In her 99U talk, ‘data humanist’ and Pentagram partner Giorgia Lupi offers a look into the far-reaching applications of her work in data and design, from corporate (an AR-powered map for Starbucks retail stores) to institutional (a site-specific visualization of a MoMA exhibition) to personal (an interpretation of a child’s life with chronic illness). Giorgia encourages creatives to harness data as a design tool, while respecting human privacy and experience in their output.
About Giorgia Lupi: Giorgia Lupi is an information designer and a Partner at Pentagram in New York.
After receiving her master’s degree in Architecture, she earned her PhD in Design at Politecnico di Milano. In 2011, she co-founded Accurat, an internationally acclaimed data-driven design firm with offices in Milan and New York.
Giorgia’s TED talk on her humanistic approach to data has over one million views. She has been named One of Fast Company‘s 100 Most Creative People in Business, and she joined MIT Media Lab in 2018 as a Director’s Fellow.
What are the words that come to your mind if I tell you that today I’m going to talk about data? Technology, algorithm, big, truth, control. What if I told you instead that data can be an incredibly powerful design and narrative, very human material that you can write with and design with? In fact, through my professional and personal practice over the years, I’ve learned that data not only can describe the objective world, but it can especially help us grasp and illustrate aspects of our lives and in our world that we really hardly associate with numbers, but I will get there.
I’m an information designer, and for the past 10 years, I’ve worked with data, qualitative and quantitative, big and small, data that organizations already have or crafted by myself, and together with my team at my firm, we, every day, shape the way our clients interact with this information through data visualization and through building interactive experiences with these visualizations.
And I will show you a recent montage of our work to give you a sense of what we do where think that every shape, color, sizes, and attributes in the images that you’re seeing are actual representation of data points and their dimensions. So, as I mentioned to you before, over the years, my work, which I’ll show you in depth in a second, lead me to question the actual definition of data. And I’d like to start with a pretty fundamental consideration: that data doesn’t exist. And if we think about it, we all know it, right?
Data is an instrument that we, human beings, created to observe, record, and archive our reality. It’s a partial abstraction of reality, a proxy for something else, but it’s never the real thing. And following this last point, well then data is imperfect. Our world is mostly random and messy, and collecting data doesn’t make it more perfect or more controllable. And lastly, data is human because even if it comes from a sensor or technological device, well, a human being designed that sensor and decided what to collect and what to leave out. So data-driven doesn’t mean ‘unmistakably true’, it never did and it never will.
And it might all really sound obvious to you, but when working with data, it’s really easy to fall into the idea that they’re an objective collection of facts, overarching truth that will solve our problems. It’s easy to get fascinated by the numbers and the technologies that we use to gather them, that we risk to lose the point. The data is one of the ways we have to see and record our reality, a lens, a filter that we can apply and it can really help us discover and make visible the hidden patterns of our world, but it should never be the focus, it should really never be the point. And this is how I wanna talk about data today, how I wanna talk about data today as a designer.
Uncovering a world of sometimes imperfect, and intentionally hand-crafted data that are the ones that can tell the most compelling stories, and that can be used really as a design tool to create value. And I will guide you through how I discover the beauty and humanity in data and data visualization, how I’m experimenting with it, and also how what I envision for the role of data in the future. So, I’m taking you now back in 2012 in Italy, where I’m originally from, where we started to collaborate with a Sunday cultural supplement of the main Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, where from 2012 to 2014 we designed more than 40 data analyses and visualizations. And the purpose of that column in the newspaper was explicitly to explore what can be done with data journalism and data visualization to push the boundaries of the discipline, and also to make a stress test: How much complexity can our reader absorb?
And so every week we looked for data on a main topic, combining and overlaying different information on cultural and social phenomena with many layers of context, and then we visualize all of this data with the unique language created specifically for the data that we found, as you can see from these previews. So, rather than just looking at numbers and visualizing these numbers directly, we focus on the reality represented by the data, and from there, we imagine how to distill these stories into how we represented it.
We also started to experiment on how data visualization can almost become a meditative language to decode for the readers. And also to learn that complexity can be our friend and we can use design to let people in, and invite them to spend really some times with data, always providing a ledge and so a key to understand how to dig into these in novel languages. And personally, I loved breaking free from the boundaries of the typical bar chart and pie charts that many times cannot really convey the depth of the stories that we find in data. It was illuminating to me and really it helped me still define now how I work with data in 2019.
