Visualizing the Crisis

An Information Design workshop to track the unfolding global financial crisis

“This time it will be different”.
 — Every market commentator, ever.

Towards the end of 2015, a handful of financial experts began to warn of an imminent global crisis. Long threads on specialized blogs were rarely picked up by mainstream media outlets. Similar to what happened in 2008, it seemed that the vast majority of commentators were failing to recognize the symptoms of the looming disaster. Perhaps nobody was able to see them: the ways in which market dynamics are visualized have scarcely improved, despite the recurrent crises that have occurred over the past century.

When we started to think of a possible topic for this year’s Information Design course at IUAV, Venice (after exploring the world’s technology and networks in two consecutive editions of an illustrated Atlas of the Contemporary) we realised that in trying to understand how — and if — this crisis would have unfolded, there was a great potential for design to help illuminate this conjuncture. Given the increasing importance of economical data and the financial landscape over our lives, the lab was then established as an ongoing, real-time workshop in data-visualisation, which would track and explain the crisis that the analysts predicted for 2016. Its purpose was to better understand the broader network of causes and implications which every financial turmoil exists within, providing context to economic reports, and looking at the socio-political framework of news stories. From a design perspective, the intention was to develop new ways for visualizing financial news, in order to move from the rather bi-dimensional and dispassionate language of bar and pie charts, into a richer territory made up of maps, cartograms, illustrations and diagrams.

Between February and June 2016, twenty students from the first and second year of the MA Communication Design participated in this third Information Design Lab led by Marco Ferrari and Ivor Williams. They were divided into seven groups, each of them covering a specific topic. They closely followed the news for 15 weeks, in order to understand these issues through investigating patterns, data, forecasts and reports, so they could track the shifts in the financial global landscape from the perspective of these particular areas.


Topics and Groups

The seven topics of research were chosen according to their relevancy to the contemporary financial discourse and their likely influence on an upcoming crisis: Central Banking, Employment, Energy, EU Debt Crisis, Gold, Real Estate, and Tech Bubble. The students were asked to become familiar with these issues by looking at daily news, with an insight into the connections between the reported facts and the role of politicians, countries, organizations, entrepreneurs, and their effects on the life of citizens. Besides this, they could also look at broader historical sources, in order to better frame their analysis and understanding of contemporary events.

Employment, Issue #10
Central Banking, issue #07 (front) and #04 (back)
EU Debt Crisis, issue #08 (front) and #06 (back)

Outputs

The lab has three outputs. Firstly, a series of 10 weekly bulletins for each group, for a total amount of 70 double-sided, single A3 papers printed with a Risograph machine. Each of these bulletins has been collectively and entirely researched, edited and designed in seven days. The students collected and visualised through them all the crucial data relative to their specific area of investigation. As a fundamental design decision, the content was limited to text, vector diagrams and illustrations, requiring the students to design themselves everything that appears on each issue. Design possibilities were further refined by curbing the color palette to just three options: black, red and green (a choice that also takes advantage of the technical limitations of the Risograph). The complete series of the bulletins shows the evolution of different design grammars and languages for each group, while consolidating emerging threads of events throughout the overall 15 weeks of work. As one of the most outstanding examples, the consequences of the UK vote in the EU Referendum that took place on June 23rd (the day prior the final exhibition of the course’s outcomes) are often analyzed and reported in many of the issues. The PDF files of all the bulletins are collected here.

Risograph-printed bulletins, detail

The second output is an interactive interface that allows for the exploration of the complete archive of information collected during the lab. The dense information graphics designed contained in the bulletins have been reduced to their essential elements, and broken down into component atoms. Each paragraph, visualisation, graph, quote and summary was then defined through a set of 64 keywords—collectively devised and agreed upon—ranging from geography, resources, demographics and financial definitions, in order to allow the readers to easily cross-reference, compare and contrast information. They were then archived into XML files that can be printed as on-demand, succinct reports. The syntax of these XML bulletins is such that they are both readable to the layman but suitable for machine output, itself an exercise in informational organization and clarity. XML was chosen due to its accessibility as a language for a primarily non-technical working group, yet which supported a relatively simple transfer between physical and digital outputs. On June 24th, on the occasion of the students’ final show, this interface was presented as an installation made of punched cards (to record the keywords’ selection), a custom card reader and a thermal printer for the output of the reports. The XML files of all the bulletins are archived here.

