Interview: Giorgia Lupi on Accurat and Dear Data

After graduating in Architecture at Ferrara University in 2006, the professional life of Giorgia Lupi took a decisive turn towards the fields of information design and data visualization.

Almost 10 years have passed, and looking back on what she has done since then, we as information visualization consumers and practitioners can only thank her for that decision. Not only due to the work produced by Accurat — the data-driven research, design, and innovation firm she co-founded in 2011 — but also for inspirational side projects such as Dear Data.

Visualoop — a member of the Infogram family — asked Giorgia about the lessons she learned from visual journalism, the challenges of working in the U.S market, and Dear Data — the long-distance, non-digital collaboration with designer Stefanie Posavec.

This interview was originally published on the Visualoop website on July 7, 2015.

Let’s discuss the overlap between architecture and design of information. Which similarity surprised you the most?

I don’t think there is one particular similarity that strikes me, I am fascinated by the general parallel of the two disciplines.

One thing that we have to keep in mind is that architects don’t actually build buildings, they design representations of buildings, images of buildings following a language of symbols that have to convey information about how to manufacture them.

In order to convey the right kind of information on an architectural drawing, you have to become very precise at shaping layers, visual hierarchies, and making sure that everything is abstracted in the right way.

In fact, architects also do a virtual representation of the building for the general public: for their potential inhabitants to understand how it will look and how it will be used.

So, both in information design and in architecture everything runs around the art of representing reality through diagrams, in a bi-dimensional space, and for different audiences; it is this overall analogy that intrigues me the most.

How and when did you pick data visualization as your profession?

During my M.Arch studies, I was very interested in aspects concerning the representation of information, and I tried to push all my architecture and urban projects towards working with information and mapping systems; even my M.Arch thesis (in 2006) was definitely an urban mapping project.

For the next 4 years, I worked with different interaction design firms in Italy focusing my contributions on visual documentation and representation, mapping and information architecture.

Also, I’ve been playing the piano for a long time, and I started to be attracted to the contemporary music notation movement in my early twenties.

It came naturally for me to progressively focus more and more on data, and of the visual representation of data. When I realized the true potential of working visually with structured data to convey information about phenomena or contexts, I simply fell in love with this world and the realm of possibility it opens.

Finally, in 2011 I both co-founded my own information design company, Accurat, and started a PhD in communication design within DensityDesign Lab at Milan Politecnico.

We’ve been hearing the term “oversimplification” being used as something that can jeopardize innovation. Are you concerned by this?

There is definitely still plenty of room for innovation, I would actually say the opposite: it is an uncommonly exciting time to be a data visualization designer now. Projects and opportunities get more challenging, and the field of data visualization is growing and becoming more popular.

The market and our role as data visualization designers is changing for sure — data visualization has gone mainstream: now almost everybody can pull their data into an easy-to-use-tool and create standard and simple charts, but this is exactly why I believe there will be more and more need for highly custom designs.

We still have to find new languages, new ways of entertaining people; we have to make visuals that can become magnetic to people who are not familiar with data practices.

We have amazing challenges to address: how can we keep on exploring, guessing, imagining, hunching, trying combinations and trying to inspire feelings, being faithful to scientific accuracy while allowing space for exceptions to flourish, with the aim of bringing a range of new possibilities to the table?

I guess those questions are and will be valid for a while!

Over at Accurat, you have been challenging the traditional approach to infographic design — like the work you did for Corriere della Sera. What was that experience like?

We’ve been working side-by-side with the newsroom of Corriere della Sera for more than 2 years, designing a series of more than 30 exploratory data visualizations.

The experience was great, because we’ve always seen is at our sandbox to experiment, to test, to formulate our processes and methods upon the different feedback we received, and to learn.

We always aimed here at composing rich visual narratives: maintaining the informative richness of the data analysis we performed but making this richness more accessible and understandable through a visualization; it has been a sort of stress test, how much complexity can a reader absorb?

This taught us a lot about how to go beyond the curious (but shallow) world of the web infographics we are used to, and helped us create our method for what we call “multilayered storytelling.”

One of the things that we enjoyed about producing those dense and non-conventional data visualizations is that they produce a type of behavior that promotes “slowness” in this era of short attention spans. If we can create visuals that are demanding the “right” slowness and the right amount of engagement, people might slow down to meet it!

Can you think of a particular work from that time that sums-up the whole visual journalism experience?

To sum-up the whole journalistic experience I’d like to tell you what we learned from it; we learned to embrace complexity. Complexity is a distinctive and inherent feature of our world; it should be embraced and not feared in an effort to simplify things that are naturally rich and multifaceted.

