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Video: The Jet Propulsion Lab is way weirder (and awesomer) than you even imagined

For a center of cutting-edge scientific research, Caltech's Jet Propulsion Lab seems to be a pretty wacky place. Luke Johnson, a graphic designer at the lab, set out to explore and map the campus on a dare, which became a much more ambitious project than he expected. He documents his journey through photos and GPS data in the video below, describing some of his discoveries. The final product of his adventure is a beautifully designed map for JPL employees, revealing the hidden treasures and potential hazards all around them. He describes what's in store for the project in an interview below.

The Atlantic: How did you end up at JPL? What do you do there?

Luke Johnson: A friend from graduate school was working at JPL and left to finish his thesis. He suggested I apply for his position -- which was essentially assisting Dan Goods, the Lab's Visual Strategist. Specifically, my work ranged from designing presentations to serving as a communications consultant on large-budget mission proposals. 

Dan was the one who dared me to walk to every building on Lab in numerical order. The Mysteries and Curiosities Map, and subsequent video, were personal projects born from this challenge that have been supported and funded by the Director's Office and HR.

To be honest, while most designers would kill for this job, I almost didn't apply because I wasn't really that "into space." At the same time, I think this critical distance helped shape my perception and work on Lab. 

You conducted this experiment two years ago. What was the process of getting the video out into the world? 

At its core, I think the project builds on a familiar narrative: man is offered a challenge, man finishes the challenge at a cost (sunburn/bum left knee) but learns something about himself. From this perspective, I believe I was able to pitch a project about the value of the Lab's culture in an honest way. 

At the same time, a project like this doesn't get funded unless it is supported at a variety of levels. Luckily, I had an opportunity to present the idea to Dr. Elachi, the Lab's Director, who was interested in developing walking tours on Lab. I think it's easy to pay to lip service to an institution's culture but it's another thing to actually invest in it. Both the Director's Office and HR have been instrumental in supporting this passion project.

Read more at The Atlantic.

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