The Bloomberg Businessweek Design conference featured one heady talk after another, with architects, engineers, and graphics experts each giving their take on the design industry and the future. One speaker managed to transcend the politely utopian atmosphere, striking an emotional note while discussing—of all things—animated gifs and Obamacare.
Sha Hwang says that he got his start studying architecture before moving on to projects in animation, modeling, and finally data visualization. "I started by studying architecture, which meant designing buildings that made no sense at all," Hwang says. (It's true: He showed some of his building designs, and they made no sense.) His trajectory is not one that amounts to an obvious "capital-c career" path, as Hwang puts it. But it's a path that nevertheless landed him in Forbes magazine's "30 Under 30" set for real estate in 2011. As an entrepreneur, Hwang started the city mapping site Movity before moving on to Trulia and several other initiatives.
Today, Hwang makes gifs come to life through Gifpop, a site which enables people to print animated gifs on demand through lenticular printing. The project finds the intersection between Etsy and Tumblr: For $12 to $20, users can order animated prints of gifs, like this one or this one or this one. (Or any gif: The lenticular cards are completely customizable.) Hwang's a big fan of what he describes as the "emotive vocabulary made out of culture" that gifs represent. A gif by Hateplow, one of the artists whose work is championed and made physical by Gifpop.
But in the middle of an otherwise casual, chatty talk bordering on the sarcastic, it was Hwang who turned emotive. He took a pause before introducing one of his latest projects: Healthcare.gov.
"I have to talk about it kind of vaguely, but it's where my mind has been for the last couple months," Hwang says. "I can't really say what I've been working on, but it's been a humbling experience."
All that Hwang will admit is that he was one of the technologists brought on by federal contractors to try to repair healthcare.gov, the federal portal for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known better as Obamacare), after problems with the website's implementation threatened to derail the launch of the program. Hwang only spoke obliquely about his work for the "tech surge," ordered by President Barack Obama to put the healthcare project back on track.
"The tech surge, in the end, is just people," Hwang says. "People who left loved, ones, jobs, homes—people who put their lives on hold to work together."
Hwang, who choked up while he spoke about working with other programmers in Baltimore to put the Obamacare portal back on track, said that it was in many ways unlike any work he'd ever done before.
"There are no drinkups," Hwang says. "There are no meetups, there are no hackathons in Maryland. It is no startup. These guys have worked themselves raw here."
A conference like Bloomberg Businessweek Design isn't exactly a forum for humility. The designers and programmers giving presentations today are futurists, confident that technology can transform people's lives for the better—and certain that they're the ones who will build that technology.
Hwang may not have set out to change the world with Gifpop. He says that he hoped to pay some net.art innovators who probably never were paid for their work before while remaining true to the genre. So it was touching to see Hwang talk about how his work led him to a project that is actually changing lives across the nation. Even if he couldn't say much.