But we can of course explore these boundaries even further beyond the two-dimensional environment and beyond the places that we normally expect to see data. In a recent collaboration with Starbucks, we built a hundred-foot-wide data wall that was carved and etched in brass, for the first Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Italy that opened in Milan last September. Exploring the combination of large physical spaces, unconventional building materials, and virtual environment.
So, this wall tells the story of Starbucks, the journey of Starbucks, with a timeline of the most important moments in the brand history, a map of all of the places that have been fundamental for the company, and also a background data layer that explains the coffee-making process for the most popular blends. And to make these stories really accessible for visitors, we also designed and developed a mobile app that, through augmented reality, really brings this theater to life. Adding a digital layer that interacts directly with the physical space of the wall, and where the wall is turned into a living artwork with access to extra content that can be experienced in this immersive way.
And so I guess you start seeing the power of data as a narrative material, not only in obvious contexts, such as a magazine or a website. And now moving very far away from technology and digging into personal stories made of data, in 2014, I embarked in a yearlong, self-initiated project that I always say that was for me the big data hunger cure, called ‘Dear Data’, a collaboration with London-based information designer Stefanie Posavec. So Stefanie and I met only twice in our lives, ’til we decided to run this very radical experiment around one main question: Is it possible to get to know another human being through data only?
For ‘Dear Data’ for every weekend for one year, we used our personal data to get to know each other. Personal data, our own weekly shared, mundane topic, from our thoughts and ideas to the interaction with our partners, from our belongings to our most intimate feelings. So 52 excuses in form of data to investigate and reveal particular aspects of ourselves and about our days. Personal data that we would manually hand-draw on a postcard-sized sheet of paper that every week was sent from New York to London where Stefanie lives, and from London to New York where I live for one year, where the front of the card was always the data drawing, and the back of the postcards contained the address of the other person of course, and the legend how to interpret our drawings.
So we started to look at our ways through data, but not only quantifying the number of times we performed a certain action. Instead adding context in details about why, what was happening, what was the situation, what was the feeling, really realizing week after week how to put ourself in these numbers. And the importance of adding context in qualitative aspects to make this data truly representative of ourselves. We investigated even our mind and our most intimate fears through data, sharing with the other person all the moments that we felt anxious, sad, frustrated, fearful, and explaining why through the way we categorized our moments of negativity, for example, as one of the 52 topics. And ultimately we’ve been using data as our unique alphabet, our language, to communicate our lives to the other person for one entire year.
So ‘Dear Data’ also became a book that is third edition and the original collection of postcards have found the most amazing home as they’ve been acquired as part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. But what excites me even more is that ‘Dear Data’ has been so well received from the public outside the data and design community. We’ve seen thousands of postcards made by people, not even designers or artists, learned about the project and wanted to experiment on themselves. Even teachers of any grade are using this format to teach their students the world of data. It has opened the idea of data to a wider audience that made it more approachable and more fun, to the point that our publishers smartly advised us to create a second book, which came out last fall, called ‘Observe, Collect, Draw’, which is a journal for everybody to document their world in data. So, we have seen how we can turn even the smallest details of our lives into data that we can look at to see things from a different perspective, but besides personal data, we can do it everywhere and anywhere.
I am often asked, “Where do you find data?” And am more and more replying that I design my data sets. Another example, in 2017, I had the great honor to collaborate with Paola Antonelli, the senior curator for art and architecture at MoMA, and with her team on a piece that closed the show, ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ that some of you might have seen if you were in New York. So the show presented 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact and influenced really our culture, from the bikini to the burkini, from the Patagonia fleece to the balaclava, from Colin Kaepernick’s jersey to the Palestinian keffiyeh.
And I had this incredible opportunity to create a site-specific, hand-drawn of course, visualization, to guide visitors to explore the features of the items at the end of the show, both individually and part of a bigger acquisition. But what’s interesting here is that I didn’t have any data. I only had the list of the 111 objects and the background research conducted by the curatorial team on each of them. And so I put on the glasses of the data collector and delved into the 111 stories in search for bits of quantitative and qualitative information that helped me answer a few main questions and really understand and reveal why was each item included in the show.
