November 1, 2005
By The Numbers
Information—key to the Bloomberg empire—becomes an intrinsic part of the visual experience.
The visual drama of the Bloomberg offices is best witnessed in the public areas of the Link on the sixth floor—where at 2 p.m. the foot traffic gets close to that of Grand Central Station. Here a media wall broken into four parallel bands acts as a kind of fairground ride for flying data, a journey taken up on other screens arranged above the pantry area and nestled in ceilings. Employees rising on the escalator from the fifth floor even appear to move at exactly the same speed as the news and information graphics speeding about the screens. One is struck by the sense that the company’s business—the flow of goods, people, and data—is being played out in a public space in a dance that takes cues, perhaps subconsciously, from theme-park design.
This graphic choreography is a deliberate refinement of the Bloomberg brand. Prior to 731 Lexington, a Bloomberg office was characterized by four visual elements: an open trading-floor ambience and ubiquitous monitors, fish tanks, and corporate logos writ large. It was as if the clashing layers of monitors and signs were striving to visually ape the aural din of the trading floor. At the new headquarters the screens recede into the architecture, and the Bloomberg name has all but vanished from the walls, replaced by oversize colored resin floor numbers encased in glass. The ambience has a calmer, more removed quality, as if the noise of information has somehow been filtered and untangled.
Bloomberg’s first request for proposals to design a rationalized graphic and wayfinding system was, as Keith Barr, a member of the project design team at Bloomberg, puts it, “loose.” He adds, “We wanted to create a series of moments that would tie in with both the static signage and the electronic signage. We didn’t really have anything concrete.” Pentagram, one of the two short-listed firms, came back swiftly with a winning proposal: static wayfinding and dynamic on-screen graphics would all be part of a larger branding idea. In the Bloomberg world the number is king, so why not make the numeral—the essential block of Bloomberg data—the graphic motif that ties the building together? As Pentagram partner Paula Scher observed, Bloomberg’s brand is its information: even Bloomberg TV has no celebrity anchors. “In the twentieth century people equated information with technology,” Scher says. “In the twenty-first, information equals information.”
For the building’s dynamic signs Pentagram proposed a system that extracted all the numbers from Bloomberg’s live news feeds and ran it around the building inside and out. “We looked at the content of the Bloomberg Terminal to see if we could pull out the numbers from all the news, not just the market news,” Pentagram partner Lisa Strausfeld says. “We had a live feed parsing numbers, and it seemed to work. Nearly every news piece had a number to extract.” If anything, she adds, the number idea seemed “too easy,” coming directly from the financial-data impresario himself. “It was so simple. We had read Bloomberg’s autobiography, and he quantifies things all the time.” At the heart of the empire is the Bloomberg Professional service that revolutionized bond trading when it appeared in the late 1980s by allowing investors to see the value of bonds without having to rely on the calculations of salespeople. The driving principle—easy access to data—was subsequently extended to financial news and analytics. “From our first day in business,” as Bloomberg said in his autobiography, “Bloomberg was making news, with numbers.”
Cesar Pelli’s block-long building provided an inviting surface for numerical acrobatics. Back in 2004 New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff derided the “reflective glass envelope” as “the architectural equivalent of a generic wrapper” and the building for resembling “a suburban office park plunked down on the island of Manhattan.” Pentagram’s initial proposal utilized that wrapper as a screen for its live number show, hinting that a building circled by giant projected and ever-changing data would become a natural TV and film icon for any news relating to the markets. Scher—who counters Ouroussoff’s critique with the observation that the building’s true “office of the future” personality was not apparent in 2004 before it opened—admits that the bulky Lexington Avenue facade did call for something bold. The data flying around its exterior would have bluntly branded the imposing glass block.
Though enthusiastically received by Bloomberg’s in-house design group, Pentagram’s numerical strategy faced a few setbacks on the road to Lexington Avenue. When tried out in the company’s glitzy London premises, a prototype sign running the live number feed moved too slowly and seemed out of place next to a faster-moving electronic sign, Scher recalls. “No one liked it, and no one cared,” she says. Meanwhile the plan to use the exterior fell afoul of New York zoning regulations, which barred the building from having electronic signs larger than fifty square feet. Other elements of the Pentagram proposal—financial news projected alongside the escalators, stock indexes in the lobby, and a voice system to announce data on rising stocks inside elevators going up and falling stocks in those going down—were abandoned mostly because of budget limitations. Many of the well-trafficked areas where Pentagram had envisioned screens of flying data were instead designated areas for a public-art program, and a hopeful Pentagram rendering showing Bloomberg TV sets redesigned in the same visual language were rejected.
