Hacking Social Media to Tell Meaningful Data Visualization Stories: Exploring Anxiety with Embroidery

I started this project when I found myself having a hard time explaining what anxiety is to others. Mental health is something that is not tangible and is very difficult to put to words. Despite this challenge, I still wanted to show it somehow. I came up with the idea to record my own experience with anxiety and visualize what I learned in the process.

For 21 days, I logged the details of my anxiety on my phone. I kept track of triggering incidents and thoughts that were going through my head at the time. After I collected the data, I plotted them using MS Powerpoint to see the trends.

This is the graph I plotted on Powerpoint. The x-axis is time in a day while the y-axis was the days. The length of the lines on the graph represent how long I had felt anxious for that day. Here, I have marked up each anxious thought I had and grouped them into categories.

Through the process of organizing the data, I identified 5 thought patterns I had.

1) What if I fail?
2) What if I’m not liked?
3) What if I die from this?
4) What if things never get better?
5) Unidentified.

Defining the Form

As an information designer, I didn’t want to be restricted by the form my work would take shape in. I have been wanting to make something analog. When I initially plotted the data, it resembled cross-stitch fabric, and I had the idea to stitch the data onto fabric.

After seeing the graph on Powerpoint, I transferred it to Illustrator to test out different colour combinations. I went onto the website of my local craft shop and took some sample colours they had. Through that, I chose colours that varied in hue and saturation. I had to create a palette of five colours, one colour for each thought pattern.

Choosing colours for data is never easy. It’s very difficult to find colours that have enough contrast and hue to be pleasing for both people with and without colour-deficiencies. Through intensive trial and error using Photoshop’s feature ‘Proof Colors’, I found a combination of colours that would be accessible.
This is the end result of how the colours turned out. On the right, I put the image on the left into Photoshop and used “Proof Colors” to see how the each colour would be perceived by someone with colour-deficiencies. Each colour has enough contrast to be seen as different. It’s not perfect, but I think this turned out a lot better than what I expected.

Documenting the Process

After I decided on the colours, it is now time to stitch this data viz. I started off with the axes. This actually took me the longest time to develop, I had to carefully count the spaces for the axis to make it even. I seriously took software for granted for making evenly-spaced axes.

As I was creating this, I was documenting the process on social media. I decided to take a new approach on data storytelling by combining visual essays with long-form post on social media.

The landmarks of the core content lied in the five thought patterns I learned about. The first was “What if I fail”. I renamed the title of the graph as I populated data for each new thought pattern. For each thought pattern, I described in detail what it felt like to have those thoughts.

Long-form posts on Instagram.

I believed that this would be an effective method of content distribution because it breaks down the story into manageable chunks for viewers. I have been seeing a growing trend of visual essays, the ones that come to mind would be those done by The Pudding. I decided to take a spin on that and instead of having one large essay, I essentially stretched the content of one visualization piece over a series of 9 posts. This is similar to how Humans of New York approach journalism on their Facebook page. Brandon Stanton publishes deep and raw interviews with people through long-form posts. Through depth in content, he is able to achieve quality, and I believe this is how one can resonate with their audience.

I have seen many post infographics/data viz on social media without providing much context. I believe words continue to be underestimated. Words, whether spoken or written, hold a lot of weight because they can create meaning. If I published my visualization without much text in the caption, people would not be able to connect with my data. I think there is so much more opportunity to create connection between data and people if words were given more value.

Here is what I wrote on the thought pattern “What If Things Never Get Better?”

Light Blue lines are for the thought pattern “What If Things Never Get Better?”. You can view the rest of the posts on my Instagram [@janezhgw]
“All the light blue lines in the chart are times when I worry about worrying. I wonder if I will always be anxious, if I will always ruminate on the negative, and if I would ever change. On day 15, I ponder why I am the way I am. I get frustrated that I can’t change how I react to situations and am at the mercy of my emotions. It leads to a downward spiral of thoughts that just seem hopeless. I am reminded of how I despise this feeling and how I really want to change. This motivates me to do something, to change my circumstances. It’s not easy to take action, until it becomes really threatening. I have been to a place where I don’t see life as interesting or meaningful, and that terrifies me. It is like taking colour away from me, life loses so much meaning. I am working hard to become well. I am learning that the path to wellness is a path that does not remove anxiety, but allows me to live with it. This is extremely hard to accomplish. It means I will have to be able to live with contradiction. I will have to be able to process thoughts of worry and calm at the same time. It might take years or decades to accomplish this. I have to learn to be aware of each thought that I have and alter it to be more in line with reality. Will things get better? Only time will tell. Did you notice what just happened there? I didn’t jump to conclusions. I have no evidence it will get better, but I also don’t have any evidence it will get worse. And this is the first step to wellness. [This is part 4/5 of a series exploring anxiety with data visualization]”

This project is by far the most personal and difficult one I have ever done. I initially wanted to record data for 30 days, but I only managed 21 days. This was because it was so hard to stay conscious of something so deeply unconscious. For 21 days, I was looking inwards and understanding what my brain was doing. This was incredibly difficult to do, but I am glad I did.

I had 3 main goals with this project:
1) To help me learn more about myself
2) To allow others to learn more about mental health, specifically anxiety
3) To push my boundaries in data design as a creative

As I was working on this project, I also hoped for another outcome: that people would see the potential of data visualization could have in changing how we think. I believe data visualization puts form to something that is formless, it makes things less abstract and it allows us to understand. People are always seeking to find meaning in things. I think this is one of the ways I can help meaning form.

The final form of the project.