my journey by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 6 minutes

Giorgia Lupi has forged a path for herself that is unique to the way she views the world. Part scientific, part artistic, the Italian-born, Brooklyn-based information designer believes that data should be more human. Her work forms part of the permanent collection at MoMA, her TED talk has over one million views, and she was recently named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.

She speaks with a passion that tumbles out in a flurry of words. Each answer she gives is punctuated by unbridled energy and obsession with her craft.

When did you first realise you had a drive to express yourself creatively?
As many children do, I was always drawing everywhere. One of my first memories of this was with some coloured crayons on my mum’s bedroom walls. I was so proud of my work but my mum was really not happy about it!

Sketch of The Room of Change

So that’s when you first realised drawing was not something you could control.
Yeah, right!

The Room of Change

You then went on to study Architecture. Did you think you would become an architect after that, or did you always know it was just a way to go on to other things?
Well, the other thing that I really liked doing as a child was spending time at my grandmother’s shop. She was a seamstress, and I really enjoyed re-organising all her tools by colour, size and even the number of holes in a button. I have always been drawn to the overlap of rules, numbers, categories, organisation and structure and the need to express myself creatively; Architecture was a way for me to merge those two sets of needs. During my studies, I was always more interested in coming up with the concept and drawing diagrams of how the building would be used, rather than focusing on the materials and composition. As my studies progressed I became very interested in urban mapping which, if you think about it, is already a form of information design.

Building Hopes

Speaking of urban mapping, you moved to New York in 2011. What attracted you to the city, and what do you take from it in terms of inspiration?
I actually started my PhD the same year I founded Accurat, so I was working 24/7, but I had the opportunity as part of the programme to spend six months abroad. That’s how I ended up in New York at the little-known Parsons Institute for Information Mapping. What happened was, I fell in love with the energy of the city and its possibilities, and never came back!

What do we get wrong about data, and what is data for you?
Because I don’t come from a data background, I’ve never seen data as hardcore numbers burdened by technology. I myself don’t code. I call myself an information designer advocating for Data Humanism, which is a different approach to the data world, to ultimately recognise data for what it stands for, which is our imperfect and messy lives.

What I feel we should be doing is reclaiming a personal approach to how data is captured, analysed and displayed. Data is never perfect, it is not objective, it is primarily human-made. We need to embrace the fact that data is subjective and that context plays an incredibly big role in collecting and understanding data. I believe that to make data representative of our human nature, we need to start including all the human qualities of imperfection and empathy into the way we collect, practice and display data.

I always like to remind my designers and clients that, as banal as it sounds, data doesn’t exist. Because data is only an instrument that we, human beings, created to record reality. It is one of the tools that we have to represent reality, but it’s always a placeholder for something else, rarely the real thing. Sometimes we get too focused on the algorithms, as opposed to the type of data that can help us see better. My point is that instead of focusing on the numbers and technology around it, we must focus on what data represents: which is, people, stories and ideas. Only then can data become a powerful tool to analyse the ideas and concepts that we can’t normally grasp and start a conversation, as opposed to providing the ultimate answers to our questions.

Bruises, the data we don’t see

You share a lot of your exploratory drawings on your social channels #Datavizscrapbook. What is it about drawing that triggers the start of a new project for you?
I’m sure many readers may be surprised to hear this, but myself and many data visualisation designers I know use old-fashioned sketches on paper as our primary design tool. I sketch with data to understand the numbers and how to organise those quantitative aspects in a visual way to get meaning out of it. Removing technology from the equation introduces new ways of thinking and leads to designs that are uniquely customised to the specific design problems you are working with, as opposed to relying on templates and libraries. Drawing gives you infinite possibilities for visualising a data chart and this is the moment when you represent exactly what the numbers ask you to represent, as opposed to the other way around. Drawing with data is an invaluable tool to focus on the meaning of the data rather than just the numbers.

You ran a workshop at the MoMA to help people navigate the collection in a different way. What would you like people to know about data and the impact it can have on our daily lives?
I want to teach people how to use data as a lens to see the world. At the MoMA workshop, participants chose three or four parameters to focus on in the exhibition, already setting some rules through which to analyse the artwork. The questions that help you build the data set can be many. As you start doing it you start to learn how to observe, and then you build a data set for yourself. Data can be a creative material for any type of project – you can find it anywhere. Above all, you can understand your reality according to some rules you’ve selected and then use it to compose another work of art.

I want data to get people interested in topics they didn’t know anything about before. If you’re able to design something spectacular and you put a legend on it to suggest there’s data behind it, I believe people will engage with it more than with a 50-page essay on the subject. It’s about being able to show the complexity of our world and get people to explore knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

A dialogue between four hands

How can data help us reconnect with our authentic selves?
Many of us, especially those who don’t work creatively on a daily basis, want to get back to creating and making. As humans, we have always created and made things but in our contemporary times we don’t do it as often. Even people who don’t think they’ll ever be able to draw a simple portrait. If you draw with rules or with data, it’s way easier because the rules determine what you’re doing. I found that it can really help people overcome the fear of the blank page. I always say, “before I think I draw.”

A dialogue between four hands

What has data taught you about humanity?
The reactions I’ve had to some of my projects have taught me that as humans we don’t relate to perfection, but we do relate to humanity. When Stefanie Posavec and I published Dear Data, we received hundreds and thousands of responses from people, all about how they really related to the shameful things we wrote about, such as arguing with our husbands, and the more negative aspects of human behaviour because we relate to vulnerability.

Many people write to me to say a project inspired them to do something similar, and this brings me back to the point about how people want to make things. They’re really striving to get back to working with their hands, at any age, and take pleasure in making.

The Life Cycle of Ideas

How can the creative community at large embrace and incorporate data into their daily lives?
I would say, start with small data that’s easy to understand. There’s nothing better than personal data collection to begin with. My latest book, Observe, Collect, Draw!, has been designed explicitly for this purpose. Stefanie and I collaborated once again to create many activities that people can try out with a bit of guidance from us. Start collecting something from your life for one week; just observe one thing and write it down. At the end of the week, the data will be manageable because it comes from you, it contains your memories. Once you have this collection of data, it’s really only a matter of giving yourself a rule. It’s really accessible; you just have to think small.

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