What is Data?

Data-Design Dictionary
A dictionary to illuminate data-driven generative design and creative coding.


According to the origin of the term, data is ‘something given’, which initially has no meaning. It is information obtained by records, observations, measurements, statistical procedures or similar, which describe reality in the most objective – mostly numerical – way possible. In the case of data-driven generative design, data is understood as units of information that can be processed by the computer, for example, differences in the perception of physical states collected by sensors and measuring instruments. There exist two fundamentally different types of data:

Qualitative data are expressions of aspects of our world whose properties must be perceived and interpreted.[1] For example, it is about whether a statement is funny or whether a design is pleasing to the eye.

Quantitative data are immediate expressions of data such as perceptions that are measurable and can be expressed in numbers.[1] Examples of this are the expression of temperature in Celsius, precipitation in millimeters or volume in decibels.

Within the context of computational thinking, systems thinking and generative design, data enables the fundamental flow of the InputOutput pattern.

Data is what we use to gather our knowledge about the world, on which we base our findings and make statements about potential futures. It helps us to assess our athletic performance (How much time do I need to cover a distance of 800 meters?), serves as a basis for predicting future weather events (How likely is it that I will need shorts in Dublin in November?) or for evaluating investment options (Should I invest my money in Bitcoin or in real estate?). As unexciting as it may sound at first glance, most of the knowledge we gather as humans is based on a table full of numbers.

Data plays a central role in social, political and economic life. In the course of digitalization, its presence in our private lives is also growing. No longer bound to space-consuming data carriers such as stone, precious metal or paper, we can carry it around with us on handy devices and wearables. With the increasing capacity of our memories in ever smaller spaces, it is also no wonder that data is now collected at every possible opportunity.

The problem is that most people have neither the skills nor the interest to read or evaluate series of figures and tables. People are needed to give form to the numbers, to put them in relation to each other and to the world for us and thus make them legible for everyone: designers take on this task. Whether individual, like a fashion designer who tailors the right item of clothing for us based on our body measurements, place of residence and occasion, or mass-produced, like a UX designer who determines how our Smartwatch displays our movement progress using easy-to-read graphics. Data is everywhere – and so is design.

[1] Cf. Jürgen Bortz, Nicola Döring: Forschungsmethoden und Evaluation, Berlin/Heidelberg 2006, p. 32, p. 222
The bigger picture of designing and branding with data: