For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with getting a good night’s sleep. I have often gravitated towards staying up late at night working on projects until I have exhausted my creative output. At that point, it’s already very late by the time I get in bed. Once I get in bed, though, my mind continues to bounce from subject to subject; things I worry about, things that happened years ago, and a lot of things I would prefer not to think about when trying to fall asleep.

Eighteen years ago, I adopted the nom de plume “datadreamer.” I was a 20-year-old college student just getting into the upper division courses for my major in digital media art. I had already become interested in data visualization as a contemporary form of representational art and abstraction that could be used to communicate newer facets of contemporary existence. It was such a singular focus on my mind that I would often wake up from dreams where I had been thinking of datasets and systems and how to create visual representations of them.

Dreams can be great opportunities to allow our subconscious to drive the exploration of a subject in ways we wouldn’t consciously consider. There are, of course, lots of problems with dreams, one of which is the difficulty of being able to steer the direction one’s dream is heading in. We all have bad dreams, and we can likely agree that they are generally unproductive. There’s also the issue of trying to remember one’s dream, where as soon as you wake up, all of the details seem to dissolve away. You’re left with simply the resonant emotion of the experience you just had.

I have found an interesting compromise that affords me the ability to not only steer the direction of my dreams but also to remember most of the details. To maintain a consistent sleep schedule, I began taking sleep aids, getting in bed at a regular time, and simply putting on an educational podcast to listen to. The podcast has allowed my mind to focus on a single thing while I gently fall asleep shortly after midnight. That consistently puts me to sleep successfully, but I almost always wake up around 4 am, about three hours before I need to get up for work. It’s this period of time that has helped me unlock a creative practice that I have found really beneficial for ideation.

I will wake up and decide that I am too comfortable to get out of bed, but my mind is awake enough to suddenly start thinking about projects. I will lay in bed with my eyes closed and focus on the details of a project. Eventually, my mind drifts into a liminal space somewhere between conscious and unconscious, but heavily driven by the active thoughts I begin with. I never manage to get too deep into sleep, so the ideas that come forth are almost always remembered with vivid detail.

One notable use of this technique was when I was designing Academy Mode for the University of Southern California Iovine and Young Academy website relaunch in 2020. My task was to come up with an innovative user experience that would inform potential students about the academic trajectories, diverse creative output, and extracurricular activities of current students. The Academy is a highly collaborative environment, so my initial impulse was to represent it as a dynamic mesh of interconnections between people, classes, projects, organizations, and experiences.

The first image that came to me in my liminal state was what I refer to as the constellation; a spherical graph network of nodes and lines, undulating and animating as connections are created and destroyed, evolving over time as students graduate and new students begin their freshman year, and orbiting to bring focus to specific content as the user navigates the 3D space.

This was intended to show shared connections and collaborations between our students and give potential students some insights into the academic trajectories that similar current students had taken.

Having come from a fine arts background, I tend to do my first round of rapid visualization using pencil and paper as opposed to jumping directly into digital tools. That allows me to work quickly and loosely while still being able to iterate on my designs. I can put down a couple of different thumbnail sketches to experiment with form and demonstrate differences between distinct states during an interaction. Rapidly visualizing an idea allows me to temporarily put it out of my mind so I can generate new ideas, ensuring more variety of output and opportunities for iteration.

After establishing an idea for holistically representing the entire school, I spent another liminal session thinking about how to visually communicate the personal history of an individual student’s academic experience. My academy partners and I wanted to highlight the classes they took, projects created in those classes, experiences they had like field trips, workshops, hackathons, etc, as well as organizations they were involved with like student clubs and internships. All of this should be represented chronologically, showing completed and in-progress activities and aligning with the semester that each activity occurred.

The image that came to mind was a circular photo of a student surrounded by concentric rings of activities, each representing a different type of involvement during their time at USC. The circular rings would be radially divided into eight segments representing the eight semesters they would endure over four years, and as students progress through the program the rings gradually fill to completion.

Collecting all this rich data about our student population also opened up the potential functionality to virtually pair a prospective student with a current student or alum. The prospect would complete a short quiz about their interests to match them with an IYA student whose academic history most closely resembles their interests. This was intended to be a tool that would provide prospects not only with insights into academic outcomes but potentially also a friendly insider to whom they could contact to ask questions about the program.

This liminal state ideation allowed me to explore modes for representation and functionality to open up the potentially useful applications of such a platform. While developing the platform, we ended up scaling back many features and reducing the overall dataset to something more manageable for our communications team to moderate. The Academy Mode platform is now a curated selection of students across our undergraduate and graduate programs that rotates every semester, showcasing a wide variety of creative output and professional interests.

Of course, my subconscious liminal state isn’t this untouched void from which ideas manifest from nothing, but rather a complex, muddy archive of material, images, experiences, and concepts that I have come across in my life. The constellation formation is reminiscent of Ben Fry’s Valence visualization, and the student ring interface was inspired by the VFX work of JT Nimoy for Tron Legacy. This is what makes liminal space exploration so compelling, as it acts as this recombinatorial amalgamation of one’s creative memories, exposures, and ambitions.

I’m excited to continue exploring some of these liminal state ideation sessions, and I’m curious about how I can incorporate techniques for lucid dreaming to make the most of the creative output. A part of me feels like too much control negates the positive contributions of the subconscious, so a balance between randomness and constraints is necessary. I think I’ll sleep on it and see how I feel in the morning.

Aaron Siegel is an Assistant Professor of Design at the University of Southern California Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation. His concentration is in data visualization, interaction design, and media art.