Only a few academic institutions in the World can say they’ve impacted a whole field through the work done either by their students or by the scholars themselves. In Europe, the Politecnico de Milano (Italy) has gained some notoriety in the field of data visualization, mostly thanks to the fascinating projects being developed at the research lab affiliated to the Design Department, Density Design.
For those familiar with this information design, it’s almost automatic: when we hear something about Density Design, a single name comes to our minds, even knowing that its far from being a single-person job – the PhD students are the main pillars of the lab. But Paolo Ciuccarelli‘s path in data visualization has been evolving hand-to-hand with the research lab’s work.
A regular speaker at events related to Design and Visualization, author of several published papers and books, Paolo has become one of those must-know names in the field. He bridges the traditional academic world with the fresh perspective of a visual communicator, and he was kind enough to share a bit of his story, as well as other interesting insights, with us:
Visual Loop (VL)- Your academic life started in Architecture, then Design and only after that came information design. Can you explain us a bit about that trajectory that led, ultimately, to the creation of Density Design?
Paolo Ciuccarelli (PC) – Well, when I was studying Architecture at Politecnico di Milano, Design was not an option: no university in Italy was offering at that time a program in Design. I then had the opportunity to participate in the creation of what would become the first graduate program in Design, within the same School of Architecture were I got my degree. I started collaborating with the faculty of the Industrial Design program around 1996, teaching and doing some research, and then I moved to Communication Design as soon as this degree has been created; I became assistant professor there in 2001.
In fact, Communication has always been an interest if not a passion for me: even in the school of Architecture I attended all the courses available with a design or communication focus. During my studies in Architecture, I had also one of the most important encounters of my professional life, the one with the epistemology of complexity: I’ve been literally captured by authors like Morin, Prigogine, Bateson, Capra, thanks to a professor in charge of a course called Technology of Architecture.
Complexity has been the spark that led me to the idea of Density Design. It was around 2004, I was fascinated at that time by the visualization of networks that were spreading on the Web together with the exponential growth of the Internet; it was the time of the Atlas of Cyberspaces…
Going back to some of the concepts I learnt during my studies, I decided to challenge students with the idea of using visualization as a way to represent and communicate the complexity of some social phenomena. The aim was to preserve as much as possible the complexity, avoiding reduction and leading to better decisions and actions. Data and Information came afterword, as a consequence and as a means; Data Visualization has never been the primary goal in itself.
After some years of teaching, in 2007 I started doing research in the relationship between complexity, diagrammatic representations and visualization, together with my first PhD student, Donato Ricci. In this period, the idea of funding a research lab emerged. The “Density” (d) in the name of the lab comes from the idea that we’re more and more aware of the complexity (c) behind the issues we have to face and,on the same time, we’ve less and less time (t) to decide and act on them; multiplied by a factor that expresses the growing number of heterogeneous stakeholders (s) involved in decision-making processes: d=c/t*s
Before moving to this new research area, while teaching about visualization, I was still doing research on knowledge management and design, developing tools and methods to organize and manage documents, information and knowledge for designers: I was working on the back-office, compared to what I’m doing now.
The “Density” (d) in the name of the lab comes from the idea that we’re more and more aware of the complexity (c) behind the issues we have to face and,on the same time, we’ve less and less time (t) to decide and act on them; multiplied by a factor that expresses the growing number of heterogeneous stakeholders (s) involved in decision-making processes: d=c/t*s
VL – And now, eight years after the creation of Density Design, what can you tell us about the results achieved so far?
PC – Everything started with a single experimental didactic experience, and now Density Design is a research lab affiliated to the Design Department at Politecnico di Milano. PhD students are the main pillars of the lab, and being able to attract and keep them is already a success in our context. Research fellows, interns, a large group of master thesis and a strong network of “alumni” around the world – which keep always in touch and create new links and partnerships- complete the picture. People often say that we are more a family than a research group… I think it conveys very well a sense of the atmosphere we try to preserve in an otherwise very intense working process. Having fun is still a big part of the game!
I’m quite happy with the results we achieved so far: the academic context in Italy is not really an easy one; the resources are scarce (the lab is completely autonomous, except from the PhD students that comes with a scholarship), and growing with your own independent project is not something obvious. Now I can say that we created something like a “school” on the subjects we’re working on; a ecosystem that effectively integrates teaching and research, working for both public and private organizations, on a global scale, with a local touch. Before us, the field of Information Design, Infographics and similar disciplines in Italy was a kind of a wasteland, especially within the academic context, except from some vertical experiences in Computer Science departments. I don’t think I’m too pretentious to say that DD Lab is one of the excellences that our university can show nowadays.
