From the Orbital Library: Isle-to-Isle

Interviewing project collaborators Berny Tan and Sher Chew on the intersections of design, literature, and data visualization

Isle-to-Isle is a collaborative data visualization project by Sher Chew and Berny Tan. Each week, the two read 10 pages from Jules Verne’s classic “scientific romance,” The Mysterious Island, and seperately make a graph representing the book’s content. Their work is published on the project’s website, alongside the corresponding passage by Verne.

In the novel, a group of Americans, led by the railroad engineer Cyrus Harding, hijack a balloon to escape imprisonment by the South during the American Civil War. The balloon drifts to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, where the men create their own microcosm of 19th century civilization. A century and a half after its publication, The Mysterious Island continues to influence literature and popular culture, with numerous adaptations and spin-offs in print, movies, and television, including the computer game Myst.

Isle-to-Isle evolved out of a shared interest in design and a desire to explore different ways reading and interpreting text. In that sense, the project’s inception resembled Verne’s fictive voyage into unknown territory. Neither Sher Chew nor Berny Tan had read the book before. The novel was chosen at random, based on its length and conventional narrative structure. Other parallels emerged. The two designers moved from Singapore to that other insular powerhouse of commerce, Manhattan. Isles to isles—the homophonic word pair also reflected the search for suitable material. The Mysterious Island was discovered, so to speak, by browsing New York’s famous Strand bookstore, the name itself being another name for level, sandy shore.

As of this writing, Isle-to-Isle is halfway finished. I corresponded with Sher Chew and Berny Tan to find out more about the project and get their take on recent developments in the technology of reading, writing, and designing. 

Matthew Spencer: Were there other contenders to Jules Verne?

Berny Tan: No, but not in the sense that we were set on choosing Jules Verne. We didn’t approach this project wanting to tackle any specific author or narrative. We went around the bookstore looking for something that fit the parameters that we were actually developing as we were searching. For example, it had to be approximately 500 pages so that we could work on it for a year, it had to be fiction, neither of us should have read it, and so on. The Mysterious Island was pretty much the last book that we picked up at the end of a two-hour search, and we really chose it regardless of the author or out of any real desire to read it. The fact that Jules Verne relies on a lot of pseudo-science, which lends itself to our diagrammatic approach, was more of a happy coincidence than anything else.


MS: Has diagramming the novel changed the way that you visualize the novel while reading?

BT: We gave a talk about this project recently, and someone asked us if we were enjoying the book. I said, “We’re not enjoying the book, but we’re enjoying the project.” At this point, I’m reading the novel with the explicit goal of trying to formulate a diagram, or rather with the hope that something, even a sentence, would strike me as diagrammatic. If I were to verbalize what is happening in my mind as I read it, it’s almost as if flashes of a graph, table, illustration, or set of data forms vaguely and then quickly disintegrates as I eliminate each option. Simultaneously, I’m visualizing the characters on top of a mountain, in their cavern, on the beach, hunting animals… Of course, sometimes it’s a complete blank.

Sher Chew: Reading is hardly ever a visual experience for me. Not in a tangible sense anyway. When I read I usually just experience abstracted flashes of color, nothing is completely embodied. Diagramming the novel (and other texts) actually aids me in seeing and better engaging with the content.


MS: Have you thought about reversing the process, meaning generation of text narratives based on your diagrams?

BT: I haven’t thought about this reverse process, but I’ve considered an extension of this project that relates a little to what you’re saying. I would love to do a final infographic that analyses all of my own diagrams across the 50 weeks. In that sense, I would be trying to discover a narrative within my creations—what could the diagrams say about this period in my life, or how my relationship with the novel changed over time? How was I responding to Sher’s ideas? On the other hand, our aesthetics change so much from week to week that I suspect that I wouldn’t be able to put together a cohesive narrative, or even assess any kind of pattern.

SC: This is an interesting proposition and actually highlights one of my favorite aspects of the project—visual, conceptual, and material heterogeneity. As this is a personal project, neither of us have any obligation to “correctly” represent the information by any means, which gives us a lot of freedom to experiment. This idiosyncrasy in output provides different entry points by which others access the narrative, subverting the pedagogical tendencies of graphs and maps. Berny especially has been quite adept in using different materials to physically build her diagrams.

The mercurial nature in which we communicate the data we have gathered/identified creates incongruity that would be difficult for a writer to synthesize. Due to the ambiguity of language and the changeable nature of words, subjective interpretation is an inherent by-product of the analysis of qualitative information; for “we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” This is not so much a predicament as it is exciting.


MS: Now that you’re roughly halfway through, how has your approach changed toward the project?

BT: In the first few weeks, I was really approaching the narrative like an average reader. I really wanted to experience the story first and foremost, and then generate the diagram later. I do still want to follow the story now that I’m invested in it, but I’m finding it difficult to maintain the empathy that I once had for the characters. I don’t think this is because of the project, but because of certain issues of power and colonization that have emerged in the narrative, and with which I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I still use those emotions to drive my generation of the diagrams.

SC: When we started the project, I used to work on the diagrams at the beginning of the week. However, at about 24–25 weeks in, I now read the ten pages an hour or two before the time to submit. I find that my capacity to problem-solve is expedited by a shorter time frame. Although, I must admit, when the diagrams don’t appear by midnight on Sunday, it’s usually my fault.


MS: At this point, do you see this project as an “interesting experiment,” something that’s served its purpose but is relatively limited in its application? Or is this something that’s more scalable, where elements of the project can be integrated in your own future design practice or the design practices of others?

BT: I don’t know if this will have any practical application on a larger scale, but I certainly feel that the project implies a degree of openness and possibility about both reading classics and visualizing data. These are acts that are understood to be very academic in their own ways, and we’re really overturning those expectations by insisting on our very personal interpretations of the text.

I will probably not have a “design practice.” Sher is primarily a designer, while I am and will be juggling multiple roles in the visual arts. What I’m really appreciating about this project is how it gives me the outlet to create consistently and in small bursts, while relieving the pressure to create a Gesamtkunstwerk. I find this structure much more liberating than if I had an infinite amount of time to work in a studio.

SC: I think at the back of our minds, Berny and I always had bigger aspirations for the project. We believe in its potential to take on a more consummate form and have toyed around with compiling our collective diagrams into a book or exhibition. Given the changeable nature of the project, we are trying not to confine ourselves to any concrete assumptions about the final output and will wait until all 50 diagrams are done before deciding what direction to take.

This project has been an extremely humbling experience for me, forcing me to rethink and confront certain biases within my own design practice. It has opened my mind to the endless possibilities by which one can approach qualitative information and how to manifest it. I gradually weaned off a self-imposed stipulation of specificity that caused me so much grief at the start of the project. The issue of “subjectivity”—which in some sense I had initially considered to be an impairment in my processing of the information—I now view as an illuminating tool, a way to “embody new perspectives” within the text.

I always thought that the prerequisites of “successful design” were responsibility, resolution, and functionality; however, that measure has since extended into something far more ambiguous. A work of design, despite not being explicit in utility, is effective if it can serve as a catalyst for new ideas.



Matthew Spencer is a writer, born and raised in western Colorado, who lives in Seattle, Washington. He worked as an English-language teaching assistant for the 2013-14 academic year in the town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. He blogs about art, music, history, and literature at Unpaginated.

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