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Talking with… Giorgia Lupi

Don't miss this exclusive interview with the co-founder of Accurat

July 7, 2015
Photo: Giorgia Lupi

After graduating in Architecture at Ferrara University, in 2006, the professional life of Giorgia Lupi took a decisive turn towards the fields of information design and data visualization. Almost 10 years have passed, and looking back to what took place ever since, we, information visualization consumers and practitioners, can only thank her for that decision, not only due to the work produced by Accurat – the data-driven research, design and innovation firm she co-founded in 2011 – , but also for inspirational side projects such as Dear Data.

Her works have been featured in publications like “The New York Times”, “Wired”, “Fast Company”, “Popular Science”, “Popular Mechanics”, “Time Magazine”, “The Washington Post”, just to name a few, and also in books such as “Understanding the World – The Atlas of Infographics”, “The Best American Infographics 2014” by Gareth Cook and Nate Silver, “The information designers sketchbooks” by Steven Heller, “An Infographic History of the world”, “Around the World: The Atlas for Today”, “Visual Simplexity”, “INFOGRAPHICS — Designing & Visualizing Data”, and “New Challenges for Data Design”. You can see a full list of mentions and achievements on her website.

Soon enough, Giorgia became a regular speaker at the top data visualization events. You can watch some of her presentations online, delivered at Eyeo Festival (2013 and 2014), Tapestry or the Visualized Conference , among others.

With all this, it goes without saying that it is a true pleasure to add Giogia to the exclusive group of interviewees here on Visualoop. Here, she discusses the lessons learned from visual journalism, the challenges of working in the U.S market, and Dear Data, the long-distance, non-digital collaboration with designer Stefanie Posavec.

Visualoop (VL) – Giorgia, in the several different facets of the overlap between architecture and design of information, which one surprised you the most?

Giorgia Lupi (GL) – I don’t think there is one particular similarity that strikes me, I am fascinated by the general parallel of the two disciplines.

One thing that we have to keep in mind is that architects don’t actually build buildings, they design representations of buildings, images of buildings following a language of symbols that have to convey the information about how to manufacture the different parts of it to craftiness and constructors.

In order to convey the right kind of information on an architectural drawing you have to become very precise at shaping layers, visual hierarchies, and in making sure that everything is abstracted in the right way and is intelligible not only for one audience.

In fact architects also do a virtual representation of the building for the general public: for their potential inhabitants to understand how it will look like, once built and how it will be used, which kind of stories can happen in the building…

So, both in information design and in architecture everything runs around the art of representing reality through diagrams, in a bi-dimensional space, and for different audiences; it is this overall analogy that intrigues me the most.

VL – And how, and when, did you decide for data visualization as your profession?

GL – During my M.Arch studies I’ve always been very interested in aspects concerning the representation of information, and I tried to push all my architecture and urban projects towards working with information and mapping systems; even my M.Arch thesis (in 2006) was definitely an urban mapping project.

For the following 4 years I’ve been collaborating with different interaction design firms in Italy focusing my contributions on visual documentation and representation, mapping and information architecture.

Also, I’ve been playing the piano for a long time, and I started to be attracted to the contemporary music notation movement in my early twenties.

It then came natural to me to progressively focus more and more on data, and of the visual representation of data, and when I realized the true potential of working visually with structured data to convey information about phenomena or contexts, I simply felt in love with this world and the realm of possibility it opens.

Finally, in 2011 I both co-founded my own information design company, Accurat, and started a PhD in communication design within DensityDesign Lab at Milan Politecnico.

VL – We’ve been hearing the issue of “oversimplification” being discussed in conferences, as something that can jeopardize innovation and therefore, the expansion of the field. Do you see this as something concerning, or there’s still plenty of room for innovation?

GL – There is definitely still plenty of room for innovation, I would actually say the opposite: it is an uncommonly exciting time for being a data visualization designer now, projects and opportunities get more and more complex and challenging, and the field of data visualization is growing and becoming more popular.

The market and our role as data visualization designers is changing for sure, data visualization has gone mainstream: now almost everybody can pull-in their data into a easy-to-use-tool and create standard and simple charts, but exactly because of that I believe there will be more and more need for highly custom designs.

