Alive, Political Visual Words

Federica Fragapane

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Throughout the years, I have collected reflections and ideas concerning the visual language I use as an information designer. In this text, I have gathered and intertwined these thoughts, tracing their history and evolution to explore how visual words used in data visualization can be alive and, in some cases, political.

You can read the Italian version here.

The role of words

I love words very much, I love the care needed behind their choice. Choosing the words to use is an important process, whose responsibility is often minimised by those who ignore — or pretend to ignore — the ability of language to oppress, impoverish, hurt, warm, help, elevate.

Regarding the repercussions of a rigid and unchanging language, Toni Morrison writes:

However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental.

Furthermore:

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.

Words don’t just describe our worlds: they strengthen them, hide them, weaken them.

Words are important in my work as well. They enable me to explain my graphics, decode them for readers, providing them with the tools to understand them. They also allow me to make my presence explicit, to declare my choices and — above all — the very fact that I am making choices and selecting information from a wider set: I am talking about the short explanatory texts that often accompany my projects and which allow me to explain what my selections were (eg, the top 50 countries in the world for CO2 emissions in the most recent year).

Data visualization on global atmospheric CO2 concentration

I also frequently discuss how, for me, designing a data visualization is like writing — writing with visual alphabets and languages that enable me to convey the stories that flow through the data and the numbers I give a shape to. I often explain how the aesthetics of the visual words I use have a fundamental role for me. There are cases in which I use very classic graphic representations, simple, linear diagrams, but there are also situations in which the shapes I draw are certainly different from the standard ones. When the needs that my works respond to allow me to experiment visually, I work with soft, organic shapes that recall “living” worlds: I do it to remind (first of all myself and then I hope the readers) the lives and stories that often murmur silently behind the data, a ghostly murmur that is easy to forget.

Aesthetics also has a role linked to the invitation to read: I often model and soften the lines and shapes of my graphics in order to attract the attention of readers, to invite them to explore my pieces.

Then there are cases in which the choice of a type of soft, “fragile” visual language (an adjective used some time ago by a client and which I really appreciated), is also linked to the fragility of the data itself. But I will come back to this point later.

Data visualization about the environmental activists who have been killed in Brazil from 2015 to 2019. The visualization has been designed for Atmos magazine and it accompanies an investigative work written by Yessenia Funes about the death of environmental defender Fernando dos Santos Araújo. The project has been recently acquired by MoMA as part of their permanent collection.

In short, the selection of visual words for me has always been a meticulous process. I’ve also always been aware of how some of my visual languages can be very strange, maybe even too much at times. I consider myself lucky because over the years many people have understood the reasons behind my approach and have welcomed them with great openness and interest, but obviously there have been, and I believe there will continue to be, criticisms of various kinds. I won’t go into detail about the difference between constructive criticism that helped me tremendously and destructive criticism that made my teeth torment my nails for a long time with particular vehemence every time I was about to publish a new project on social media (an essential tool to make my work known).

«Pretty but useless.»

«How dare you call yourself an information designer! That’s not information!»

«Wrong! It’s not like that! I don’t do your job, I’m a photographer, and unlike you, I don’t have over 10 years of data visualization experience behind me. Let me show you how it’s done!» (Okay, I admit that the last comment wasn’t exactly like that. I added some contextual information obtained by sifting through the author’s profile).

When I read those critiques I glimpsed something between the words: I had the feeling that a larger thought was hidden behind them, but I couldn’t put it into focus. Until one point, while reading the highly recommended book Data Feminism written by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein, I encountered this paragraph:

In the case of data visualization, what is excluded is emotion and affect, embodiment and expression, embellishment and decoration. These are aspects of the human experience associated with women, and thus devalued by the logic of our master stereotype.

While it might appear obvious to some, it wasn’t so for me. I underlined those sentences with emphasis to imprint not only on the paper, but also on my mind, the significance of those words. In reality there would have been no need for that ​passionate underlining: those words had gotten stuck in my thoughts and are still there, absolutely firm.

It’s pretty but

Some time later, following a new comment that made me think, I wrote and published these brief considerations.