VL – From all the projects already developed by Density Design, is there a particular one (or more) that holds a special place in your heart? Why?
PC – I’m particularly fond of the first (significantly) funded project we got. It arrived at the beginning of 2009 via Flickr (!), with a message in our inbox, sent by the founder of a NGO dealing with empowering primary education in USA. We developed together a prototype of a visual tool to display all the Open Data available about schools. The first aim was to support the activity of the NGO itself, and then we extended the application to parents’choices, to support their micro-decision-making processes. It has been a very interesting and foundational project, both for the results and for what we learnt in terms of research process.
VL – In terms of teaching information design, I’m sure there’s still a lot room to improvements in universities all around the world. From your perspective, what are the main challenges and obstacles faced (or created) by these institutions that stops them of investing more in research nucleus such as the one you helped creating in Milan?
PC – In fact, even my university never made a specific investment in Density Design, except from letting me doing my work, without asking too much. Now, after years of research mainly founded by foreign organizations, our projects and activities (featured first in international books and blogs and only recently also in national magazines and newspapers) receive some attention also here at Politecnico, where we’re extending our contacts and collaboration towards many different departments. It took years, and I never take it for granted.
I think that for many universities – except the ones with computers science departments, where Information Visualization has a long tradition – the subject of visualization came as a surprise, and now they are trying to fill the gap. Courses of data and information visualization and infographics are growing everywhere, but what I think is missing is the awareness of how much interdisciplinary are these disciplines; how much “humanity” is in them: it’s something that cannot be driven by technology alone. Thus, one of the main obstacles for me is the disciplinary shortsightedness of some academic domains, and a kind of disciplinary “xenophobia”.
Courses of data and information visualization and infographics are growing everywhere, but what I think is missing is the awareness of how much interdisciplinary are these disciplines; how much “humanity” is in them: it’s something that cannot be driven by technology alone. Thus, one of the main obstacles for me is the disciplinary shortsightedness of some academic domains, and a kind of disciplinary “xenophobia”.
VL – On the other hand, what are the leading institutions, those that are indeed helping the field move forward? Any specific references?
PC – I could mention the ‘classics’, from the University of Maryland to the Stanford Visualization Group… but I think the organizations that mostly help rising the bar and moving forward are all the other disciplines and professionals that are discovering nowadays what visualization can do for them: from sociology to humanities, from lawyers and managers to decision makers and urban planners, new and often unexpected areas are addressing visualization with novel questions and specific needs.In most of the cases these new questions cannot be answered with the traditional/standard solutions.
VL – Despite being directly involved in the academic world, you have been a constant presence in events related, for instances, with visual journalism, web design and cyber security. In what way those attendances have influenced the way you understand data visualization and infographic design as a whole and not only as an academic discipline? Or that was something that you had present all along?
PC – On one hand, crossing so many different fields of application helps you in keeping the bar on the basics, the foundations of visual representation and perception, that are basically the same everywhere; on the other, it helps you also in remembering that there is no one solution for the many possible combination of target, context and purposes in visualization projects. Especially if you work on the borders of the discipline, you have any time to put your certainties in question, to re-build on what you know, and often go away from the standards.
VL – So, would be right to say that information design is the only true common denominator for all things data-related, no matter if it’s inside a newsroom, a classroom or a science laboratory?
PC – Visual form giving principles and the target user are the common denominators to me: no matter the field, you have to know and to respect both, and you’ve to be ready to put data on the back, or even to take them out, to reduce and approximate. The power of visualization, and form in general, is that it is certainly more “universal” than any other specific language used to represent data; it helps in opening a field, a product, a discipline to a wider audience…and we know how much openness is a central matter nowadays…
The power of visualization, and form in general, is that it is certainly more “universal” than any other specific language used to represent data; it helps in opening a field, a product, a discipline to a wider audience.
VL – But the discussion inside the academic world, and especially in the statistical graphics community, about the growing given importance of aesthetics in data visualization and infographic production is more vivid than ever, leading to interesting arguments involving people from different backgrounds. Is this somehow related to a lack of knowledge of what’s the true role of aesthetics and design applied to the field by that same community? Should they learn more Design?