We still have to find new languages, new ways of entertaining people; we have to make visuals that can become magnetic to people who are not familiar with data practices and who more and more are exposed to the field.

We have amazing challenges to address: how can we keep on exploring, guessing, imagining, hunching, trying combinations and trying to inspire feelings, being faithful to scientific accuracy while allowing space for exceptions to flourish, with the aim of bringing a range of new possibilities to the table?

I guess those questions are and will be valid for a while!

VL – In this context, It’s interesting to see that you guys, over at Accurat, have been challenging the traditional approach of infographic design with your visualizations, specially in the work that you did for Corriere della Sera. How was that all experience, and what impressed – or disappointed you – the most in the visual journalism field?

GL – We’ve been working side-by-side with the newsroom of Corriere della Sera for more than 2 years, designing a series of more than 30 exploratory data-visualizations.

The experience was great, because we’ve always seen is at our sand-box to experiment, to test, to formulate our processes and methods upon the different feedbacks we received, and to learn.

We always aimed here at composing rich visual narratives: maintaining the informative richness of the data analysis we performed but making this richness more accessible and understandable through a visualization; it has been a sort of stress test, how much complexity can a reader absorb?

This taught us a lot on how to go beyond the curious but shallow world of the web infographics we are used to, and helped us creating our method for what we what “multilayered storytelling” with a first story that have to be visually clear at a glance, but that can lead readers to get lost in details, in marginal possible explorations and secondary stories and sub-narratives. I elaborated extensively on that in this Medium Post.

One to the things that we enjoyed about producing those dense and non-conventional data visualizations, for example, is that they produce a type of behaviour that promotes “slowness” in this era of short attention span: if we can create visuals that are demanding the “right” slowness and the right amount of engagement, people would slow them down to meet it!

VL – Any particular work, from that time that you’d like to mention, that sort of sums-up the whole visual journalism experience?

To sum-up the whole journalistic experience I like to tell you what we learned from it; we learned to embrace complexity: complexity is a distinctive and inherent feature of our world; it should be embraced and not feared in an effort to simplify things that are naturally rich and multifaceted.

A set on Flickr with the works of Accurat for La Lettura, the cultural supplement on the sunday edition of Corriere Della Sera
A set on Flickr with the works of Accurat for La Lettura, the cultural supplement on the sunday edition of Corriere Della Sera

We learned to pursue beauty: because beauty is not a frill; we know how to capture and motivate people to always dig deeper and take time to explore the folds of a visual data analysis.

We learned to never bend design problems to what the tools can offer out of the box: every dataset is different, and every context brings infinite variables that can hardly be reduced to cookie cutter processes and solutions.

We also learned that numbers don’t mean anything by themselves, they are always a placeholder for something else: people, places, ideas, values.

We always have to take into consideration what data stands for and what it means for the people that will interact with it: we have to ask ourselves what numbers actually represent in a given context, and we have to build experiences that acknowledge and leverage this knowledge by bringing our users closer to the ideas represented by the quantitative and qualitative aspects of information.

VL – Now, let’s talk a bit a bout the work you guys do at Accurat. The visualizations for La Lettura are quite well-known, but the company evolved to be able to do a lot more, right?

GL – Yes, at Accurat we started very focused on experimenting visually, building “case studies” of highly customized visual models to represent data in different contexts and through different variables, exploring and working a lot with journalists and, in the business sector, working mostly with the communication and marketing departments of companies; we built our portfolio around highly customized and dense visual narratives with data as in our work for La Lettura, and we worked primarily on pieces whose goal was to tell a specific story to a wide and generic audience.

More and more now we’re instead collaborating with clients from very different industries, and most of all on diverse business functions: our work is used in finance, human resources, I.T., customer relations, product development…

Increasingly our clients (and potential clients!) approach us with a need for visualization-based data discovery tools, more than specific visualizations of a dataset they have for communication purposes. Even if we still work on what is called “storytelling” we are now also applying our methodology to the support of decision making within the process of organizations, definitely a more strategic role.

We feel it is definitely a goal for us to keep on addressing more and more strategic needs and scaling our business to have more impact within organizations; but we are also working hard to try to keep a uniqueness and this sort of signature that we had when we were a smaller group of individuals.

VL – And a big part of that growth was the opening of the New York office, correct? How has it been, over at the Big Apple?

