I’m a Visual Designer whose sight is not perfect anymore

How almost losing the sight in my left eye had an impact on my design approach.

In May I had the beautiful opportunity to give a talk at OpenVis 2018, where I shared my thoughts on data visualization and I talked about my personal approach to it. During the talk I also mentioned a personal event that had a certain impact on my life and also on my career. This is what this post is about.

As Information Designer, an aspect I’m particularly focused on is the creation of a relationship with the readers of my pieces.

Every visual element to me is like a “hook” to catch people attention and to start a connection with them and I spend a lot of time on designing these elements. The design process behind my visualization is the result of many steps and lessons learned during the years, a learning still in progress.

Working on the details: refinements for my visualization on the epistolary relationship between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Project for Corriere della Sera — La Lettura

When I talk about my career, I always mention three steps.

2011 is the year when I first started approaching data visualization, attending the Density Design Course during my studies at Politecnico di Milano.

In 2012 I started an internship at Accurat studio and I worked there for three years, surrounded by very talented and inspiring people. This is another important step.

And in 2015 I decided to start as freelancer, because I was extremely curious to see how my career would have evolved. Definitely a relevant moment in my professional path.

These steps are usually the ones that I most frequently mention when I talk about my career as Visual and Information Designer. But there is another step (very different from the other ones) that I think had a huge impact, first of all on my life and then also on my approach in designing data visualizations.

In 2012 I risked losing the sight in my left eye for a corneal infection.

When I discovered it, the situation was very serious. I had completely lost the sight in my eye, I was only able to see a white smudge and I didn’t know if the situation would have been temporal or permanent, because it depended on my reaction to the medications. It was a long process and I’ve spent many weeks under medical care.

And I have a very distinct memory of me looking for small improvements everyday. I used to stand in front of an illustrated magazine (always the same one) covering my healthy eye and trying to look for the details that day by day emerged from the pages.

I recovered most of my sight during the months, but during that time I didn’t know how I would have been able to see at the end of the process. And this is why every new little improvement and every new small visual detail emerging were important.

I think that my passion for visual elements also comes from those moments. I was looking for hooks to catch my sight with.

As I mentioned, I recovered most of my sight from my left eye, but not all of it. There is still a very light white layer on it, a scar, that doesn’t allow me to see completely perfectly. But definitely very well.

And it’s funny — yes, now I find it funny — because I’m a Visual Designer whose sight is not perfect anymore and it won’t ever be.

But I also think that for this reason I love looking at things so much.

I love paying attention to details, shapes and textures, and to examine how these visual elements can have different impacts on me.

I feel a strong emotional component in the relationship I have with visual elements, a component that clearly comes from my experience. And I like to use this aspect for my job.

My sensitiveness to visual elements particularly emerges during an important phase in my design process, the inspiration one. I usually spend a lot of time looking for visual inspirations, not only when I have to start a new project, but almost every day. And I love to pay attention to the visual elements and to understand which shapes, colors and textures could be for the readers the — hopefully pleasant — elements to hook their gaze to.

Looking for visual inspiration

During the years I’ve noticed that for me defining the structure of a data visualization, for instance, is a step that has two kind of influences.

The main one is given by the data themselves. I study them, filtering and ordering them, to see what could be the best way to show them. And then there is another kind of influence, a subtler one, that is caused by the inspiration phase. The shapes and the visual elements I’ve filled my eyes with in the inspiration phase help me in defining new visual structures. And I think that my care for visual details — also coming from my personal experience–really emerges during these phases.

From inspiration to visual models. Legend for Carbon Dioxide Emissions, data visualization for Corriere della Sera — La Lettura.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions: the complete data visualization for Corriere della Sera — La Lettura.

And in general, the link between visual design, emotions and also empathy has a significant space in my personal approach to some of my projects.

Data visualization, emotions and theatre: a story of mutualism
Data visualization and empathy: The Stories Behind a Line

I’ve already talked about some of theme on Medium and I’d like to do it for other ones soon.

That event in 2012 was definitely impactful on my life for many reasons, the one I’m talking about it’s just a small part of them, but I wanted to share it.

Plus, during that period I’ve also written my first theatre play! But this is another story :)

I’m grateful for my healed eye and now I’m also very fond of my small scar, a constant reminder of an intense time that positively changed me for several reasons.