browsers. This has had a liberating effect on the creativity of our designers, and is allowing for imaginative new interactions like Joey Flynn's integration of a live-view camera mode within the cover photo in the iOS app.

"In 2008 I was the only person I knew wearing a pedometer. Today half my friends are wearing FitBits. "

Personal data tracking, once relegated to a fringe group of people documenting their lives, is increasingly becoming mainstream. Do you still feel like an outlier with your yearly reports?

Less and less... in 2008 I was the only person I knew wearing a pedometer. Today half my friends are wearing FitBits. Whenever I have uncovered a new metric in my life I've always wanted to be able to give it context. It tickles my curiosity to quantify a habit of mine, but I would really love to see how I differ from or resemble my friends. This wish seems to be materializing more and more quickly each day.

Do you feel a need to disconnect?

I love a good break from the internet, but checking out from my data collection has not been the sort of break that I have wanted to take. Fortunately, I have found a way this year to significantly reduce my manual tracking, while maintaining a satisfactory degree of data-completeness.

What's the best book you've read lately?

I enjoyed "The Information" by James Gleick, but the last book I couldn't put down was "Blind Descent" by James M. Tabor about exploring the world's deepest cave systems.

What was the last time you were really stunned by a development in technology (e.g. launching Spotify for the first time, using the original iPhone, seeing sports in HD)?

I completely take it for granted now, but the screen on the iPhone 4 remains phenomenal. It was a given that over time our displays would approach the resolution of paper, but I never expected to see resolution quadruple overnight for the same price.

Who (or what) are you most excited about on the web these days?

I am truly excited about the Facebook Open Graph... this is the system by which song listens (and any other action) can be recorded, aggregated and shared. Being able to play a part in how this technology evolves is thrilling, and it's why I am working at Facebook.

Who's doing the most interesting work in the mobile app space?

The apps that interest me most are repurposing the hardware of mobile devices to make them work in ways that were never intended. I am thinking about the heartrate monitor app that uses the camera and flash to read the pulse in my finger or the wikisense app that uses the camera to measure radiation after you've covered the lens.

What were some of the biggest design hurdles with creating Timeline, a product for nearly a billion users across a huge range of languages and ages?

The most contested and complicated dimension of Timeline's design was determining how time compression would work. Understanding the distinctions between various models of expansion on posts, aggregates and highlights took an enormous amount of concentration. At one point we designed a prototype that could mimic all 16 options we were considering. This exercise helped to remove many options, but the mechanics remained in flux until we could get real data into our models.

Similarly, what kind of design concerns start to appear at that kind of scale and user involvement?

Yes, the scale is enormous, but I believe that designing a successful product for an audience this size is very similar to designing a successful product at any scale. Our goals include clarity, performance, and ease of use. These goals will help a new product be adopted by a broader audience and serve our existing users well.

What's your primary browser?


How do you stay focused?

Music, caffeine, anxiety and an ability to find places and times to work when no one is around.

What movie are you most looking forward to in 2012?

I have a poor sense of what is being released, but if there's a Batman movie coming out, I will be there.

Monday Morning Inspiration: Cristiana Couceiro


I have fallen in love with the work of Cristiana Couceiro.  She is an illustrator/graphic design/collector extraordinaire based out of Lisbon who uses anything from newspaper, vintage photos, pieces of paper, books create her works of art.  These are just a few of my favorites.  Some of them were done for her clients like the NYTimes, Wired, Nike and Audi.  Others are from her personal portfolio.  You can see more of her work here.


Good Work: Sabi

寂 SABI [/sab-i/] noun - A Japanese cultural aesthetic inspired by the notion of life’s transitory and evanescent nature. Deliberate or cultivated simplicity in daily living. Artistic representation that strives toward refined understatement.

Created by Assaf Wand and Yves Béhar, Sabi brings "design, functionality, and aesthetic to the most basic day-to-day things."  Inspired by companies like OXO and Simple Human, Wand and Béhar tackled medication and pill management products as their first challenge.  From a 3-compartment clip-on travel pill box to a pill splitter, Sabi's "Vitality" line aims to make the task of taking daily vitamin and pills more enjoyable.  In addition to be ergonomically friendly, the line is price friendly raning from $8.99 to $29.99.  You can buy the products directly from the Sabi site here.

*via psfk

Discovered: The Punkt Alarm Clock

One of my New Years resolutions was to no longer sleep with my iPhone next to my bed.  No more checking emails as soon as my eyes open.  No more sending off late night emails that could wait until morning.  So our "charging station" got moved to the other side of the room, which meant we lost the other function of our phone--the alarm clock.  For the last couple weeks we have been using the classic Braun Travel Clock, my husband's from growing up, but it lacked a snooze button.

So the hunt began.  Our requirements were simple--well designed, slim profile and a snooze button.  We scoured blogs for "best alarm clocks," "modern alarm clocks," etc... to no avail.  Then, on a rainy Saturday afternoon we popped into Moss and came across what I am now deeming the perfect alarm clock.

Designed by Jasper Morrison for Swiss brand Punkt, the AC 01 is everything we were looking for and more.  I love how simple and intuitive the controls are and in addition to a snooze function, glow-in-the-dark hands and dial, it also has an led light that illuminates with a simple push of a button.  You can buy one online here.