Finally, a web version of this interface has been designed to allow anyone to browse the contents edited by the students and to access all the data online. It can be found here.

Views of the interactive installation with the printed XML reports, June 24th

Methods and Tools

The premise of the course was to adopt information design as an investigative tool: to visualize news and data in order to get a better understanding of their evolving context, rather than turning to design as a polished mean of representation for a well-established truth. By focusing on finance, we wanted to address one of the most important — and, at the same time, obscure — domains of the contemporary world, where information is often conveyed through the lens of despair and conspiracy. The aim was to look at the evolution of current events by revealing the hidden connections between the actors at every level of local and global organizations, and by rendering complex patterns of data and relationships into legible diagrams.

On the other hand, the various outputs of the course were established as an exercise for the understanding of the separation between form and content, and as an experiment into responsive design. By translating their elaborate visualizations into XML code, the students converted a static output into an open-source archive for the manipulation of the same information by an endless amount of other authors.

The lab was set up through a series of 15 weekly meetings and reviews, and a constant remote collaboration with the students. During its whole duration the course has been run on Slack and Github, in order to track its progress, comment on the outputs and organize the various phases of the process.

Final exhibition at IUAV, Venice, on June 24th, 2016

Resources

All the contents, tools and the complete documentation of the course are archived on a Github repository, entirely free to browse, download, copy, and use for your own research purposes. The entire series of the printed bulletins is collected here. A wider selection of photos from the printing process and the IUAV exhibition can be also found here.

Finally, with this digital interface you are invited to discover yourself the complex relationships between African import trades, Canadian housing shortages, European renewable energy, unemployment rates amongst Millennials and many other combinations that make up the modern financial world — and see if a crisis is near or, maybe, what we call crisis is just a lack of clear information.


Colophon

First and foremost, the credit goes to the students. Their painstaking research and design commitment allowed them to gain expertise in reading the complex world of finance; to craft a refined visual language for the representation of both mathematical, statistical and news information; and finally, to understand the differences between a printed output and an open-source, digital repository of the same information. Here are their names, organized by group:

  • Central Banking: Giulia Fracas, Francesca Polini
  • Employment: Daniela Bracco, Ilaria Gava, Andrea Marson
  • Energy: Eleonora Di Bartolo, Serena Montefiori, Maria Tollot
  • EU Debt Crisis: Francesca Alaimo, Jacopo Faggian, Valeria Mento
  • Gold: Noemi Incardona, Fabiana Mangano, Alessandra Neri
  • Real Estate: Irene Chiappini, Giulia Serafin
  • Tech Bubble: Elisa Bianchi, Francesca Luzi, Federico Rita

The course was led by professors Marco Ferrari and Ivor Williams, together with Giacomo Covacich, Pietro Leoni and Angelo Semeraro as tutors.

Angelo Semeraro developed the back-end and the front-end of the interactive installation, its digital interface and all the tools that helped the students to translate their bulletins into open-source, XML repositories. Pietro Leoni designed and programmed the punched card reader. Giacomo Covacich led the printing process of the A3 bulletins with the Risograph machine.

Thank you to Alessandro Busi and Aaron Gillett for their presence during mid-term reviews; and Hugo Liu for his advice during the definition of the course’s topics.

The typefaces used in the bulletins have been kindly provided by CAST — Cooperativa Anonima Servizi Tipografici, an all-Italian digital type foundry initiated by Marta Bernstein, Erasmo Ciufo, Riccardo Olocco and Luciano Perondi.

This text is by Marco Ferrari, Ivor Williams, Angelo Semeraro.