This is a reflection on the role of aesthetics and legitimation. Aesthetics play an important role in my approach to design. […] As a professional in this field, I have naturally received criticism and addressing it openly, listening to it, is part of my job. A recurring comment is what I call “it’s-pretty-but”. In a recent comment, the sentence was followed by “is this a real job?”. Yes, of course it is, it has been a real job for me since 2012.

I find it interesting how sometimes the presence of aesthetically pleasing elements seems to undermine the authority and seriousness of my work, which is made up of many phases, from data analysis to design.

This won’t change my approach, even if I try to improve it every day, but I find it an interesting aspect to analyze. There is a quote from the wonderful book “Data Feminism” — written by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein — that I find very important [here I am referring to the paragraph quoted above].

It’s not always like that and I’m grateful for the support I receive. Also I think critiques are important and I try to accept them with humbleness. But I also think that it’s still important to discuss this.

I started thinking that the visual words I was using could have a threefold meaning: the first was related to the contents, stories and data I was telling; the second was related to the way I was doing it — using unconventional, soft, organic shapes, as a visual homage to the lives behind the numbers and to invite reading; and the third, the third was also related to the way I was doing it, but observed through another lens: was I using shapes that were weird, soft, “pretty”, “decorative”, “pretty, but…”, “feminine? ”, “too feminine?”, “different from a geometric, clear-cut mode of representation, typically and stereotypically associated with a male-Western approach and therefore historically assumed as more valid?”.

At this point I must make a brief clarification: it is obvious that I am not the only information designer who uses soft and organic shapes, there are amazing colleagues who do it. But I want to talk about it by telling my experience, I wouldn’t presume to speak for others’. And another clarification: one of the reasons why I’m doing it is because, even if I tormented my nails, I still published those projects. I hope to be helpful to those who not only torment their own nails, but decide then to let it go and don’t publish anything.

As it has always been done

Earlier I mentioned how choosing imperfect and “fragile” shapes can be connected to the fragility of the data itself and now I want to better explain this point, which journalists, writers and designers such as Mona Chalabi and Giorgia Lupi have talked about over the years.

For the International Day Against Violence Against Women, I designed a data visualization without a commission, to be shared on my social channels. I visualized the data on the Prevalence of violence in the lifetime: the percentage of women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some time in their lives. (Source: data.oecd.org). I have displayed the data for all the countries for which the information was available. Also in this case I used organic, “fragile” shapes to reflect not only the type of stories I was telling, but also the very fragility of the data used to tell them.

A detail from the project showing the percentage of women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some time in their lives.

A calculation like this, on the violence suffered, necessarily relies on the number of cases that have been documented and it is well known how many events are unreported and — therefore — how many stories are not seen from that dataset. However, recognizing that a piece of data may be incomplete does not mean denying the importance of sharing it. The fact that in 2023 16% of women in Italy suffered physical and/or sexual violence from a partner, in its probable incompleteness, is already dramatically relevant in itself. For this reason I visualized it, gave it a shape and shared it.

I think that the responsibility for choosing the right visual words is also linked to these type of reflections. I could have used very geometric, minimal, linear shapes and made it easier to compare even the slightest differences between one country and another. But the story I was interested in talking about wasn’t the slightest difference between one country and another, and I didn’t want to ignore the fact that a perfect geometric representation would have added an aura of accuracy to an inevitably imperfect piece of data: in my opinion that was avoidable. Avoidable because of the stories that data was not telling. Sharing it as part of a personal project intended for a potentially large audience, my choice therefore fell on imperfect forms also for this reason. I specify the context of use, because if I had to visualize it for an analysis tool commissioned by a research group — for example — I would probably have used different shapes. I want to add that in hindsight, I should have reinforced the concept of the untold stories by including a note within the visualization itself (although I included it in the caption, it wasn’t sufficient). Again, even the textual elements within a data visualization are crucial.

Missing and uncollected data is a huge topic and one that we should keep talking about. Catherine D’Ignazio, Lauren F. Klein, Jer Thorp and Donata Columbro do it brilliantly.