GL – Starting a new office in a new continent has indeed been a stimulating challenge. Specifically in the US the market for data-visualization is indeed bigger than the Italian one, and there is of course much more competition.

Interestingly enough, what helped us entering this market the most, has been the community and the network of data-visualization friends and practitioners.

In a sense, the competition here is quite positive: we are all working to expand the field and the whole business of data-visualization, and it comes pretty natural to “recommend” other respected professionals or companies when one can’t take in a project for some reasons.

Since when we moved here of course we have also been learning how to approach and work in a different country with unfamiliar rules and processes, and I find it profoundly fulfilling both personally and professionally wise.

VL – Stefanie Posavec told us, back in December, that she was working on a project with you, which we all know now as Dear Data. Great to see an “analog” visualization project getting so much attention. How did you guys came up with idea, and what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing with it?

GL – Thank you! :)

Dear Data is indeed a very very fulfilling (and demanding!) project, and I am incredibly happy about this collaboration with Stefanie.

Stefanie and I only met twice in person before starting Dear Data last September; we knew each other’s work of course, and we were aware of the many similarities we had as designers: we both use a hand-crafted and illustrative approach to the data visualizations we create, and we both don’t code.

Last year at Eyeo, we had few (i.e. many) drinks together and we started to get to know each others a little better than the year before (which was the first time we met in person), and by the end of the festival we decided we absolutely had to collaborate, and I felt already all excited about it.

For the following 2 months a copious number of emails flooded, and our collaboration started to take shape: analog outputs, daily or weekly datasets, daily or weekly data-drawings, parallel type of data, finding human and personal twist on the data, and so on.

As our conversations evolved we start conceiving our collaborative effort as an unconventional way of getting to know each other through our daily data and through our drawings.

Though, we knew from the beginning we didn’t want it to be a quantified-self project: we’ve always pictured it more like a “personal documentary”, which is s a subtle, but important, distinction.

Far in July, we seriously started setting up constraints and discussing the outcome: we took the biggest constrain as a design one: one of us lives in London and the other in New York, how can we exchange our data-drawings?

The idea of becoming ‘data pen pals’ and sending postcards to each other across the sea seemed incredibly compelling, and we decided to take in the risk that some of our postcards might get lost or damaged during their travel.

The Dear Data website | Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.
The Dear Data website | Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.

I guess the biggest challenge we’re facing is making the proper time for this project, for both of us it is a side project, and we work on it during our weekends and in the evenings; at the moment, drawing the postcards aside, we are also putting together a book proposal (finger crossed you all!) and we are holding conversations with different galleries for a possible exhibition, and it is indeed getting more demanding time-wise. Though, and I think I can speak also for Stefanie here, we are incredibly fulfilled by Dear Data, and I would encourage everybody to take in a side project that helps you reflect on your profession and on your self, possibly with a brilliant and awesome collaborator. :)

VL – To close, Giorgia, tell us a bit about the information design scene in Italy, besides the work being done by DensityDesign and of course, Accurat. Have you seen developments in the educational front, for example?

GL – Italy, especially lately, can count a lot of talented information and data visualization designers who are well known internationally, and I couldn’t be happier about it!

The greater part of those professionals have studied at Politecnico di Milano and specifically took courses with Density Design, so we have to thank Paolo for the most part. :)

Slowly, also other Universities all around Italy seem to be starting information design classes, but still the main educational scene is Politecnico di Milano.

What I find particularly interesting is that we are lately receiving a high number of resumes from traditional graphic designers or interaction designers who are more and more specializing in information design through side projects, or by taking on-line courses. I believe this means the data-visualization scene and market is rapidly growing in Italy as well!

VL – Thank you, Giorgia.

GL – Thank you

 

We really appreciate the time Giorgia dedicated to answer our questions. Check out her website here, follow her updates on Twitter (@giorgialupi), and visit Accurat’s website for more of their work. And of course, don’t miss Dear Data.

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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  • Geraldo Franco

    Tiago: about design? You ought to go back to Bucky Fuller. Start by his major deeds: the largest ecodrome sitting in Montréal – t’was a site for an US expo, rock band shows, has caught fire and is still there — now it seems to be a Canadian S & T Museum (originally my idea!)