PC – Well, I think that most of the discussions around visualization and infographics production would not even started if people considered the intended goal and purpose of a visualization: I read a lot of critics and comments evidently showing that their authors no longer take the trouble to consider what was the purpose, the target and the context of the visualization under critics. I see a lot of preconception or misinterpretation in many of these discussions. On the same time I also like them. Discussions and controversies help in keeping the attention high on what you do: there’s always someone ready to write bad comments in Internet! And yes, certainly knowing a bit more about design will help.
I read a lot of critics and comments evidently showing that their authors no longer take the trouble to consider what was the purpose, the target and the context of the visualization under critics. I see a lot of preconception or misinterpretation in many of these discussions.
VL – You put a lot of emphasis in Open Data and Open Source in your presentations, and we see that happening as well with a good part of the projects created by Density Design. Explain us why you’re so optimistic about the free sharing of knowledge in a world that preaches more and more an ‘Information is Power’ way of thinking, especially in the corporate world?
PC – In terms of knowledge circulation, the optimism comes from the experience: we never cared about protecting our work, copyright and so on, unless it was requested by a contract. As a result, most of the interesting and productive feedbacks and contacts often come from this circulation of knowledge. Just as an example, we’ve been contacted for a new research project in the last few days by a person I gave two years ago the right to use for free some of our visualizations in one of his publications….free it, and it’ll come back!
In general, there is also an ethic issue: we do research thanks (also) to public funds, I think it’s fair to give times by times something back, in a open and generative way. The problem often is time: to give back something with a open license means also investing resources in documentation and communication.
One additional issue is the fact that our university is expert on everything connected to IP exploitation, but is still struggling on open licenses…I’m sure they we’ll learn fast and find the appropriate solution for our “strange” requests.
VL – Changing the subject a bit, I’m particularly fascinated with information design in Italy, there are so many great designers and visual thinkers there. Do you care to share your thoughts about the Italian data visualization scene?
PC – The information design and data visualization scene is a recent one in Italy, with most of the main actors having connections with Politecnico di Milano. Almost all the known Information Designers have a direct link with our work and our activity at Politecnico, and share the same design approach to data and information visualization. I think that if we have an opportunity here, it comes from the “cultural touch” and the capability of mixing humanities and technology, art and science, in a peculiar manner. We should work more as a unitary group, sharing more of what I see as a specific approach to Information Design and Data Visualization.
VL – Looking now in to the future, Paolo, what do you think that will change in data visualization in the next decade?
PC – I’m pretty sure our activity will be less and less limited inside the bounds of our lab: the collaboration with other disciplines will certainly increase.
For the future I really hope we’ll be able to definitely move away from data and information visualization “per se” to embrace the idea of designing (cognitive) experiences: data are just representations of a phenomenon, and visualization is one of the dimensions of a more complex relationship with it.
VL – Any final thoughts, Paolo? Perhaps a quick overview of what you’re working on now?
PC – Looking a bit forward, we’re working to consolidate medium-long term partnerships with other research groups and centers, in order to create a critical mass for those research lines that we consider “strategic”. In this frame, I see the relationship with the MediaLab at SciencesPo in Paris: we are working together to define a visualization process that can help in bringing as much as possible the complexity and the controversial nature of the major techno-scientific challenges (see for example the EMAPS project: www.emapsproject.com) in the hands (or to the eyes)of decision makers.
Another strategic research line is linked to the evolution of the Digital Humanities: we see a huge potential area of application for visual interfaces that help both scholars in interpreting their corpuses of documents and the general public to have a complete new experience of humanistic, historical and cultural contents. In this context we’re working with the Stanford Humanities Centre in the joint initiative of the Humanities+Design Lab, which stems from the cooperation in the Mapping the Republic of Letters project . We just opened a PhD position to work on these two interdisciplinary areas.
We’ve also a solid research line that works with both structured (Open Data) and unstructured data (Social Media) related to urban contexts: we’re producing new “images” of cities and territories that can complement what decision makers already see trough other tools. We haven’t identified yet a solid partner for this research line…may I open a call here?
VL – Sure! And thank you so much, Paolo!
PC – Thank you!
We thank Paolo for finding the time to answer our questions. You can keep up with his updates on Twitter (@pciuccarelli), and visit Density Design‘s website for a detailed view of the many projects developed there throughout the years.