The Knewton Blog

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

Generation Flux: Design and Data Storytelling

Posted in Knerds on February 13, 2012 by

Conventional career wisdom encourages delayed gratification, steady commitment to a single career or skill set, and a long and slow climb up a traditional corporate ladder. Traditionally, most cultural, educational, corporate, and political establishments do not support rapid change. Recently, however, the fluctuating pecking order–the swift ascent of giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga and the dramatic downfall of other companies has suggested that times are changing. To chronicle this chaotic new reality, Robert Safian at FastCompany published an article which identified speed, chaos, and uncertainty as defining qualities of business in the twenty-first century: “The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating–fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies–and our visibility about the future is declining.”

For some, this is a distressing trend. Many long for the “old days” when one could purportedly sit back, pay one’s taxes, and expect some security and certain life progression. Others, however–Safian identifies them as GenFlux–have survived and even thrived in the new economic climate. Safian defines the GenFlux mindset as one that “embraces instability, that tolerates–and even enjoys–recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions.”

In the spirit of GenFlux, we decided to interview some of the fluxers here at Knewton. Their eclectic talent and out-of-the-box approach are imbued in both the products and the culture of our company. This post will feature Master Data Storyteller, Franc Camps-Febrer who holds a degree in neuroscience and Visual Designer, Abigail Ricarte who started her own headband company, Bambako before coming to Knewton.

CY: What do each of you do here at Knewton?          

Franc: I work as a data storyteller. This means that I look at the data coming from different origins… students, academics, technical and some business measures… with an inquisitive attitude and explore the narrative in it through statistical analysis. The goal is to find a story in the data that is informative and useful and that will help people make effective decisions. For information to be useful it needs to be readily understandable and easily accessible. The best way to do that is to present it visually, so that the digestion of that information occurs in a natural and intuitive way.

Abby: I’m a jazzhand weaver of dreams. No, but really, I’m a visual designer. Half of my time is spent designing and iterating on pages for our marketing website and campaigns and half of my time is allotted to helping design our student-facing products. This entails working with our brilliant team of user experience and interaction designers.

CY: Abby, tell me a bit about how you made the switch from marketing to design.

Abby: When I started at Knewton, I started as a social media intern and this led to a full-time position as social media coordinator. Since I knew Photoshop, it was easy to make changes to things like banners on the fly. Working at a startup, there’s ample opportunity to wear different hats. Rapidly, my marketing design work evolved into more robust projects. During this period, a position opened within Knewton for a junior user interface designer. I applied and switched from being a social media coordinator to a designer.

CY: 5 years ago, did you see yourself working in tech or edtech? How did you find your way here?

Franc: Definitely not. I started looking seriously at my interests in technology and the startup culture just when I moved to the US from Barcelona. Most of my educational background and work experience was in science. I was in grad school for neuroscience, but always felt that the academic research environment was not where I could contribute and grow the most. I had some background in communication, too, and started developing my skills in design and focusing my programming abilities on data visualization. It felt like the natural way to go because it seemed to pull together a lot of my interests, more so than any other field.

Abby: No, but in college I always imagined myself ending up at a company that had an altruistic edge to it. I had no idea what user experience design was in college, but I certainly knew that I wanted to be dealing with the web and interfaces. They interested me from a very early age from the days of AOL profiles and making pages on Geocities and Angelfire.

In college, I was on a track to work at a record label. I majored in marketing, and all my internships were at record labels. By senior year, I had my own radio show on the college radio station. I decided to start a music blog just because this made it easier to keep track of artists. That was my first foray into social media.

CY: So you started Bambako, your headband company, after college?   

Abby: So this is how the story goes… I wanted something nice to wear in my hair for a friend’s party. I went to Urban Outfitters, saw a headband that cost $40. I knew I could make it (I had the time, too, had just finished of school, didn’t have a job). So I went to an arts and crafts store that night, got the supplies, and made a headband. After that, I just had to keep going. I made 10 by the end of that night, didn’t end up going to my friend’s party. Then came the epiphany: I needed something on my resume to prove that I could “social media the shit out of something” and what better way to do this than to start my own company?

The day after this revelation, I made more headbands. By mid-week, I took photos of all the headbands and made a website. By the end of the week, I had a website for my company. It was a total adrenaline rush. I remember not sleeping for the whole night and working for hours straight until 11 AM or so, and then crashing.

CY: So what was your strategy? How did you end up getting in some of the hottest fashion magazines out there?

Abby: I don’t know if this was the best strategy in retrospect, but back then I knew there were certain bloggers I wanted to contact, so I made a hit list of 500+ bloggers. I contacted a few per day and simply did not stop. I wanted to be as genuine as possible, so I took the time to write a personal email to every single blogger. Slowly I got some good mentions.

CY: Instyle, Glamour, Vogue, Elle, Self, NY Daily News, right? All this happened in the span of 3-4 months? And I know you got into some really great retailers too.             

Abby: Yes, it was crazy and it all happened very quickly. The main challenge here was scaling a handmade business.

CY: Franc, are you working on any side projects right now outside of work?

Franc: New York is a very exciting place to try out artistic initiatives, but it also consumes your time really fast, which can be conflicting. I’m trying to find some time to start DJing again and get a little music project started.

One of the projects that I would like to develop this year is to find a solid way of combining data visualization with information taken from how people dance during a DJ set. I’m trying to figure out any possible solid measures from dance and work on some sort of visual interaction there.

CY: To wrap it up, do either of you have any advice for young people shaping their careers and looking to navigate these tricky economic times?

Franc: I think that one of the qualities worth working on in such a confusing economic environment is the ability to reinvent oneself. You can get a lot out of the effort of looking at the skills you already own from new perspectives. For me, it is important to dare having interests that are diverse. It is good to nurture that diversity because it allows you to learn faster and be rapidly adaptive.   

CY: Yeah, that totally makes sense. The idea of “daring” to have interests that are diverse.

Franc: It looks like the main characteristic of the economic landscape of our time is instability. Changes are fast and of great magnitude. The wider your reach and the shorter your reaction time, the better.

CY: Super solid advice. What about you Abby?

Abby: Learn how to multitask and work at a level that’s fast-paced and on tight deadlines. If you don’t have deadlines, impose them on yourself! This will help you think on your feet and develop unconventional campaigns. It will also help you evaluate your progress constantly and iterate on plans. Also, if you want to do something–just teach yourself or don’t be afraid to ask questions. The great thing about working at Knewton is being surrounded and inspired by a team with such diverse interests and talents.

Stay tuned for our next post to meet more Generation Flux Knewtonians!