Data Humanism, the Revolution will be Visualized.

Now that we are past what we can call peak infographics, we are left with a general audience that understands some of the tools needed to welcome a second wave of more meaningful and thoughtful visualization.

We are ready to question the impersonality of a merely technical approach to data, and to begin designing ways to connect numbers to what they really stand for: knowledge, behaviors, people.

In its second wave, data visualization will inevitably be all about personalization.

The more ubiquitous data becomes, the more we need to experiment with how to make it unique, contextual, intimate. The way we visualize it is crucial because it is the key to translating numbers into concepts we can relate to.

EMBRACE COMPLEXITY

Accurat for Corriere Della Sera. Series of exploratory, dense, data-driven narratives published in La Lettura, the Sunday cultural supplement.

Whenever the main purpose of data visualization is to open people’s eyes to fresh knowledge, it is impractical to avoid a certain level of visual complexity.

In a collaboration that lasted more than two years with the newsroom of Italy’s largest newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, my design company, Accurat, had the opportunity to work on a series of experimental data visualizations for their Sunday cultural supplement. Our role was to conceive visual narratives, based on data, that achieved the same thoughtfulness and depth of the other essays published in the supplement — pushing the boundaries of what visualization can do with high-density data rife with multiple attributes.

The Future, as Foretold in the Past, Accurat for La Lettura.
The Brain Drain, Accurat for La Lettura
Painters in the Making, Accurat for La Lettura

We can write rich and dense stories with data. We can educate the reader’s eye to become familiar with visual languages that convey the true depth of complex stories.

Dense and unconventional data visualizations promote slowness — a particularly poignant goal to set in our era of ever- shortening attention spans. If we can create visuals that encourage careful reading and personal engagement, people will find more and more real value in data and in what it represents.

MOVE BEYOND STANDARDS

One size does not fit all. Business intelligence tools and dataviz tools for marketers have led many to believe that the ideal way to make sense of information is to load data into a tool, pick from among a list of suggested out-of-the-box charts, and get the job done in a couple of clicks. This common approach is actually nothing more than blindly throwing technology at the problem, sometimes without spending enough time framing the question that triggered the exploration in the first place. This often leads to results that are not only practically useless, but also deeply wrong, because prepackaged solutions are rarely able to frame problems that are difficult to define, let alone solve.

Thoughtful design comes to the rescue again. What I always do when I start a new data project is to move away from the screen and start drawing.

I draw with data in my mind, but with no data in my pen: I sketch with data to understand what is contained in the numbers and in their structure, and how to define and organize those quantities in a visual way to create opportunities to gain insight.

Accurat for Corriere Della Sera. “Nobels, no degrees”- Exploratory Sketch
Accurat for Corriere Della Sera. “Nobels, no degrees”- Final Visualization

Drawing with data is an invaluable tool to discover what is unique about the numbers at hand. It also raises new questions about the data itself. This limiting practice helps to reveal new possible analyses to perform: Instead of being overwhelmed by the size of a dataset and by millions of numbers, we focus only on their nature, their organization, and doing so often opens new opportunities originating from this vantage point.

To expand their data-drawing vocabulary, designers can access hundreds of years of visual information encoding — the evolution of music notation from medieval times to contemporary music, the experimentation with geometric shapes that characterized Avant-Garde artists of the last century. These visual languages, while clearly pursuing different goals, have a lot in common with data visualization: they draw on common perception principles and use simple shapes, select symbols and a definite range of colors to create basic visual compositions that deliver a message and please the eye.

SNEAK CONTEXT IN. (ALWAYS)

A dataset might lead to many stories. Data is a tool that filters reality in a highly subjective way, and from quantity, we can get closer to quality. Data, with its unique power to abstract the world, can help us understand it according to relevant factors. How a dataset is collected and the information included — and omitted — directly determines the course of its life. Especially if combined, data can reveal much more than originally intended. As semiologists have theorized for centuries, language is only a part of the communication process — context is equally important.

This is why we have to reclaim a personal approach to how data is captured, analyzed and displayed, proving that subjectivity and context play a big role in understanding even big events and social changes — especially when data is about people.

Data, if properly contextualized, can be an incredibly powerful tool to write more meaningful and intimate narratives.

We spent a year collecting our data manually instead of relying on a self-tracking digital app, add- ing contextual details to our logs and thus making them truly personal, about us and us alone.

For the first seven days of Dear Data we chose a seemingly cold and impersonal topic: how many times we checked the time in a week.

Artwork from the Dear Data project
Artwork from the Dear Data project

We truly became friends through this manual transmission. And in fact, removing technology from the equation triggered us to find different ways to look at data — as excuses to reveal something about ourselves, expanding beyond any singular log, adding depth and personality to quantitative bits of information.

In a time when self-tracking apps are proliferating, and when the amount of personal data we collect about ourselves is increasing all the time, we should actively add personal and contextual meaning to our tracking. We shouldn’t expect an app to tell us something about ourselves without any active effort on our part; we have to actively engage in making sense of our own data in order to interpret those numbers according to our personal story, behaviors and routine.

FINALLY, REMEMBER THAT DATA IS IMPERFECT. (AS WE ARE)

But this requires a paradigm shift in the way we represent information visually.

We should learn how to include and render the more qualitative and nuanced aspects of data. We should experiment with how to visualize uncertainty, possible errors and imperfections in our data. And most importantly, we should keep in mind how data can be a powerful tool for all designers, bringing stories to life in a visual way and adding structural meaning to our projects.

I believe we’re primed for the future. Let’s get started.

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Giorgia Lupi

Giorgia Lupi

Information designer advocating for Data Humanism. Partner @pentagram Co-author of Dear Data (@_deardata). @TEDtalks speaker, National Design Award winner 2022.