Quoting Jer Thorp and his beautiful book Living in Data:

The decision to collect or not to collect data is an arbiter of which stories get told and which are pushed out to the margins. Which names are printed in newspapers, which ones are filed in police reports, which ones are inscribed on memorials, which ones are left out. In the absence of data, we can find a muting of particular channels of truth, truths that have too often already been estranged from the popular narrative.

The terms ignore, exclude, forget nourish the term oppress. And if words can serve not only as instruments of oppression but also as tools to expose oppression, then the endeavor to visually denounce an analysis that, even in its pursuit of precision, disregards and overlooks can be meaningful. It is an aspect on which I myself want to work and improve.

If in front of such approaches and attempts the reaction is simply «That’s not how you do it! Everything must be geometric and as it has always been done, because that’s the only right way to do things!» then this reaction not only ignores reflections on the data, on who collects them and who in this collection is excluded, but in its lack of critical sense and in its disinterest in dialogue it reinforces an imperfect system on which much work must be done.

Speaking of geometry, years ago I instead chose to use very minimal and geometric shapes for one of the projects I am most fond of: The Stories Behind a Line, a visual narrative of the journey of six asylum seekers who arrived in Italy in 2016. I met them at the time in a reception center in Vercelli, my hometown, to work on a project that would give shape to their stories. I delve into the project in detail, explaining my reasons for designing it, in this post. My intent was to talk about the issue of migration by giving a voice to people who have experienced this issue, sharing very simple information about their journey: the route step by step, the days spent travelling, the means of transport, the kilometers and any notes and comments they might have liked to add.

The Stories Behind a Line, designed by Federica Fragapane in collaboration with Alex Piacentini

Obviously the data was imperfect: the narrators reconstructed their line with me with the help of Google Maps and the number of those painful days of travel could be indicative, in some cases approximate and sometimes not reported because forgotten. But what interested me in this case was not the relationship between form and accuracy: it was the relationship between form and storytelling. The style of the project was a natural reflection of the storytelling style of the six narrators: calm, minimal and concise. I tried to visually live up to not only their words, but also the way they shared those words with me. Secondly, I have chosen to use such a visual language to provide a clean account of a theme such as that of migration, a theme that is often subject to spectacularization by the media, spectacularization used by politics to the detriment of an understanding of the phenomenon.

I don’t think there is only one correct way to do things and the As it has always been done is a push (to rigidity) that has never found me in agreement. Just like words, the shapes I can use as a designer are also multiple and each of them carries with it a load of meanings and echoes that influence the story: I find that it is precisely for this reason that it is important to choose them with extreme care.

Delegitimization

I want to go back to the violence against women project. It is not the only project related to women/violation of women’s rights that I have worked on. I shared it on multiple occasions, as I shared other projects related to similar themes, and at one point I started to spot a pattern among some of the comments following those projects. Also in this case it took me some time to identify the phenomenon. I had already written the previous post on the link between aesthetics and legitimization and observing that pattern I started thinking about another term: delegitimation. I then wrote about it in a new post, which I report here.

[…] I’ve started noticing a phenomenon: projects of mine about women rights/women rights violations are more likely to attract technical — and sometimes unkind — remarks from men. That’s an interesting pattern.

What strikes me the most is how such comments completely ignore the topic to jump directly to technical considerations: data on rights violations take second place to the fact that “it should have been a bar chart”. I’m convinced it’s possible to do both: constructively criticizing and being respectful. But I also think that this is part of a broader issue that finds its roots in a common practice: delegitimisation.

Delegitimisation of a subject, delegitimisation of an approach, delegitimisation of a voice: I think it can be a more or less conscious attitude. I like to observe phenomena and to find patterns — it’s part of my job — and I also like to point them out and to discuss them: because those comments don’t particularly bother me, but they could bother others. They could intimidate other people who are trying to find their voice, they could shut them up. And of course I’m not only talking about women, I’m aware of how variegated are the obstacles that people stumble across only for their identity, the walls they find.

