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Alumni Spotlight: Anna Hodgson

Posted on October 4, 2016

Anna Hodgson, a 2012 School of Journalism and Mass Communications visual communications major, is fascinated by data visualization, where investigative journalism meets creative design. 

Talk a little bit about your path since graduating from the University of South Carolina in 2012. How did you end up in Switzerland?

Three months after I graduated from USC, I moved to New York City. I gave myself two weeks to find an apartment in Brooklyn and a job — and magically it worked. My first job was working for Zago, a small strategic design firm. My responsibilities were quite reflective of the skills I accumulated as a VisCom (visual communications) student — so, everything from animation, videography and photography to digital product design, print design and branding strategy. The team at Zago is still to this day the most inspiring group of people I have ever worked with.

While in New York, I volunteered to help organize design conferences. One of those is Visualized. Visualized is typically a two-day event with a lineup of speakers with backgrounds like data analysis, information design and storytelling. In my second year of working the conference, I met two people that changed the courses of both my career and personal paths.

The first is the founder of Pitch Interactive, a data visualization studio in Oakland, California. After the conference, we exchanged information and I ended up going out to California to interview and meet with the team.

When people ask me what fascinates me so much about data visualization, I have to say that I think it is the perfect mix of my skills as a designer and my educational background as a journalist. The goal of data visualization is to communicate — to grab attention and help an audience engage with data (or content) in a way that the result is an increased understanding. I think a good investigative journalist aims for the same.

So I packed my bags and drove across the country to take the job at Pitch. I worked on digital and print visualizations for a range of clients including Scientific American, Google, Facebook and Mozilla. Every single day was challenging, and though the life-work balance is much more relaxed in California, the projects required a significant amount of learning before I could start designing.

The second person I met at Visualized is my now husband, the co-founder and managing director of Interactive Things, a data-driving design studio in Zürich, Switzerland. The organizers of Visualized are friends of ours, and they take all credit (and we’re happy to give it) for their first conference-inspired marriage. I moved to Switzerland in the summer of 2015 and decided to pursue my master’s degree at Zürich University of the Arts. I must admit that moving to Switzerland was overwhelming, and returning to school gave me two important opportunities. The first: to softly integrate to the system, the people, the language and the culture. The second: to spend the time to do design research on a few topics I was exposed while working at Pitch.

Did you graduate with the intention of living abroad, or was leaving the States an unexpected move for you?

I studied abroad in Groningen, the Netherlands through USC in the spring and summer of 2011. That experience changed my life, and when I returned to South Carolina, I became heavily involved with the Study Abroad Office. It’s always been my dream to live abroad and I think both personally and as a designer, it is extremely valuable. Living, studying and working abroad has confronted me in ways I would never have been should I have lived in the States my entire life.

You’re currently pursuing a master’s degree in emotion visualization at ZHdkK. Can you talk a little bit about your coursework and some of the projects you’re working on now?

My masters project is focused on emotion visualization and investigates whether a visual system can assist patients in a therapeutic setting in expressing the nuances of complex emotions. My basic argument is that we shouldn’t force patients into using a common spoken language, as is standard in traditional talk therapy, when they might not have an ample emotion vocabulary. Instead, we should develop a tool (or a language) which merges words and numbers with color, shape and pattern to help patients learn and express their own emotionality and give them some tangibility to emotion as a concept.

ZHdK is, in so many ways, the absolute opposite of my experience at USC. Before USC, my dream was art school. I was very lucky growing up and I didn’t have to worry about saving up for college or going into debt getting a bachelor’s degree. That being said, art school was financially out of the question. I have no regrets. I think USC was the perfect place for me to learn and experiment, but maybe that small desire to go to art school was still there.

I have never had so much freedom to do my own work. My master’s is a research masters in visual communications. Essentially my only job is to read, write and design and defend it. This is terrifying. I think you spend your bachelor’s and your first few jobs thinking how much better a project might be if you could just do it however you wanted to do it. Then when the tables are turned and faculty don’t teach you, they just judge you and hopefully give you a diploma at the end. There’s a good word in German for this: bewerten. It means to assess or to evaluate. Which sounds mostly harmless, or at least what a faculty member should do. But as an English speaker, I break the translation down a bit more dramatically. Wert means worth, and when someone “bewerts” you, they basically give you worth or take it away.

So I’m spending a year and a half doing a project that I believe is innovative and incredibly valuable to a few fields of research, but like everyone else in my class, I’ll be praying to the art gods that it is of worth.

How did you get involved with SCSPA and SIPA? How did those programs shape your interest in visual communications and design?

In high school I was involved in both the multimedia (Silver Screen weekly news) and print (The Renaissance newspaper) student journalism outlets. SCSPA, SIPA and CJI were of course experiences all of us really looked forward to each year because we could meet and compete with students from around the state. It’s funny thinking back on it now, but I don’t know that SCSPA, SIPA and CJI encouraged my interests in design or documentary/photojournalism. I think, instead, taking part in these workshops tricked me into learning more subtle skills like writing, effectively communicating through various media and questioning everything. These skills have become much more valuable in the evolution of my career and probably in the evolution of my personality as well.

What are your favorite memories from SCSPA and SIPA events? What did you learn or experience from those conferences and conventions that still sticks with you today?

I think first and foremost, without SCSPA, SIPA, CJI, Amy Medlock-Greene and the journalism program at Dutch Fork High School, I would have never studied visual communications at the University of South Carolina or here at Zurich University of the Arts. Medlock-Greene taught all of her students to be curious and critical and to follow and explore our own interests. Taking part and being awarded for our work in the statewide journalism events reinforced this approach to doing journalistic work. Even though I transitioned into doing more design focused work, I think this same approach is reflected in my projects and career path.

What was it like coming back to teach a design workshop at CJI in 2014? What did you learn or take away from the experience?

Teaching at CJI left a great impression on me. I co-taught with Zac Baker, with whom I also worked with on Silver Screen in high school. Though we were in teaching positions, we learned so much from each other and our students. It sounds silly, but the fearlessness and genuine curiosity of our students was incredibly inspiring. Being a part of CJI reminded me how important it is to retain those characteristics when approaching my work as a designer. I think “in the real world” it’s very easy to fall into a routine that doesn’t require one to have a consistently inquisitive spirit.  

Whats next for you after you graduate with your masters degree?

Going back to university for my master’s has also encouraged me to rethink my career goals. I’m still interested in continuing to work in data visualization but I am also exploring some opportunities in doing more investigative and research-based projects.

What advice do you have for scholastic journalists, editors and students interested in design?

I think one of my biggest struggles after I graduated from my bachelor’s was my extremely general skillset. Leaving school with not a design degree, but a journalism degree made me a bit insecure when presenting myself to design studios. It’s taken many inspiring and intelligent people in the last five years to convince me how valuable a person with a wide set of interests and skills is for a creative agency. The storytelling process in design is much similar to that in journalism and in most cases the difference is only the final artifact. So it is not what a student can do technically with a camera or software, it is their approach and their process that matters the most. If they can communicate these two things well, they will find interesting and satisfying work in whatever field of work they go into.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.