Wednesday, May 4, 2011 1:01 AM UTC

Inventing a genealogy for the digital age

A designer tells the story of his father's life in stunning visual form

Inventing a genealogy for the digital age

I held a man’s life in my hands. It was red and blue with gold foil stamping. I was looking at the life of Gordon Felton, originally Gunter Fajgenbaum, as compiled by his son, information designer Nicholas Felton. For the last six years, Felton has generated the Feltron annual report, a self-portrait of aggregated personal data (which he meticulously collects), such as beers consumed or concerts attended. But last September his father passed away, and shortly afterward, while going through his belongings, Nicholas discovered a database of treasures — artifacts that he has used to design a visual synopsis of his father’s life.



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton

The report is a brilliantly innovative piece of genealogy. Page one graphically showcases the 4,348 items Nicholas found and used to construct a 12-page tribute, cataloging Gordon’s life and travels. The book is a timeline that follows from Gordon’s birth in Berlin to his childhood in England and his migration to the West — first to Canada before settling, sort of, in California. Intertwined between these locations are snapshots of Gordon’s DNA — his grade school reports, the postcards, passports and slides he kept, and his libraries of music and books. Every field of information is distilled so cleanly that you discover a rich legacy upon each glance — his best subject was math, he traveled to 1,011 locations, and he purchased seven Volvos.



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton

The homage offers both a macro and micro lens, presenting a long view of Gordon’s life, but also providing the kind of rich, intimate detail that reveals his personality. The center spread, for example, plots a spider web of travel routes so dense that it is not necessary to have the world map behind it to know what you are looking at. The intricate graphic could only be the fingerprint of one individual: he spent the mid-1930s in Nazi Germany, visited Machu Picchu in 1962, rode the trans-Siberian rail in 1968, and vacationed in Honolulu in 1992. There may be just eight photos — all passport portraits — illustrating it, but the richness of Gordon’s life is apparent.



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton



Image courtesy of Nicholas Felton

I collaborated with Nicholas multiple times when I was the creative director at Metropolis magazine. I never met Gordon. It was great to get to know a little more about both of them.

Read more about Nicholas Felton and his recent collaboration with Facebook.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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