An Interview with Generative Artist, Kristin Henry
This post is the first in a series of interviews with Data Visualization folks. In these posts, I will be interviewing friends, former colleagues, and others whose work I find inspiring. It will be interesting to see how differently everyone approaches their craft, found themselves practicing data visualization and any other unique quality they would like to share.
Like many practicing data visualization, Kristin Henry can’t define easily. Kristin currently describes herself as a generative artist. She combines her background in math, biology, and computer science to generate pleasurable pieces to inspire, engage, and educate.
For those who haven’t heard the term generative art, it is an art form that features systems as their key ingredient. Even if you have heard the term before, but you aren’t familiar with the history, like I was, you can read a full paper on the subject here.
Again, systems are the key to this art form. You can think Kristin work as writing instructions for the painters brush via the algorithms. Being the scientists she is, you will notice themes in her art stemming from subjects rarely viewed through any other means than a microscope or a CT scan.
Here is one of Kristin’s work illustrating an abstract system of neurons.
Being someone curious about how Kristin has continued to hone her craft over the years, I took the liberty to run a few questions past her.
Our conversation will shed light on how you might want to think about your journey into generative artistry or merely broaden your perspective by taking a look at the world of development through Kristin's eyes.
What skill is most important in your work?
The most common skill Kristin finds herself relying on is her savvy skill in data management. Specifically, restructuring data to meet the needs of her visualization.
For those higher up the stack, you'll think of this as the transformation piece of your data pipeline.
Kristin loves using Python for her restructuring work. She has used much lower level languages, so the ease Python brings her is more than welcome.
What's a key takeaway from your years of experience?
Kristin brings a depth of knowledge to her work. She’s in continuously adopting the best contemporary methods technology has to offer. When asked what she has learned over the years, she told me that while it is very tempting to try and write clever code, this can come back to bite you later.
Today Kristin practices writing the cleanest code she can. She doesn’t want to spend days trying to understand what was going through her head during a time when she was deeply engaged in a problem. No, she needs to understand what is going on with her code when she has to revisit it weeks, months or even years later.
Others are likely going to be maintaining your code. Is it’ right to write code only you can understand for the sake of looking clever?
What tips would share with others just starting out?
Pause and celebrate
When you achieve something, no matter how minuscule, it’s worth a little mini celebration. Pat yourself on the back. Flex a smile. Be proud of what you have accomplished. It's vital that you enjoy what you are doing, so it doesn't become "work."
Research shows that the more fun we have with our tasks, the more likely we are to continue doing them, duh. If you are want to grow, consistent practice is critical, so make it fun!
Define when you are done in advance
As developers, we can make improvements indefinitely. Kristin has found herself working on problems much longer than was required to deliver solely because of a drive to make her code just a bit better. Over the years she has learned to question whether that improvement is warranted. She is reminded of this regularly in her InkDays.
Asks the question, is my improvement solving the problems that matter most? Set a clear objective to keep yourself on a productive path and don't forget to sleep!
Don’t be cute with your code or at least explain why in the comments. Kristin finds her work living longer when it's more clearly written. So, spend that extra time on your comments, white space, and variable names.
Those variable names should be short
Functions should describe what they do. If you have to tab complete to write the function or variable name, then it far too long. Short and sweet naming conventions make your functions more usable.
Want to connect with Kristin?
Purchase a piece?
There is much more to Kristin than what was covered here so do get in touch.
Kristin is Bay Area-based, where she works with leading-edge tech companies to visualize their data. I know she’d be down to talk about innovative ways of educating the youth on art and science. Here's her most recent contribution to the maker fair on Medium.