A set on Flickr with the works of Accurat for La Lettura, the cultural supplement on the sunday edition of Corriere Della Sera

We learned to pursue beauty because beauty is not a frill. We know how to capture and motivate people to always dig deeper and take more time to explore the folds of visual data analysis.

We learned to never bend design problems to what tools can offer out of the box: every dataset is different, and every context brings infinite variables that can hardly be reduced to cookie-cutter processes and solutions.

We also learned that numbers don’t mean anything by themselves, they are always a placeholder for something else: people, places, ideas, values.

Let’s talk a bit about the work you guys do at Accurat. The visualizations for La Lettura are well-known, but the company has evolved, right?

Yes, at Accurat we started very focused on experimenting visually, building “case studies” of highly customized visual models to represent data in different contexts and through different variables, exploring and working a lot with journalists. In the business sector, we were working mostly with the communication and marketing departments of companies. We built our portfolio around highly customized and dense visual narratives with data — as in our work for La Lettura — and we worked primarily on pieces whose goal was to tell a specific story to a wide and generic audience.

More and more now we’re instead in collaborating with clients from very different industries, with diverse business functions: our work is used in finance, human resources, I.T., customer relations, product development…

We feel it is definitely a goal for us to keep addressing more and more strategic needs and scaling our business to have more impact within organizations, but we are also working hard to try to keep a uniqueness and this sort of signature that we had when we were a smaller group of individuals.

A big part of that growth was the opening of the New York office, correct?

Starting a new office on a new continent has indeed been a stimulating challenge. In the U.S. the market for data-visualization is indeed bigger than the Italian one, and there is of course much more competition.

Interestingly enough, what helped us entering this market the most has been the community and the network of data-visualization friends and practitioners.

In a sense, the competition here is quite positive: we are all working to expand the field and the whole business of data-visualization, and it comes pretty natural to “recommend” other respected professionals or companies when one can’t take on a project for whatever reason.

Stefanie Posavec told us that she was working on a project with you, which we all know now as ‘Dear Data.’ How did you guys come up with the idea, and what were your biggest challenges?

Dear Data is indeed a very very fulfilling (and demanding) project, and I am incredibly happy about this collaboration with Stefanie.

Stefanie and I only met twice in person before starting Dear Data last September; we knew each other’s work of course, and we were aware of the many similarities we had as designers. We both use a hand-crafted and illustrative approach to the data visualizations we create, and we both don’t code.

Last year at Eyeo, we had few (i.e. many) drinks together and we started to get to know each other a little better than the year before (which was the first time we met in person), and by the end of the festival we decided we absolutely had to collaborate, and I felt excited about it.

For the next 2 months a copious number of emails flooded in, and our collaboration started to take shape: analog outputs, daily or weekly datasets, daily or weekly data-drawings, parallel type of data, finding human and personal twists on the data, and so on.

As our conversations evolved we start conceiving our collaborative effort as an unconventional way of getting to know each other through our daily data and through our drawings.

Even though we knew from the beginning we didn’t want it to be a quantified-self project: we’ve always pictured it more like a ‘personal documentary,’ which is a subtle, but important, distinction.

The idea of becoming ‘data pen pals’ and sending postcards to each other across the sea seemed incredibly compelling, and we decided to accept the risk that some of our postcards might get lost or damaged during their travel.

The Dear Data website | Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.

I guess the biggest challenge we’re facing is making the proper time for this project. We are also putting together a book proposal and we are holding conversations with different galleries for a possible exhibition, and it is indeed getting more demanding time-wise.

Though, and I think I can speak also for Stefanie here, we are incredibly fulfilled by Dear Data, and I would encourage everybody to take on a side project that helps you reflect on your profession and on yourself — possibly with a brilliant and awesome collaborator.

Tell us a bit about the information design scene in Italy. Have you seen developments on the education front?

Italy, especially lately, can count a lot of talented information and data visualization designers who are well known internationally, and I couldn’t be happier about it!

The greater part of those professionals have studied at Politecnico di Milano and specifically took courses with DensityDesign, so we have to thank Paolo for the most part.

What I find particularly interesting is that we are receiving a high number of resumes from traditional graphic designers or interaction designers who are more and more specializing in information design through side projects, or by taking online courses. I believe this means the data-visualization scene and design market is rapidly growing in Italy as well!

Check out Giorgia’s website here, follow her updates on Twitter (@giorgialupi), and visit Accurat’s website for more of their work. And of course, don’t miss Dear Data.