And I asked, for example: Is the item a medium or a message? Meaning, is it iconic because of its technical and aesthetical features, or for what it represents? And are they worn to conform or to escape, meaning has it become a way to blend into a social context and break free from it? And many questions of this kind, really crafting a data sets from these questions, and then each of the item became a symbol that I drew on the wall, position and visualized according to this set of attributes, this actual data set that I built together with the curators with a legend on the side wall to interpret it for the visitors. And so the whole point of my exercise was to start from the final manifestation of this process and work backward, really reconstructing the invisible data set that Paola and her team used as an input for their design even without knowing it, and then making it visible for everyone to see through the lens of data.
And let me pause for a second. I think we are in a pretty interesting moment in time to merge data and design besides the more artistic expressions that I’ve showed you up until now. So at this point we’re all aware of the companies and brands that we love and use every day, collect, analyze, and use the data that we, customers, make available to them. And in this moment, when the conversations about privacy and what is a fair use of personal data are rising, this company will necessarily have to open up to us about the process. Owning the fact that they’re collecting data and starting new type of conversations and shaping new relationship with us through this data, giving a measurable value back to us on the other side besides ads and recommendation. And because we are not all data scientists, most of us, many of us have no use of raw data on a spreadsheet, and so it’s only through design that we can shape meaningful experiences with this data in forms that we all can understand and engage with.
And I’ll show you now a few other examples of how I think this dialog could evolve that I have started to explore. For example, in 2017, Target, one of the main sponsors of the TED Conference edition in Vancouver, asked us for a way to engage the attendees of the conference through data, and we created a quite unusual data-driven experience. We designed what we call Data Portraits of all the people who were at TED. Images based on people’s answers to a series of questions and translated into a hand-drawn image, where every color, symbol, and position of the elements that you’re seeing is of course a direct translation of one person’s answer. And these images were then immediately printed on buttons that people would wear throughout the conference and use as a tool for sparking conversation and finding commonalities and differences with each other. So we asked simple but somehow personal questions, as you can read on the legend, such as which TED letter are you: Technology, Entertainment, or Design? And do you get your best ideas after an adult beverage, or while at work? Or how messy is your desk? Or how many unread emails in your inbox before you freak out? And people at TED were wearing their abstract symbol on their badges, using them to really identify similarities and difference with others, with other people at a first glance, really an excuse to start a conversation, an icebreaker, and knowing the meaning, of course, behind the colors and the symbols on the other person’s badge. And so in this small experiment, we prototype a model when the data, or the data that I shared, generates an output that gives a tangible value back to me. In this specific case, it was in the form of a keepsake to create more interesting conversations.
Another example, when the team at Google News Initiative asked us for an original take on how to look at their data, meaning Google searches, we in this case decided to let people define their frame of reference to interpret the data that they will see before seeing it, and engaging them in the actual production of data. And as for the topic, in a challenging moment of international tensions rising, we decided to focus on the idea of hope and using it as our lens to dig in. So we created Building Hopes, an app that lets you create physical sculptures that represent the ideas, concepts, and movements that you’re hopeful for, and then using them as a means to access Google Trend data. So as the experience starts in augmented reality setup, you’re presented with floating topics to select from, so medical discoveries, improving education, achieving gender equality, ideas that you might be hopeful for that you can tap and give a weight to. Rocks that you can really place in a specific location in the world through augmented reality to share with all of the other people using the app. And once the sculpture is created, then it can be used as a way to access Google Trend data on the topic of your choice, revealing how people around the world are searching and have searched for the same concepts over time, and seeing also how many other people who use the app are hopeful for the same ideas and concepts. And again, making you reflect upon the data that you’re seeing in a conversation with yourself at that moment. So the idea is that by picking what you’re hopeful for before starting, you engage in a conversation that you already have a stake in, and even data coming from a brand becomes more about you and it’s filtered by what you care about.
