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Talking with... Stefanie Posavec

The data illustrator behind the elegant hand-made data visualizations that conquered the Internet

December 19, 2014
(photo: Stefanie Posavec)

In a time when coding skills are in demand, one may wonder if there’s still room for hand-made projects in the field of visualization. If you do a bit of research, chances are you will end up finding references to the work of Stefanie Posavec.

Currently based in London, Stefanie was raised in Denver, Colorado, and moved permanently to the British capital in 2004, to complete her MA in Communication Design from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design (2006). Back then, her studies focused mainly on the visualization of literature, which led to time as a book cover designer for Penguin Press and the visualization of Stephen Fry’s autobiography for his iPhone app ‘MyFry’, in 2010.

After going freelance late that year, she now focuses on projects ranging from data visualization and information design to designing book covers (or anything in between) for publishers and creative agencies.

But, like we said in the beginning, when it comes to Stefanie’s work, what the data viz community praises the most is the Writing Without Words project, and all the subsequent hand-made visualizations described by Alberto Cairo as “examples of the incredible results you can get with a low-tech (rather than algorithmic-based) approach to visualization.” This work tends to focus mostly on language and literature and has been exhibited internationally and featured in pretty much all the top design blogs over the past years.

We had the chance to catch up with Stefanie recently and ask her a few questions about her current interests in visualization, design and technology, upcoming projects and more.

Visualoop (VL) – Stefanie, did you manage to have people finally stop trying to convince you to learn how to code?

Stefanie Posavec (SP) – I don’t know if anyone was really pushing me to code but were really just baffled that I created work by hand, subjecting myself to such an often tedious and time-consuming activity. And actually, this year I started to learn how to code, but I am terrible, and slow, and work often gets in the way, so I haven’t made much progress. However, I’m quite happy collaborating with super-talented developers who I can work back-and-forth with on a project, as I like how these two different approaches to creating visuals, when combined, tend to produce some lovely results.

However, this year I’ve also realized that I’m interested in analogue data-gathering and visualization because of its intrinsic physical nature: one feels the effects of physically engaging with and moving through data while working in this intensive manner. This interest in physically moving though data has been manifesting itself in some of my projects over the past couple of years: my Facebook art installation, for example, and my recent Open Data Playground that was part of the Web We Want festival at the Southbank Centre, London.

I’m not averse to automation, I’m just attracted by the physical aspects of analogue, I suppose.

VL – Now, there’s been so much talk around on what a good data visualization is or isn’t, lately, with more bloggers dedicating time pointing out what’s right and wrong with infographics, charts, maps and so on. Constructive reviews, of course, are very much appreciated, but won’t this “data criticism trend” also create a sort of intimidating environment for newcomers, an environment without much room for experimentation or artistic interpretations?

SP – I think this environment can be quite intimidating; I used to feel pretty nervous of being criticised by online commentators when I first began working in this field. This highly-critical environment is likely why I ended up explicitly defining the space for many of my projects as ‘data illustration’, to appease the hardline data visualisation critics! So, I suppose the current environment has shaped my behaviour, but perhaps it was also an asset in helping me clarify my position and direction.

I think it’s down to a matter of character, in some ways: some people prefer when things are black and white, and others like to work in the fuzzy, grey bit in the middle. I think I’m the latter type of person, which is why I enjoy working with data in that in-between space between the traditional rigors of data visualization and the emotional communication of traditional graphic design.

However, I think it’s important that in order to explore these new spaces, one needs to have a good grounding in the theories in principles of data visualization regardless. You can’t bend the rules without knowing ‘the rules’…

VL – The “Literary Organism” is arguably one of your most well known works, alongside Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” visualization. Since then, have you expand, in any way, your research on this type of “Writing Without Words” data explorations?

SP – I haven’t explored text visualization very much further, but mainly ‘visualize’ text in the form of the occasional book cover or book design, these days. This is mainly because text visualization is something that I pursue in my spare time and freelance work tends to shout the loudest! I have been looking at exploring the handmade visualization (using Reed-Kellogg sentence diagrams) of the grammar structure of the longest sentence in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but have yet to extend it further (one day).

I’m currently considering wrapping up this interest in text visualization into a small book, or slimline printed volume, perhaps. Readers: anyone want to publish me?

Literary Organism, one of Stefanie Posavec’s most famous pieces

VL – Hope there are! And what other areas of the visual representation of information are you more focused on, nowadays?

SP – As I’ve spend much of my career working in 2D on screens and in books, I’ve currently become more interested in physical and movement-based representations of data (as shown through the Facebook and Open Data Playground projects) I’m interested in how you can use more subtle and less-defined experiences and interactions to communicate information.

As I’ve also said, I’m learning how to code, but I’ve put that on hold recently because I’ve also been learning how to draw… Let’s see which wins, shall we?

VL – After the “Literary Organism”, some exciting opportunities came along your way, right? What can you tell us about that period?

SP – I think that I was privileged to have created design work that I’m proud of at a time when interest in data was increasing exponentially… It was definitely the impetus to quit my job and go freelance. However today, the type of people who get in touch for work has changed slightly: I have less people getting in touch because ‘data visualization’ is the hot buzzword, I suppose.

VL – For someone who does so much of the work by hand, you must have a unique perspective on the role of technology for data gathering, visualization and analysis purposes. What excites you the most, right now, technologically speaking?

SP – I have to say, I find Nick Felton’s Reporter app the most useful at the moment, mainly because I use it regularly. And for an Adobe Illustrator-using person such as myself, RAW is great because I can export and manipulate the files in Illustrator. (My needs are simple!)

VL- To close, Stefanie, any projects you’re working on that you can share with our readers?

SP – So far I’m speaking at two great events in 2015: Resonate Festival in Belgrade and Reasons to be Creative in London.

I’m also working on a personal project with Giorgia Lupi, details of which will be revealed in due time!

VL – Thank you so much, Stefanie!

SP – Thank you.

 

We really appreciate the time Stefanie took to answer our questions. Visit her website for a much more comprehensive overview of her work, and keep up with her updates on Twitter (@stefpos) and Instagram.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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