According to David McCandless, author of Data is Beautiful: “By visualising information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes: a sort of information map.” This is an apt description of what James Mason and Howard Smith do for runners (as well as cyclists and hikers) through their company Massif Central.
The idea for Massif Central came about after a 1,500km cycle ride, over 15 days, along the length of Italy. Mason describes how, once the challenge was over, the group who had cycled together thought the experience should be captured somehow.
With backgrounds in design (one is an architect and the other an interior designer), Mason and Smith got to work. They looked at all the available data – distance, speed, power, altitude gain, village names, funny moments and personal memories – and thought about how best to express all this different information. The Massif Central infographic print was born.
We take raw data and allow you to be proud of it
Data is at the heart of what Massif Central do. As Mason says when we meet in their shared studio in Hackney, north London: “The future is data.” Mason goes on to say that data is exciting because it is so new and so available, but that in many cases people don’t know what to do with it. According to Massif Central: “We take raw data and allow you to be proud of it.”
Part of “being proud” is the fact that Massif Central allows its customers to be part of the design process, making the end result as personal as possible. As well as talking to clients about the data, Mason and Smith will explore memories and even appropriate colours.
According to Mason, every commission for a personalised infographic poster presents its own challenges. In some cases – take the London Marathon, for example, which is one of Massif Central’s favourite races to illustrate – there is not a lot of elevation gain. But, as Mason points out: “There is always something that can be done to highlight what was special.”
Of course, whilst the ubiquity of data is something we take for granted now, that has not always been the case. In the case of the pioneers who ran the first ever Spartathlon in the early 1980s, there was no GPS data; there were no heart-rate monitors. Instead a combination of distance, altitude, dates and notes in a diary allowed Massif Central to create a beautiful and detailed memento of a ground-breaking run.
So what does the future hold for Massif Central? Well for starters, both Smith and Mason have to juggle their other work alongside managing the design and production of customers’ pieces of art. They are currently developing proprietary software that they hope will eventually empower athletes to create their own prints by uploading data directly. Of course, with the more complicated pieces involving heavy personalisation, human interaction will always be needed. But already their software has reduced the production time from more than two weeks for each piece to a matter of hours.
Smith and Mason are also excited about tackling the design requirements associated with other sports, such as triathlon, and new challenges. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is high on the list of races for which they would like to create an infographic poster – the backbone of the UTMB is distance, elevation and emotion… perfect for the Massif Central team to get their creative teeth into.