Data Physicalisation

Project aims:

To provide opportunities for postgraduate art & design students to work with scientists & scientific data;

To engage adult audiences with contemporary physics; and

To evaluate art & design products using scientific means.


To produce specific art installations / designed exhibits communicating aspects of quantum physics;

To elicit positive feedback and understanding from visiting and online audiences; and

For our scientist collaborators to evaluate the resulting projects in terms of scientific accuracy and clarity of communication.

Summary of activity:

IED Visiting Lecturer Karin von Ompteda ran the project as planned, working with physics PhD students identified by the Institute of Physics. Instead of working with their data however, we focused on their practices and subject matter. The resulting work was exhibited in a public exhibition at Shoreditch Town Hall.
When we shifted focus, we used the name ‘PhysicSpace’ instead of ‘Data Physicalisationâ�� as originally proposed. This situated the project within our Space Program elective in which it was run ( It also reflected the large scale, spatial nature of the work produced.
Our original intention was to exhibit the work alongside the British Library’s Beautiful Science exhibition, but our respective aims, aspirations and timetable did not match, and we thus sought a larger, longer-term venue more suitable to the work. We considered Battersea Power Station, Imperial College’s annual Spring Festival, and various UK summer science festivals, but we chose Shoreditch Town Hall for its atmospheric character and for lighting control, as many of the students’ works required partial or complete darkness.

Evaluation approach:

We originally aimed to evaluate the resulting works using scientific methods, in order to work bi- directionally with the physicists and to experiment with applying empirical evaluation methods in art and design. But as the project progressed, we felt this would overcomplicate the process and take time away from completing the actual work. So we relied instead on traditional evaluation methods, both formal and informal, as detailed below.

As with all the student projects we run in the IED programme, we evaluated the work from our experienced perspective as tutors as the project progressed, and afterward using the evaluation criteria set out in our programme learning objectives: Intellectual engagement, technical skills, and professional development. As most of the works were completed by pairs or groups of students, students' individual contributions were also assessed in their Interim Examinations which took place just after the exhibition ended.

What went well:

1.In most cases students performed very well, and taken together with other work they produced during the academic year, the work produced for this project represented students' best work.

2.It also set a new standard for work produced in our programme, which was particularly notable as these were first-year students, many with little or no experience creating work at this scale, and certainly not with such a complex and challenging topic.

In terms of intellectual engagement, all of the students engaged deeply with the subject matter, working directly with the scientists, accessing additional information online and in books, and discussing regularly. The students became well versed enough in quantum physics to critique each other�s work as it developed, and to attain a sufficient working knowledge of the chosen concepts to inform their practical work.

3.The students all progressed in their practical skills, in terms of designing, in some cases, complex structures and experiences; working with unfamiliar materials such as lasers, inflatables and electronics; and dealing with all the practicalities of a public exhibition including health and safety, working with the venue staff and specialist contractors, and ensuring that their installations would operate smoothly for a week. Many were print- and screen-based designers who had never worked spatially � for example graphic designers struggling to design and build a large wood structure, or a print designer working for the first time with electronics and wireless communication technology.

Most of the students handled the practicalities with professionalism, attending briefings and crits regularly, working well with the scientists and their fellow students, and with others involved. They took responsibility for staffing the exhibition, opening and closing each day and ensuring that everything ran smoothly. There were a few stressful moments near the opening in dealing with the venue staff and finishing work to an adequate standard before opening time, but in retrospect the students learned from these experiences and have since progressed in their professional conduct. Feedback from the venue staff was positive and they helped promote the exhibition on social media

What was learned:

1.It would have been good to bring the scientists back more frequently to work directly with the students, and this would have involved them more directly in the process

2. It is important to find the right balance between creating engaging experiences and providing enough explanatory information for visitors to understand the scientific content.

3.A sponsor and an agreed venue would have helped us better estimate costs and avoid overspend

Top tips and advice for others

1. Budget appropriately

2. Document comprehensively and professionally

3. Set clear goals and targets

About this project


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Project type:


Started (approximately):

6 Mar 2014

Ended: (approximately)

3 Apr 2014

Tags for this project:

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About the contributor

Kevin Walker
Royal College of Art

IED is an RCA programme about transforming information into experiences through design, encompassing screens, senses, spaces & forms. We do data visualisation, installations and exhibitions, inter…

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