“I think that if data is expressed in the right ways and contextualized properly, it can be visualized in a way that people will understand it and gain something new from that perspective.”
This is the guiding principle of Data Design Co_, a startup founded by Brown College junior Brian Barr and Matthew Wettergreen, engineering design lecturer at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. Over the summer, the pair designed, manufactured and marketed a series of household objects that Barr says he hopes will change the way people look at data. The flagship product, “Houston: A Story of Sprawl in 5 Coasters,” illustrates the growth of the Houston metropolitan area from 1836 to the present day with glass drink coasters, each laser etched with a map of the city at a different point in time.
“We want to make objects that act as a conversation piece and can use data as a way to do that,” Barr said. “So this is interesting because if you had this at a dinner party or something like that you could look at it and compare between coasters. People could talk about how Houston has really grown.”
Barr said the coasters received positive feedback, and he plans to expand the project to encompass the gradual expansions of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. However, he said the long-term goal is to move beyond the coasters and continue creating novel tools for data visualization.
“This is one cool idea, but we have a whole bunch of things that fit within the umbrella of what we’re trying to do,” Barr said. “Like we make other household objects. And from there, I think we just need to focus on sales and focus on designing more things. So our goal is to come up with one product a month.”
The idea for the business stemmed from Barr’s final project for the course Fabrication and Design, a woodcut map of Houston in which zip codes were elevated to different heights based on the number of people registered to vote per capita.
“We thought it was pretty neat, but not very useful,” Barr said. “I use it as a jar opener now. But there’s something about seeing it so stark, where you have one section of a city is raised much higher than the other sections right in front of you.”
The initial inspiration led Barr and Wettergreen on a path to help others visualize and interact with data. The duo began brainstorming product ideas, figuring out supply chain logistics and filing for an LLC, culminating in the startup’s July launch. Barr said neither he nor Wettergreen had originally aimed to start a business, but they ended up finding a shared interest in the process.
“I don’t think it was so much that he was picking anybody to start a startup with,” Barr said. “I think we just had a really good working relationship, but also a creative relationship. It was something we were both invested in.”
When Data Design Co_ first started, Barr and Wettergreen funded the venture out of pocket, manufacturing the items themselves and covering the cost of materials. However, for Barr, it was never about the money.
“This is what you’d call a lifestyle business,” Barr said. “It makes just enough money to sustain itself. If I wanted to make a ton of money, we would’ve done something else. But this gives me a chance to exercise a set of skills that aren’t really addressed by other aspects of the engineering curriculum.”
Barr said while he wishes Rice’s engineering programs offered more design opportunities, some of his most valuable experiences came from looking outside the curriculum.
“There’s no formal program in design, so you should create your own, do things that interest you,” Barr said. “So I think just working on projects on your own, even if you don’t launch a business or manufacture anything, just going through the exercises will help you build up a portfolio. I think taking art classes is good, just doing it on your own. It’s not too hard.”