Review of “Dear Data”

Dear Data is charming set of correspondence between two information designers, Stefanie Posavec in London and Georgia Lupi in New York. Through a set of 52 pairs of hand-written postcards traversing the Atlantic, we gain an intimate glimpse in their lives and a developing friendship.

Each week, they selected a common topic, ones that ranged from what they saw, smelled, what’s in their wardrobe or on their bookshelves, and what they felt and thought. What did you get distracted by? What animals did you see? What compliments did you see or receive? How often did you swear?

On one side of a 7 x 5 postcard, they visualized the data. However, rather than use standard business intelligence tools, such as Excel or Tableau, they hand-drew the visualization. Therein, lies the beauty.

These analogue, imperfect pieces are wonderfully organic. They resemble forests of alien plants, fields of flowers or lollipops, or galaxies of stars. Some are like schools of fish. Others are like cities of skyscrapers, musical scores, or just colorful, beautiful and abstract patterns. The diversity of forms and structure used to convey the highly personal data break the mould of typical data visualization.

Each is accompanied with a rich, highly-detailed legend that helps interpret the image, although often with effort. These are not clean and simple visualizations but often involve many layers compacted into a single scene. Georgia, especially, is prone to overly complex legends and annotations, using a mix of hard-to-disambiguate dots, commas, dashed lines, and colors to convey numerous dimensions. It is one of her cards, however, that is a favorite of mine, one that hints that good data raises questions, and is one that I would happily hang on the wall as apiece of abstract art.

Georgia’s visualization for Week 48: Overhearing! The heart represents overhearing a first date.

One of things that excites me most about this book is its potential to inspire others, especially students, to collect, analyze, and visualize data. It demonstrates very clearly that data is all around us and can be simple (albeit sometimes tedious) to collect. Anyone can detail how many doors they went through, how many times they said sorry, or when they saw a squirrel.

It also shows that there can be no rules; that there are an infinite way to visualize and tell a story with those data. It demonstrates that this can be a highly personal exercise that captures your design aesthetic and that hints at the way that you view the world. That, in itself, is a wonderful lesson to share.

Lupi, G., and Posavec, S. (2016). Dear Data. Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

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