And to translate this experience into a more general idea, well, if we think about what we see on social media, for example, at this point we all know that we live in the bubbles that are created by our own behaviors, what we like and what we share seeing pretty much only the content that confirms our thinking and preferences and in fact giving us a partial view of the world. And well, if through a design experience, we could make people even more aware that what they choose filters what they see and what is given back to them, I think that we will have really way more opportunities for, should we want it, break free from the bubbles that we all create by recognizing them first.
And I wanna conclude getting into something that we can perhaps all relate to as human beings. I wanted to share with you an even more radical experiment that deals with how medical data is presented and what is normally not even recorded in this context. This project is a collaboration with my dear friend and guitar hero Kaki King. We actually started to collaborate when John Maeda brought us together a few years ago for a branding project that combined music and data visualization for the 200 years anniversary of the Hennessy VSOP edition of the cognac, which I will not get into a lot of details for time’s sake. But then Kaki and I fell in love with each other’s work immediately and decided to keep on exploring together until when, two years ago, Kaki’s three-year-old daughter, Cooper, was diagnosed with a condition called ITP, an autoimmune disease where her body attacks her platelets and leads to spontaneous bruises, burst blood vessels called petechiae, all over her skin, and in the most horrifying cases, even internal bleedings. So for four months until her daughter, Cooper, was out of the danger zone, we collected and combined quantitative data from Cooper’s test, and qualitative observations from Kaki like from her life, her own level of stress and fear, and the main activities of the day that happened.
And we decided to share this very personal journey, not with words, but through this data, then I then visualized in a way that you would probably not expect from a medical data visualization. So these data are really intimate and very intense and personal, so I asked myself, “Can a data visualization evoke empathy and activate us also at an emotional level and not only at a cognitive one?” So I structured the fluid timeline to tell the stories of these four very hard months for Kaki and her family. Every symbol that you see represents a data point where every petal, every white petal is a day. And the rhythm is broken when Cooper was admitted to the hospital to check her platelet count, and the burst of red dots represent this value. And then we have data as observed by Kaki herself, like the purple splotches with their intensity representing the visible bruises, or the pink dots and their dimension represent the number of petechiae, like really the level of petechiae, the blot marks on her skin. When Cooper was taking steroids, you will see these gray shapes affecting the days, and here is where Cooper had some incident that caused her skin to worsen, such as she fell at the park, or she was bitten by a mosquito. But there’s also all that was going on in Kaki’s life and in her mind. Kaki tours a lot and she feels very stressed when away from home in this particular moment, and this is indicated with this black dots in the days that she was gone.
But there also have been positive moments, such as a fun birthday party for Cooper or her brother that are highlighted by these yellow splots that cheer up the visual in a way. And lastly, also Kaki kept track of her own level of fear and hope for the day that she reported on a scale on one to 10, visualized through this floating line, where the dark lines are her fears and the orange lines are her hope. And all around we added Kaki’s personal note for the day. This visual was also used as a musical score by Kaki to create a piece of music that she composed directly for the four month of data collection when the timeline of the song represent what was happening in their life exactly as the data visualization that you saw. And this is the song that you’re hearing now.
As you can probably see, this is not by any means a scientific representation of data. Still, I think that it paints a pretty complete and sensorial picture of this very personal journey. And many people living similar experiences told us that this visualization made them feel really part of Kaki’s stories in a way that probably a blog post wouldn’t have done. And I don’t wanna say that this can lead to any medical breakthrough or scientific breakthrough in the medical field, this is not the point of my work. But I believe there is a world of unexplored, small and intimate data that we often don’t see if we apply a straightforward definition of what data is. And wait, what if for example hospitals and doctors could also speak these type of languages back to us? What if every company and organization that collects our data was opening to design the way we receive our information back, and give us endless opportunity to engage with our own data, and learn more about ourself in the process?
We really live in a moment in time where we need and we can reclaim a human and, therefore, way more approachable and accessible approach to data. I often gather what I do and think under the umbrella of data humanism, a new renaissance where we, humans, in our needs and desires will be the focus of the conversation around data, where we will design ways to include empathy, imperfection in human qualities into how we collect, process, analyze, and display this information to make them faithfully representative of our human nature. Where data-driven design is replaced by design-driven data because we will design the way we will approach data depending on its unique context every time, meaning we will design the conversation around data. And where ultimately, instead of using data only to become more efficient, we will all use data also to become more human.