Death by Design
A data visualisation detective story
Meeting Room 13.3, Floor 13, Mary Meade Marple
10.30 Design Department Team Meeting
A dead woman in a meeting room.
Shirley Holmes, MD of Whimsey Media, sitting dead in a locked meeting room. Dead, stripped naked and paint from head to foot a bright and startling orange.
We didn't have our team meeting that morning.
We, in this case, are:
We'd been working on a painful rebranding for Whimsey Media - the most difficult thing had been the colour palette but Blake solved it, finding an ancient tin of paint in his father’s shed - a bright and startling orange.
Then, the day before launch, one last round of feedback came:
Shirley doesn't like orange.
And now, here she was, Shirley, dead in our meeting room and suddenly we’re all suspects.
All murder mysteries need three things
Motive: We all had one. Shirley's opinion of orange had ruined two months of torturous work.
Means: The tin of orange paint contained Xylene, an additive long since banned for being toxic.
Opportunity: Rigor mortis suggested Shirley had died at around 21:00 the previous evening - so who had been in the building at that time?
"Data! Data! Data!" he cried impatiently.
"I can't make bricks without clay."
- Sherlock Holmes,
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
Traditional murder mysteries are solved with data: train timetables, who was in the library with the ornamental dagger during supper, what time workers swiped in and out of an office building with their security passes. A building like ours for instance.
My name is Linus Sweet. I'm one of the suspects. I am at this point, in fact, the leading suspect, since it’s my security pass that’s the last to swipe out of the building the night of the murder. I am, however, not a murderer. I am an information designer. But am I a good enough one to analyse the data around the mystery, to clear my name and find out who really killed Shirley Holmes?
Take the air conditioning - the data shows it was turned on full in Meeting Room 13.3 at 18:32 and left like that all night. It got pretty cold in there. Cold enough to delay the onset of rigor mortis, putting the time of death back to around 19:00. When Blake and Hera were also in the office.
So I'm still not off the hook, but at least I’m not alone there now. Blake and Hera have opportunity now too. But there’s a problem: we have motion sensitive lights, and the lights in the office turned off at 17:56. So were Blake and Hera just sitting motionless in the dark until they left an hour and half later?
But the lights did stay on in Room 13.4 for precisely that period. But why would anyone go there? It's a tiny cubby hole of a room that no one uses, right down the other, uninhabited end of the floor.
Since the murder the cleaners haven't been able to get onto our floor, which means I was able to still find two used condoms in the wastepaper basket in Room 13.4.
If Blake and Hera were doing anything it wasn’t
sitting still in the dark.
So I'm the key suspect again. Now I'm a pretty despicable person. For example, I lose my security pass regularly. And as it turns out the pass that swiped in at 18:06 was one I'd lost a week before.
So who was using it?
The answer, as with so much in design, lies in:
We're designers, we all drink coffee.
Our orders are all different and we all think we're right.
The moment you start to visualise data, things become obvious: trends, patterns, outliers. Outliers like a latte. None of us drinks a latte. That must have been for Shirley Holmes, the victim.
But there's another coffee made at the same time, a double espresso. And only one us drinks those:
It was Sam Shovell who stole my security pass, took Blake's paint, made Shirley Holmes a latte full of sleeping pills and then painted her to death in Meeting Room 13.3.
It was Sam Shovell whodunnit.
Coffee, always the designer's best friend.