Team Work: Ikea + Carl Kleiner

I'm loving these latest shots for Ikea by photographer Carl Kleiner.  Similar to the images he created for Ikea's first cookbook, Hembakat är Bäst (Homemade is Best) Kleiner forgoes the usual backdrop and takes a bird's eye view that allows us to completely focus in on the actual products.  Aside from the photography, I love how each shot is so perfectly composed and balanced.  Big props to the stylist (and Kleiner's wife) Evelina Kleiner.




Discovered: Nest Learning Thermostat

It has taken me a couple weeks to catch up on the daunting stack of magazines that awaited me after being out of the country for six weeks.  I am finally caught up, which means that I just read about this beauty - the Nest Learning Thermostat.

Designed by Tony Fadell, formerly of Apple and designer of the original iPod, the Nest is the thermostat we all never knew we needed.  Using software that analyzes and tracks your usage patterns over time, it will program itself in a week to understand your heating and cooling needs.  It also has built in sensors that keep track of whether or not you’re at home and a wi-fi connection that monitors the weather outside so that it can intelligently understand how the changing temperatures affect your usage behavior.

Aside from the gorgeous minimalist design, what I love about the Nest is that it solves a serious problem.  In Fadell's research, he discovered that 10 million thermostats are sold every year, yet only 6% of programmable ones are actually programmed.  He also discovered that the heating and cooling of our homes accounts for 50% of our energy bills.  Considering this impact, it makes sense to really look at creating design solutions for every day items like thermostats.  As Fadell says, and which I am 100% guilty of, "instead of programming their thermostats, most people have given up and treat it like a light switch."  According to Nest, you'll save 20 - 30% a month on your electric bill, which means that it can easily pay for itself in about a year. Unfortunately, the Nest isn't compatible with my building's system so I can't test it out myself.  You can check here to see if yours is.


*Via Fast Company

Good Work: Bonnie Bracelet

On my recent trip to Austin, I stopped in the gorgeous design shop Spartan and came across my new favorite accessory--the Bonnie Bracelet.  Inspired by the artist's biggest fan (her mom,) Bonnie Bracelets are handmade by Kara Ryan.  These hammered brass cuffs are perfectly simple and I have literally worn them every day.  You can purchase them directly from the artist on Etsy

Discovered: Knog


I got a spiffy new bike at the beginning of the summer and have been riding it as often as possible.  Sometime it's to run an errand, other times for a day at the beach, but mostly it's to get to and from work.  This has meant that I often get caught at the office well past sundown and need something to light my way for the ride home.  Enter Knog, my new favorite bike lights. The Australian company has created some of the more stylish  and smartly designed bike accessories I've yet to come across from lights to locks to bags.

I first picked up the Frog Strobe, which are really small and light.   They did me well until I discovered the Boomer Rechargeable, which are waterproof, super bright and rechargeable via USB.   They literally plug right into my computer and I've only had to recharge them once in the last three weeks.  I like how small and compact the Frogs are but love how bright the Boomers are. Check out Knog's site to see their whole line.  Soon they are releasing a pretty sexy lock called the "Strongman" that is certainly going to give the Kryptonite a run for their money.



Good Work: Pen Type-A

I'm super excited about backing this project on Kickstarter.  The design duo CW&T have created what they are calling the Pen Type-A inspired by their favorite pen, Hi-Tec-C.  The Hi-Tec-C is  made by Pilot and only available in Japan.  Coveted by many for its fine lines and smooth flow, this is known as THE pen in the design world.   CW&T set out to replace the Hi-Tec-C's cheap plastic housing and created the Pen Type-A with a stainless steel case that takes every aspect into consideration--doubles as a ruler, internal lip that protects the tip from getting pushed in too far, raw steel finish that won't scratch, replaceable ink cartridges, etc....

The pens will sell for $99 but if you fund their project on Kickstarter, you be rewarded with a 50% discount.  With a $50 donation, this beauty can be yours.

You can read more about the Hi-Tec-C here.


Monday Morning Inspiration: Kinfolk Magazine

Kinfolk Magazine just launched last week and it is GORGEOUS.  Their mission is to be "a guide for small gatherings."  Given my love for uniting friends around dinner tables, most recently up at Lake Copake with a pan of seafood paella and bottles of Rosé, the concept of the magazine got me from the start.  Add in the photography and it was a done deal...this is my new favorite magazine.  I'll let you discover and enjoy it for yourselves but in the mean time, I'll leave you with their manifesto.

"Kinfolk is a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love.

Every element of Kinfolk – the features, photography, and general aesthetics – are consistent with the way we feel entertaining should be: simple, uncomplicated, and less contrived. Kinfolk is the marriage of our appreciation for art and design and our love for spending time with family and friends."

*Thanks/congrats to Youngna whose blog post introduced me to Kinfolk and whose story, Cloth Napkins, was included!

Good Work: Erica Weiner


A few weeks ago, my friend Maia and I decided to meet for lunch at one of our favorite spots, Torrisi.  After devouring our turkey sandwiches, we strolled through Nolita and she took me to the shop of Erica Weiner. Inspired by a collection of curiosities from various treasure hunts, Erica creates this amazing vintage-inspired jewelry.  I picked up the Kyanite Spike Necklace.  I love the blue Kyanite with the single metal spike.  You can see more of her work here or visit her studio and store front at 173 Elizabeth Street, NYC.