Barbara Sudick, California State University, Chico
Frank Armstrong, California State University, Chico

An epic drought and a mandate for the development of a sustainable groundwater management plan in California has brought together a team of diverse scholars, researchers and designers. Digital evidence of groundwater flow and understanding its relationship to other components of this complex natural system are critical to planning its sustainable management.

Although the state is currently experiencing an unusually wet rainy season, the recent five-year drought significantly lowered the levels of surface water in our lakes and rivers. In many areas of the state, this shortage of regulated surface water resulted in over-pumping unregulated groundwater.

An economist, a geographer and hydrologists collected data on water and land use in Northern California for the last 30 years. They needed a way to engage and educate a diverse public in a participatory process of co-creating a sustainable groundwater management plan. Working with the designers, the team is currently building an interactive data-visualization tool for understanding the patterns, behaviors and relationships of the water system.

Visualizing complex data over time and space reveals the patterns that emerge from the behaviors of natural systems: agricultural land-use, supply and demand of water resources, fluctuating crop prices and changing environmental/weather conditions. These patterns can expose the ill effects of human actions on the environment, like the occurrence of subsidence (the sinking ground that results from over-pumping groundwater). Simultaneously showing events that are separated by time and space, visualizations can also explain how small events have the potential to cause significant changes in complex systems. Interactivity will allow users to filter data and create new relationships that invite comparisons, raise new questions and provide alternative explanations. This tool will help people to understand complex relationships, reach consensus, and make informed decisions about the future of California’s water system.


Barbara Sudick is a Professor and Graphic Design Program Coordinator in the Department of Media Arts, Design + Technology at California Sate University, Chico.  She has an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University and for 15 years was a partner in an interdisciplinary design firm whose clients included IBM, ITT Programming, United Technologies, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York Public Library, and Yale Repertory Theatre. Barbara has taught Graphic Design at SUNY New Paltz, University of Connecticut, University of Hartford and lectured at The Cooper Union and University of the Arts. In 2008-09 she was distinguished professor and Nierenberg Chair at Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design. Her research explores how design can contribute to the vitality of environmental, economic, social and cultural sustainability. She has been an advocate for sustainable design education in her teaching at CSU Chico and more broadly as the Chair of the Education Committee, Center for Sustainable Design, AIGA and facilitator at the Global Summit on Design Education and Sustainability in conjunction with The Designer’s Accord. Barbara has presented her research in sustainable design internationally in Seoul, Korea and Doha, Qatar and at workshops and conferences throughout the US. She is co-author of “Redesigning the Bottom Line: How Design Thinking Can Help Business Become Sustainable” (with Phil Hamlett) in Praeger’s The Business of Sustainability: Trends, Policies, Practices, and Stories of Success.

Frank Armstrong is a Lecturer in the Department of Media Arts, Design + Technology at California Sate University, Chico, teaching coding and design. He has a BA in Economics from UCLA and an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University. As a design consultant, Frank worked for clients including Bell Communications Research, IBM, ITT Programming, Kenan-Flagler Business School and MIT Press. As a design educator, he taught at Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, North Carolina State University, University of Connecticut and Yale University. His research and teaching integrate dynamic information visualization and typography. In 2015, he gave presentations on “Exploring Conditional Motion” with Barbara Sudick at the MODE Summit in Dublin and “Behavior Design” at the KSBDA International Conference in Seoul. His professional work has been published in numerous books and journals, including Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, Typographic Design: Form + Communication and American Typography Today. His essay “Hearing Type” was published in AIGA: Loop, Baseline and The Education of a Typographer.