Revealing Patterns in Sustainable Design


A case study exploring the development of Second Story’s iPad app for Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. 

Last year, the Harvard Graduate School of Design approached us with a large red book called Ecological Urbanism—they were interested in transforming the publication into an interactive app. We spent some time with the book, investigating the content, speaking with designers and practitioners, and brainstorming with Harvard, trying to work out new entry points and ways of “reading.” We faced a deep chasm of a creative challenge, but also one that was incredibly interesting. How do you translate an encyclopedia of information for an interactive experience without disrupting the content or making new types of content? And, on top of that, how do you allow it to grow organically as a publishing tool? 

Redefining What It Means to Read 

We approached the collection from a visual perspective, trying to glean commonalities between the stories. What other ways could a reader enter the content? Collaborating with Harvard, we started deconstructing the stories and reassembling them in visual modes. After analyzing the diversity of projects, we found similarities in scale, geography, and time. The connections in the data encouraged us to create a dynamic experience using the visualization as an entry point. Essentially, we were seeking common threads of data and how we might weave that data into a meaningful path. 

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Early wireframes

Picture This 

Ecological Urbanism is about sustainable design: where it’s happening, how it’s happening, when it happened, and on what scale. Taking our cue from this distillation of the content, we conceived of an experience where the stories could be accessed through visual portals. Readers can enter through a map, a data visualization based on time and scale, or a pictorial index. With each visualization, we had to consider: how will this design withstand growth? Even though we started with about 50 stories, we had to anticipate and design an app that could support ten times that number. 

Repeat After Me  

Visualizations provide multiple entry points to the content, but they also provide an additional function that is just as valuable. By organizing the stories visually, the data began revealing underlying patterns. For scholars and readers, observing global patterns is a fantastic tool for scholarship, but this method of discovery isn’t limited to academia, it is also generally accessible to the curious mind. 

Because of the patterns hidden in the book—patterns you can’t see just by reading the articles—we designed a system that allows more patterns to emerge with the anticipated growth of the collection. As the volume of stories expands, more and more patterns will emerge. In the coming years, we can’t wait to see the app and experience how it has grown, shifted, and settled into its skin. 

Here’s a video demo of the finished project:

And if you want to download the app, you can find it here on iTunes.

—Michael Neault, Content & Media Producer


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

Posted in Content, Design