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Right Brain Meets Left Brain in Data as Art Collaboration

Northwestern and School of Art Institute students turn numbers into works of art


  • Art and engineering students collaborate to visualize the meaning of data
  • Collaboration produces artistic comprehension of otherwise complicated numbers  
  • Students learn about other disciplines, enhance empathy, worldly perspective
  • Diverse people working together find eye-opening lessons for everyone

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Seeing is believing. But when it comes to giant sets of data, it can be difficult to see the “forest” through the convoluted numbers and statistics.

Faculty and students from Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago do just that when they come together in a course every fall to ultimately turn data sets into works of art.

“Presenting important data in an aesthetic way can make it easier to understand and lead to more visceral reactions to the otherwise complicated numbers,” said Luis Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering at McCormick and data science champion at Northwestern.

Since 2014, art and engineering students have been coming together in the course, designed to promote the of type of interdisciplinary “whole-brain” thinking that is so important to learning and to life, and is a priority at Northwestern.  

“It’s not like engineers are uncreative people who simply look at numbers, and artists are free-flowing spirits who cannot be rigorous or concerned with solving problems,” Amaral stressed. 

As an example, Amaral cited a 2014 project in which art and engineering students used data to visualize challenges Chicago Public School high school students face when traveling to schools outside their neighborhoods. Theoretically, every public high school student has the option of attending a school of their choice no matter where they live. 

The final data-as-art projects are put on display in exhibitions at the SAIC and the Segal Design Institute in McCormick’s Ford Motor Company Engineering and Design Center. 

But the deformed maps that evolved from that art and engineering collaboration visualized how traveling from the South to North sides of Chicago, for example, to attend a better performing school is a lot easier said than done — when taking into consideration poor transportation options, scheduling problems with buses and L’s and high-crime areas.

“It’s like the people who would most like to escape an area are the least able to escape because the transportation doesn’t enable them,” Amaral said.

The engineering students didn’t know art students could write code to run an installation, and the art students were surprised to realize that the engineering students had an interest in art and visualization.”

Luis Amaral
Professor of chemical and biological engineering at McCormick

Putting together people from distinctly different disciplines to share thought patterns, cultures and work styles offers eye-opening lessons to everyone involved.

“Students who have been working with data for a long time suddenly see it in completely new and cool ways,” Amaral said. “It’s like watching little kids who get excited about everything.  It’s the kind of thing we want to do more and more of at Northwestern.”

The students also view themselves and their peers in a new light, which can ultimately change how they learn for the rest of their lives.  

“The engineering students didn’t know art students could write code to run an installation, and the art students were surprised to realize that the engineering students had an interest in art and visualization,” Amaral said.

Such a broadened perspective also can lead to more empathy about societal concerns.

An engineer focusing too narrowly on making a process work efficiently in a factory, for example, might not consider the negative environment footprint that might leave, Amaral said. 

“Seeing how others think and work is something that we are convinced as an institution is not only good for the individual because of the change in perspective, but also for society and the world because it makes people more aware of others.”

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