The one described is a type of reaction that I still struggle to fully understand and which, unlike other types of comments, continues to make me angry. In the post I wrote that these comments don’t bother me and after thinking about it for a while I realized that it’s true, they don’t bother me: they infuriate me. My anger has nothing to do with a form of pride, which I admit is activated in other cases, but it is linked to the delegitimization I mentioned and to the term ignoring, which I have used before. Ignoring such urgent issues, discarding the topic, putting it aside because apparently it is more urgent to criticize a visual approach than taking a few seconds to see, recognize this topic, give it dignity. If you have the time to criticize a project — which is obviously legitimate — then you also have the time to write a few words about the heart of this project, about the stories this project is telling. In order not to exclude, set aside, ignore.

I get angry and I think it’s okay, that I can continue to get angry for reasons like this one.

Living and political words

In those cases it seems that the delegitimization passes through the criticism of a language, of my visual language. I repeat how I am telling my experience and my point of view because it is the point of view I know best. I also take this opportunity to add how I am aware of the fact that my point of view is that of a white, heterosexual woman who has had the opportunity to study and with a career that she is very happy with at the moment (I hope it continues like this). And my experience on social media in the vast majority of cases is truly positive and warm, more than I could have expected at the beginning. When I talk about a certain type of criticism and comments, I do so because I am interested in investigating the deeper reasons, which do not just concern me and my projects.

Delegitimization, as I was saying, passes through the criticism of a language, of the chosen visual words. Often implying, among other things, that they are visual words chosen with naivety, perhaps irrationality, most likely inexperience.

There are many efforts that authors and activists have made and are still making to ensure that the influence of language on reality is recognised. The way we let things be described and told has an impact on the way these things are then seen and consequently on the way we approach them, on our actions. Typical criticisms of these efforts are «What an exaggeration!», «It’s always been done like this!», «It’s always been said like this!» (not to mention the great classic «Nothing can be said anymore!»). These criticisms ignore the fact that language is a living and continually evolving creature, an evolution that starts from studies and analyzes which ensure that, to re-quote Toni Morrison, we can «shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.»

I think the same thing goes for visual language. I know very well that I am neither the first nor the only one to think this, I simply like talking about it. I hope, and believe, that writing visually, carefully searching for the right visual words, even in their unusualness, can be a way to tell other stories and fill baffling silences.

When I started experimenting with visual words years ago, I did so without thinking that their very form could also have a political meaning. I started to believe it over time and the first signs were the angry reactions, the angry comments. I could understand the reason for the criticism, but I didn’t understand the reasons behind the anger with which such criticism was made.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes

The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.. […] With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry.

And again:

How explain the anger of the professors? Why were they angry?

The answer she provides is as firm in my mind as the previous sentence from Data Feminism:

Life for both sexes […] is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. […] Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself.

Whatever the reasons behind the anger that has always struck and even fascinated me over the years, I now know the consequences it had: the questions I asked myself, the books I wanted to read, the considerations that arose from them. I can therefore only thank these angry commentators. Thanks to them I now think that, among the many meanings that visual words carry with them, there can also be a political one. I’m happy about it. I don’t believe in neutrality, I’ve never managed to be neutral and I don’t think there’s much need for it either. I also think that pure neutrality is unattainable for a human being, to it I prefer intellectual honesty, awareness of one’s own point of view and perspective and a critical approach towards such perspective.

As a professional who deals with information, I recognise the significant responsibility I hold. I owe readers intellectual honesty, accuracy and care in the signs I create to communicate. Those are signs that give shape to data that have behind them layers of more or less hidden lives and stories and, at times, more or less dense silences. What I want to do is try to describe these stratifications with an equally pulsating visual language, ready to listen, adapt and improve to give them the right voice.

«She will reiterate that cooking is political, BTS is political, women are political, cobblestones are political, laughing is political, dressing is political, writing is political, speaking is political, listening is political, disagreeing is political. She will say that it is political to use one’s freedom to liberate others. I will tell her it’s a phrase from Toni Morrison. She will tell me it’s also from Toni Morrison.»

Chiara Valerio, in her beautiful speech dedicated to Michela Murgia and delivered at her funeral on 12 August 2023.

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Federica Fragapane

Independent information designer. Collaborations with Google, EU, UN, BBC, La Lettura. Works in the Permanent Collection of MoMA.