The Datasmith

Designer Giorgia Lupi's work puts individuals at the heart of complex information.

By Matt Huston, published January 2, 2019 - last reviewed on March 5, 2019

Photograph by Daniel Cochran
COMPLEX WORLDS: Lupi believes that data can clarify both global phenomena and personal experience.
Photograph by Daniel Cochran

Giorgia Lupi's data-driven visual creations are like 1,000-piece puzzles: With a little persistence, observers gain a rich picture of topics as varied as fashion history, scientific progress, and guitar-playing. A major aim of Lupi's work is to ground the abstraction of facts and figures in human experience. The firm she co-founded, Accurat, counts among its projects a graphic report for the World Health Organization and an app, conceived with Google News Lab, that visualizes users' hopes for the future. For a yearlong extracurricular endeavor, "Dear Data," Lupi and an overseas collaborator each tallied their own flashes of frustration, indecision, joy, and more, categorizing and charting them on postcards they exchanged. Her newest book, Observe, Collect, Draw!, invites readers to analyze patterns in their own lives.

People use data to try to quickly grasp the details of a subject. Your work prompts us to take more time.

You probably don't want a pilot to have to spend time deciphering a complicated display. But I believe that in most cases, data, in the form of a pie chart or even performance indicators presented to top managers, is too simplified. We shouldn't be afraid of complexity, because the world is complex. When we can, it's better to have agency to interpret what the data is telling us. If you build something with data that is beautiful and even strange at first, but you give people a legend, they are more compelled to dig into that than a page full of bar charts.

How do you define the approach you call "data humanism"?

There's a parallel with Renaissance humanism, where European intellectuals, after a dark, medieval time, placed human nature, instead of God, back at the center of the world. I feel that data is sometimes treated like a god, an apparently infallible keeper of our truth. It will start to be more useful in daily life only if we design ways to include human qualities—empathy, imperfection—in how we collect, display, and interpret it.

 Giorgia Lupi and Kaki King
HIGHS AND LOWS: "Bruises: The Data We Don't See" is a visual record of a girl's treatment for an autoimmune disease. The petals, red dots, and lines represent passing days, her blood platelet counts, and her mom's levels of positive and negative emotions.
Art by: Giorgia Lupi and Kaki King

In one personal project (shown above at a reduced size), you integrated data on a girl's medical condition with her mom's shifting levels of hope and fear. Why?

The idea was: Can a data visualization activate you at both an emotional level and a cognitive one? Can it allow you to feel part of another human being's story? There is a density to a story told this way that you rarely reach through writing or documentary film. The mundane details ultimately make a story relatable. Kaki, the girl's mother, wanted to monitor what was happening, so we structured a way to do that. After four months, her daughter was out of the danger zone. This project touches on the whole journey. You can enter the story in different ways based on what you are interested in.

You've also collected data on your own negative feelings. Has that helped you cope?

Stopping, acknowledging, and giving a name to what you're feeling can help you process it a little better. My dad passed away last year in a car accident. In the following months, I wanted to track my emotions—I felt that there was a risk that I would go into autopilot mode and not process them. In the saddest moments, I tracked what the memory of my dad brought up. When I felt regret and other negative feelings, I added another category to my data collection: What was sweet or funny about my dad? Forcing myself to have these thoughts was really good for me.

What did you learn by analyzing your experiences for "Dear Data"?

I learned what it means to pay attention. I'm more in tune with my thoughts, things in the world, how I notice beauty and everything I tracked. I'm more aware of what I say—the thank-yous, the complaints. During one week of the project, I said so many thank-yous to strangers, but I pretty much never thanked my husband. I tracked his frequent acts of generosity during another week.

Can we look to numbers for an exact representation of reality?

Stories before the last presidential election contained precise percentages and bar charts. For most people, me included, that presentation communicated a certainty that was not correct—because the numbers were based on polls, and public opinion was shifting. We need to say, for example, if you want to stick with pie charts, that part is red and part is blue, but there are also shades of red and blue. We humans don't like uncertainty. We may be avoiding the fact that we really don't know what is going to happen.

Have you always had a penchant for order?

My favorite activity when I was little was to spend time in the shop of my grandmother, who was a seamstress, reorganizing all of her buttons and ribbons according to my rules. She had these really organized drawers, and I would pull them all out and lay down the buttons—one day by color, another day by size, and the next by whether they had two holes or four.

How might the rest of us start making closer observations of our own lives?

A simple ritual is setting up an alarm for the end of the day and writing answers to a few questions that are always the same: What was a highlight of your day? What was missing? Is there anything that you could do, based on what you've written, to make tomorrow better? Over time, you can see things that repeat. Most of the time, the highlight of my day is a human interaction. If you see that, you look for more of those interactions. And the answer to what was missing for me is often just "the sun."