“Whenever there’s value engineering, this [information art] is the first thing to go,” Strausfeld says. Barr argues that for Bloomberg the task was to rein in the ambitious scope. “At that point Pentagram thought every single function was going to jump into their format, but it was a case of looking at exactly what functions we were using,” Barr says. Darrah sees the early stages less as a rocky start than as a test. The London test of the media wall was a “great tool to play with and tweak the design direction. It’s not that it wasn’t well received; we weren’t in a position to roll out and implement it.” When several manifestations of the branding concept were later put together in a full-scale mock-up of two bays with signs, screens, workstations, lighting, and furniture installed in a warehouse space prior to construction, Bloomberg’s architects received approval from senior management. “It wasn’t just the video on the screen, it was the numbering system of the wayfinding—it’s all tied in,” Darrah says. “Once they saw it all link, everyone got it.”
As the building began to take shape, aspects of the numerical scheme reentered the picture. In place of the exterior projection Pentagram and audiovisual consultant Scharff Weisberg designed a 432-square-foot media wall for the sixth-floor winter garden, proposing LED technology as the brightest solution for a daylight-flooded space. Initial pricing estimates came in, Strausfeld’s team came up with a wall fragmented into four rectangular LED strips to greatly reduce the cost. By relying on the human eye’s tendency to fill in missing gaps, it appeared to cover almost the same surface area and replaced the monolithic megascreen with ribbons better integrated with the airy architecture.
A program dubbed the Bloomberg Media Distribution System (BMDS) was developed with consultant Show & Tell Productions to provide the eight hundred or so networked display screens in the building—including the media wall, bands above the pantry area, and monitors in ceiling coves and on walls throughout the building—with a variety of feed options or “scenes.” A basic scene running news, sales statistics, and the time can be replaced with one welcoming visitors or announcing special events. The information is contextualized with the help of backgrounds: weather reports appear over scenic nature backgrounds; news is in black and white, an allusion to print; and market data flies over colored backgrounds (green for up, red for down).
Another challenge was in store for Pentagram’s wayfinding design scheme, which specified oversize translucent floor numbers and directories in floor-to-ceiling glass-covered resin, with a zip-code-like scheme for identifying different areas of each floor (“6W2 Washington” designates a room on the sixth floor of the west tower, “5W1 London” the northwest conference room on the fifth floor). The large signs, lit and color-coordinated, are supported by additional glass wall-mounted numbers, floor directories, and strategically placed colored poles identifying which department you may have wandered into. Pentagram had used the Bloomberg font—Herb Lubalin’s quirky 1967 sans serif Avant Garde—throughout only to discover halfway through the project that the Bloomberg in-house graphics team had decided to change it to the slimmer Avenir. Finding that its numerals had none of the clout of Lubalin’s big-bellied, jaunty-angled counterparts, Pentagram proposed merging Avenir’s letters with Avant Garde’s numerals in a font they called Bloomberg. The signature Pentagram addition was to propose using Avant Garde’s “o” instead of a zero, leaving visitors in no doubt that they were seeing Bloomberg-branded data. The in-house team approved the system and began using it for some of its own collateral.
As Scher sees it, the key to any branding exercise is not to attach a brand to a single design element like a logo but to a “big stroke,” in Bloomberg’s case the concept of the data as the brand. “If you don’t nail it in the beginning, you don’t nail it at all,” she says. “The process is such that due to budget cuts stuff will get lopped off. You have to hang on to the idea, or you end up with little signs on the walls.”
Big strokes aside, much of the success of the graphic scheme in the Bloomberg space is due to fastidious craftsmanship: Strausfeld notes that small tweaks to the speed, color, and bleed of the moving type on the LED screens made for an “exponential” improvement during the finessing stage. Josh Weisberg, of Scharff Weisberg, the design consultant for the media wall, recalls considerable effort being put into finding an LED sign manufacturer who could provide a resolution suitable for moving characters, without ghosting or skipping, in a small enough LED tile to construct a custom 46-foot-wide display.
The finished space, Weisberg says, reaps the benefits of coordinated Bloomberg design strategy, particularly given the number of consultants involved. Previous offices, he says, tended to add monitors and technology on an “ad hoc” basis.
But beyond the well-seized opportunity to make large graphic and architectural gestures, the treatment of information in the Bloomberg headquarters signals a shift in the way we perceive information. The data on ceiling-mounted screens caters to each department (sales figures for sales staff, network operations for the research and development people), and even the big-bellied numbers that fly across the larger screens are not abstracted but graphically contextualized and explained with accompanying text. The design conceit is that the flying data is actually useful. If the dawning of the Internet and the network society were greeted by design fetishizing information and reveling in that very 1990s trope of information overload, the 2000s have been marked by a desire to filter, parse, and deliver data in accessible form.