3 Design Lessons from Edward Tufte’s Megaliths

"Megalith with 6 Elements," 2013, stone and air, 32 x 20 x height 15 feet or 10 x 6 x height 4.5 meters Ace the dog, height 27 inches or 70 centimeters
Design ideas can come from anywhere, but a trusted source is always welcome. This week we look to data visualizer Edward Tufte, who recently completed several new stone structures in his sprawling Connecticut sculpture park. With the help of stone worker Dan Snow, Tufte assembled hundreds of tons of native rock into towering sculptures for Continuous Silent Megaliths: Structures of Unknown Significance.  The “stone+air” works are reminiscent of the land art movement that began in the ’60s—and bear an easy resemblance to Stonehenge. Unlike his exhibition at ET Modern—in which he created abstracted versions of physicist Richard Feynman’s subatomic particle diagrams—these don’t represent anything, aside from good design. Indeed, Tufte, who told Visual.ly he’s currently in a “manic state of creation,” says the pieces are meant to be “beyond words, contemplation in silence.” They’re also better seen in person (he’ll be hosting an annual open house at the park at Hogpen Hill Farms in Woodbury, Conn., this fall).  The rock formations are not the type of work one would typically associate with Edward Tufte, but they do offer his typical good design sense. Here are three lessons to learn from them:

White space is important

Gate and sphinx, 18 feet or 5.5 meters in height
Any musician will tell you that rests are just as important as notes. While it can be tempting to capitalize on the empty space in your layout, don’t. Empty spaces bring your focus to where the action is. Empty space is especially important where the parameters are tight. Think about the new design for Apple’s iOS 7. Putting aside your opinions of flat icons and pastel colors, the new platform is at least cleaner—making the same small device seem larger. Of his sculptures, Tufte writes on his website: “I think of the pieces as being made from two materials, stone and air. Much of thinking about the works is devoted to seeing and reasoning about the airspaces generated by positioning the stone.” To ensure modest use of white space, it helps to think of empty space as an actual building element—in this case, air.

Know your environment

"The Walking Wall," 34 inches high
A conference speaker will adjust her tone and anecdotes depending on the crowd. That’s because a conference of designers has different interests and expertise than, say, a mob of teenagers at a concert. With his environment in mind, Tufte constructed “The Walking Wall,” his rural Connecticut answer to New York City’s High Line. Using elements from the area—the stones are from the plot of land—Tufte was able to mimic the area’s looks. Though it’s a wall, it doesn’t seem out of place. Tufte also brings the open space into the work—he describes the wall as 30 to 40 percent air—to mimic the feeling of the outdoor sculpture park.

Scale makes a difference

I-beam megalith, 2013, stone, steel, air, 23 x 11 x height 15 feet or 7.0 x 3.4 x height 4.6 meters Ace the dog, height 27 inches or 70 centimeters
Size has a lot of associations. Small works conjure humor and brevity, while oversized pieces can suggest awe and majesty. Depending on what type of emotions you want to evoke with your work—in addition to strongly considering the project and audience—scale can help. For Tufte’s pieces, the size and materials contribute to making them seem ancient or timeless.
Clay mockups at 1/48 scale
If you’re not convinced, check out Tufte’s clay mockups, completed at 1/48 scale. While they’re cute and funny, they’re certainly not breathtaking or “beyond words.” But given the scale and weight of the final stone works, these tiny examples likely came in handy. Open House: TBA Fall 2013 Hogpen Hill Farms  Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

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