Adobe senior experience designer Bernard Kerr's data visualization tool Project Lincoln might become a feature in a future Adobe product. (Courtesy Adobe Max Twitter feed.)

Published: October 20th, 2017

LAS VEGAS – Future Adobe products could allow users to present data in creative, eye-catching ways, if this year’s Adobe Sneaks is anything to go by.

When tasked with visualizing data, Adobe senior experience designer Bernard Kerr said, most people choose one of three approaches: Converting data into a rudimentary template like those found in Microsoft Excel; drawing a visual from scratch; or coding one yourself. The first, he said, is too rigid, the second too time-consuming, and the third too hard.

Enter Project Lincoln, which converts data into beautiful visuals as easy to produce as a bar graph in Excel. The secret, Kerr explained, was his decision to invert the usual data visualization process: rather than starting with data before converting it into visual form, Lincoln starts by inviting users to design an eye-catching graphic first, then allows them to bind it to whatever data they like.

“[With Lincoln], any of the individual properties of something you’ve drawn could be bound to data,” he said. “So its position, size, colour, even text could be bound to data. And it’s driven by drawing tools built on top of the drawing tools you already know and love.”

Kerr was one of 11 Adobe employees showcasing a groundbreaking feature to the 12,000 attendees at the company’s Adobe Max conference on Oct. 19. Each of the so-called “sneaks” were presented to the audience for feedback and, depending on how well they were received, may someday be incorporated into a future Adobe product. The newly-released Adobe XD started life as a sneak.

To demonstrate his feature, Kerr designed a graphic measuring how far his friend and occasional Sneak host Kim Chambers swam while finishing the Seven Swims of a Lifetime challenge in 2014.

(Only seven people have completed the challenge, which requires participants to cross seven treacherous stretches of water – the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland; the Cook Strait between New Zealand’s North and South Islands; the Molokai Channel between Hawaii’s Oahu and Molokai islands; the English Channel between England and France; the Catalina Channel near Southern California; the Tsugaru Channel between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan; and Strait of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa – while following traditional marathon swimming rules; that is, they cannot wear a wetsuit and cannot rest on a boat at any time.)

To graph Chambers’ North Channel swim, Kerr uploaded a simple spreadsheet listing the times each swimmer that completed the Seven Swims challenge posted, and uploaded each one’s name, time, sex, and nationality to his sample project.

“So if I want to make a bar chart, I just make a bar the size, shape, and colour that I want, and then when I hit the repeat grid, I get a bar of each of those swimmers,” Kerr explained. “I can select the right-hand side and bind it to the time variable, and now all these bar points are bound to time and I can adjust them with an axis control… I can combine that with the swimmers’ names. I can do the same for time.”

Because Kerr was working with an Adobe product, he also added a clipart picture of a swimmer to his blue bars, and then tied the image to the swimmer’s gender, so that the men and women were represented by swimmers in bathing suits that corresponded to their sex. He then added flags which he tied to each swimmer’s nationality.

We apologize, but this poorly shot photograph of Kerr’s Lincoln project is the only visual support we have for this story. (Click for a larger version.)

“Now that I have my design here, I can apply all of these bindings to each of the other swims,” Kerr explained, quickly switching Chambers’ North Channel data with the results from some of her other swims.

“So now they automatically get regenerated based on the data,” Kerr said.

For users who don’t consider bar graphs their cup of tea, Kerr also produced a series of weather radials depicting the average daily highest and lowest temperatures in a series of cities throughout the year.

Adobe does not reveal which platforms its sneaks may eventually appear on, though as Sneaks host and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani remarked, “I have to say, this is the first time I’ve heard a crowd cheer about data visualization.”

Other sneaks showcased at this year’s Adobe Sneaks included Scribbler, a feature that uses Adobe’s AI-powered Sensei platform to instantly colour in monochromatic drawings; and a series of features that use Sensei to subtly and automatically replace the unwanted portion of an image or footage with appropriate content: Scene Stitch, Cloak, and Deep Fill.

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