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Greenfield illustrator imagines answers to many 'what-ifs'

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
Nikolay Lamm
Sea Level Rise at Jefferson Memorial by Nikolay Lamm
Nickolay Lamm
'What We May Look Like in 100,000 Years' by Nickolay Lamm
Nickolay Lamm
'New York City Reimagined So You Can See Inequality' by Nickolay Lamm with aerial photograph of Manhattan and Queens by Klaas Lingbeek- van Kranen
Nickolay Lamm
'What Would Barbie Look Like As an Average Woman?' by Nickolay Lamm
Nickolay Lamm

The iconic art deco architecture of South Beach, Miami, drowning underwater in the year 2513. The skyline of Manhattan, adjusted to show inequality — with the Upper East and West Sides looming over Harlem like the cliffs of the Grand Canyon. Wi-Fi coverage visualized as a vast, electronic smoggy haze, or concentric color-coded bubbles of radiation.

The iconic Barbie doll, built to the dimensions of a normal-sized girl (hint: she seems to have actual ribs and thighs). What humans will look like in 100,000 years.

The Internet is awash in images. Somebody has to create this content, of course. Pittsburgh artist Nickolay Lamm, 25, of Greenfield, thought it might as well be him.

“If you created something that's timely, that's eye-catching, everyone will want to see it,” Lamm says. “I think my main value comes not from my graphic-design skills, but my thinking about an idea that will get media attention — and something that I care about — and executing my vision to get a cool visual.”

If you peruse online aggregators of news — The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, Business Insider, Atlantic Wire — there's a good chance you've seen some of Lamm's work. Occasionally, they break through to more traditional outlets, including newspapers, magazines like Glamour, Time and Smithsonian, radio and television. But they're always designed first with the Internet in mind.

“Some of the illustrations I've done have been seen by millions of people,” Lamm says. “I think that's cool — you don't have to be some kind of famous person to have your voice be heard, by the power of images that you can create yourself.”

Lamm was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and moved to Pittsburgh at age 6. He says he's been drawing since he was a child and has since picked up some proficiency with Photoshop. He also studied marketing at the University of Pittsburgh.

Perhaps most importantly, he knows what he doesn't know. And he's good at finding people who do know.

“My goal is always to create the most interesting content on the Internet. The only way to do that is to work with other people,” Lamm says. “It's not like I physically drew everything. Sometimes I work with another 3-D artist who's better than I am.”

Imagining what humans would look like in 100,000 years is just an educated guess, of course. The trick is finding the most educated guesser.

“That started as just a random thought in my head,” Lamm says. “I could hypothesize what we'd look like, but I'd have no credibility. Then I got in touch with Dr. Alan Kwan.”

Kwan is a Boston-based computational-genetics researcher.

“I asked Dr. Kwan what may happen in 100,000 years,” Lamm says. “He gave me an nice report of what would happen, and I illustrated the report. The whole big eyes and forehead, as science fiction-y as that sounds, is based on reasoned hypotheses.”

Most of Kwan and Lamm's reasoned speculation is based on “zygotic genome engineering technology,” rather than evolution.

Many, if not most, of the major online news outlets picked it up. To no one's surprise, there were plenty of criticisms.

Lamm answers some of them on his website, www.nickolaylamm.com: “There is a subtle but important distinction between a prediction and a hypothesis. Obviously, nobody can predict what will happen 100,000 years from now, but this is one possibility based on reasoned thought.”

Sometimes, Lamm's visualizations seem to require something more, like the Barbie-as-average-girl project.

“Everybody knows Barbie has been criticized for not having proper proportions,” he explains. “I wondered what she looked like if she had good (normal) proportions. I was a little surprised that nobody had done it. With the advent of 3-D printing, I feel it would have been inevitable.

“For the Barbie project, I found someone who's one of the best 3-D modelers of the human body. He made a digital model and I found a 3-D printer. Another artist helped me Photoshop the 3-D printed model.”

With help from the artists Nikolett Mérész and Marco Romero, Lamm arrived at a striking image — Barbie's cartoonishly buxom figure scaled down to that of a more-or-less normal girl.

The response to the article (on Huffington Post) was overwhelming, says Lamm, with 170,000 “likes” on Facebook, and many news outlets wanting to discuss it.

“I got a lot of emails thanking me, which was very inspirational,” Lamm says. “They told me they grew up with Barbie dolls, and this was an eye-opener. When I first released these Barbie images to the media, I had no idea it would. Every 1 out of 4 people I showed the images to, said ‘Yeah, I saw that (already).' That's the most amazing thing.”

Lamm knows he struck a nerve with the Barbie dolls project, so he's done a few others along similar lines. One imagines what Barbie, Bratz and Disney princesses dolls would look like without makeup. Another attempts to imagine what Barbie's dimensions would look like on a realistic female body.

Sometimes, interesting data is just laying around, and it's just about finding a compelling way to illustrate it.

Lamm's most recent project is a depiction of what the average American 30-something male looks like, compared to that of other countries (hint: he's taller, paunchier). He took available average Body Mass Index numbers for the United States, the Netherlands, Japan and France, and turned each into a realistic, computer-generated, underwear-clad everyman.

“I think he's being responsible — he's not making anything up here,” says Dr. Doug Harper, a professor specializing in visual sociology at Duquesne University. “He's finding ways to present information — visual summaries, really. It's at the immediate level.”

Harper sees the future of visualizing data, particularly on the Internet, taking a much more interactive form, like Stanford's The Spatial History Project. Still, he thinks Lamm's graphics are interesting.

“They take a lot of work to do, no doubt about that,” Harper says. “They're not interactive, but they're graphically compelling.”

“A lot of people think you need connections and press releases,” Lamm says. “That's a bunch of nonsense. You need to create something that's timely. It has to be something people are talking about, or have talked about. If you give them something they need, they'll gladly publish it.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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