Current projects: I’m wrapping up my tenth and final Annual Report, doing a couple client projects, and finishing up a book that should be released in the spring.
Mission: My primary mission is to help people understand the data that they generate, and to express themselves or tell stories using that data.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? I realized pretty early on that I wanted to work in design. Probably late middle school. I started getting internships in high school, working at a video production house and starting to do graphic and motion design. That led me to studying graphic design and starting my career in New York. But it wasn’t until around 2005 that I discovered the narrative potential of working with data, and how fulfilling I found it to work with.
Education: I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I got my undergraduate degree in graphic design. I’ve been working ever since.
First design job: My first design job out of school was at an advertising agency in New York. I was brought on at first to be an art director, and I was able to parlay that into a small, dedicated design group within the agency.
What was your big break? Working on the Annual Reports was certainly my big break, after several attempts of doing personal and professional projects that I thought would make a name for myself. It’s rooted in the same desire that drives journaling or a travel log, but is based on a single year. That was the one that truly started to carve out a substantial niche.
Inside the 2014 report. Felton began the project in 2005, weaving together information about his personal activities—where he’s traveled, the books he’s read, how much sleep he’s gotten, and much more—into dense, beautiful infographics.
From the 2013 report, which focused on Felton’s communications data
Describe your workspace: I have a shared office space in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard. We have a big white box with nice light and then a bunch of huge white tables with the requisite monitors and laptops everywhere. Eames chairs, nice shelves. Lots of books.
What is your most important tool? Certainly the laptop. Working with computers has made up for my inability to draw very well. A notebook is also very important for working out ideas.
What is the best part of your job? The most rewarding things I’ve done have been making products that have impacted other people’s lives. Taking some of the stuff I’ve learned in my own projects and translating that into experiences or applications that other people can use for their own goals. Working on the design of the Facebook timeline was probably the most impactful thing that I’ve done and maybe will do. On a smaller scale, there’s Reporter, which is an iOS app I released last year. It hasn’t had the kind of impact that timeline has, but on a personal level, meeting people who have said it’s improved their lives significantly—that’s always a great experience.
What is the worst part of your job? Working for myself. Not having help and trying to balance all the things that I want to do with generating an income and trying not to say no to great projects. The work-life balance gets kind of difficult sometimes.
Felton's desk in his Brooklyn studio
By delivering a few randomly timed surveys each day, Reporter attempts to measure and visualize subtle aspects of users' lives.
What time do you get up and go to bed? Usually I get up at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and go to bed around midnight.
How do you procrastinate? The Internet probably, but also just the ways that you trick yourself into thinking you’re getting stuff done. Like cleaning up your desk and reorganizing; those tasks that feel productive but are basically just designed to delay the inevitable things you don’t want to do.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? Right now I’m trying to sprint on a thing that has to be done today, so I quit my e-mail. Just turned it off. If I need to check it, I’ll check it on the phone, but I’m leaving it off on my computer to make sure that that little red dot is not going to distract me. I can’t ignore the notification in Mail if it’s there.
Felton’s labels for the winemaker Between Five Bells include seasonal temperature and rainfall data.
What is the best-designed object in your home? One that I sometimes marvel at is the Global knife set. They’re these Japanese knives that have a monolithic construction where the handle turns into the blade. Some of them were gifts but I started the collection myself, and I really take the time to appreciate them every once in a while.
Who is your design hero? I don’t know if he’s a hero but I have a lot of respect for Brian Eno. He’s a person who I think has done a good job with the work-life balance. I casually knew his music, but then I saw him speak once and was kind of transfixed. He also published a diary that was a year in his life. It was a very intimate way of learning some of the details about all the people he was collaborating with, and how he was putting on art exhibits at the same time he was working on music, traveling the globe, seeing his family and interacting with them. I’ve thought about that quite a bit since I read it. He seems to always be pushing himself, and he’s someone I certainly look up to.
For Wired, Felton visualized ten years of Wikipedia data.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Stubbornness. Pursuing one idea relentlessly. It has served me well.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? I think one of the things that’s not widely known is how much design factors into the systems we use continuously (or take for granted). Like all the design that goes into the typography and the systems that make the highway system work. I don’t know if people really contemplate the depth to which design is a functional part of our lives, and not just decorative.
What is exciting you in design right now? I’ve moved more and more into using code to create my design. So I tend to be pretty inspired by the people who are at the forefront of the field. I’m always trying to expand my abilities. Practice, practice, practice—to be able to make the kind of things that I want to create.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.