How Giorgia Lupi brings people together through data and design.
Hop on the rug with us…and get to know how information designer Giorgia Lupi lives life well.
For one year, every week, information designer Giorgia Lupi sent hand-drawn postcards to London, to her friend and fellow designer, Stefanie Posavec, who sent her own ones back to Lupi. They’d met at a conference and stayed in touch, but didn’t really know much about each other. So they decided, over the course of 52 weeks in 2015, to collect data about their lives, illustrated in dots and shapes, and share it with one another. In the process, Lupi and Posavec not only got to know each other very well, they created a passion project that entranced the design world, and became the book, Dear Data.
For Lupi, a respected figure in information design, the experiment marked a new chapter in her career – one in which she began taking more of an interest in the human side of facts and figures, and showed her a new way to bring people together through data and design.
Born in Italy, as an only child, Lupi showed an interest in data from the tender age of five, nurtured by hours spent in her grandmother’s tailor store. “She was a seamstress and she had this amazing little shop full of buttons, threads, ribbons, all kinds of stuff,” says Lupi. “And one of my greatest pleasures was, every morning, going in there, taking out her belongings and organizing them on the table, laying them out according to size and color, or if a button had one hole, two holes, three holes.” She’d create little visual taxonomies that brought her much pleasure. “I think my grandmother thought it was really OCD, but thinking about it in retrospect, I've always been fascinated by organizations and structures,” adds Lupi.
From numbers to nuances
Lupi pursued this fascination at school, during math and art classes, and then through a Master's Degree in architecture at Facoltà di Architettura at Università di Ferrara, followed by a Doctorate in Design at Politecnico di Milano, where she focused on information mapping. After moving to New York, she became a partner at the renowned independent design studio, Pentagram, where she creates award-winning, data-driven work.
When Lupi took on the postcard project, it appealed to something more than just her passion for quantifying and organizing things; it piqued her curiosity in the visual arrangement of these things. She and Posavec would spend each week noticing and writing down their activities or thoughts, however mundane, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.
As Lupi explains, both she and Posavec were driven by a desire to answer a specific question: what is data if you remove the technological aspect? “What is the human quality of data and can we push it so much further and forward that we can get to know a person through data if we do it the human way?’” she adds.
Over the weeks, Lupi and Posavec wouldn’t only quantify the number of times they did something, but the reason why they did it too. So, for example, complaining: they’d note down not only how many times in the week they’d complain, but why they were complaining. “We started to see data as a pretext, a lens, to talk about our days,” says Lupi.
It caught on with the public, Lupi believes, because of the vulnerability attached to it, and how much the little dots and circles they were jotting down conveyed. That’s when she started focusing on the human side of the data, which is, as Lupi sees it, “the abstraction of our messy and imperfect lives.”
Using this lens of humanistic data, which Lupi’s been exploring since 2016, she’s helped shape how we see and understand facts and figures. “Data, like numbers, represents our lives and I think the more we as human beings understand it, the more we can ask ourselves critical questions, about ethics and privacy, and what we want to share and what we don't want to share; what are the costs and benefits?” she says. In a world where our data is collected by the companies we buy from, Lupi believes the more savvy we are about what data even is, the more we can make informed decisions.
Beyond the facts and figures
Essentially, Lupi’s work reminds us that there's always a human behind a number, an insight often lost in the age of addiction to the numbers on our fitness watches and habit-developing apps. “As human beings, since the beginning of the ages, we’ve always liked to measure ourselves - to know how tall your child is, how much it weighs,” says Lupi. “Right now, we are obsessed with performances in every kind of athletic endeavor, so it’s a very human thing to want to measure yourself. I'm asking why we do that.”
There was a time she herself was obsessed with her own step count, trying to get to 10,000 daily. “If I wasn’t reaching the goal, I would walk around my kitchen, and then it became a number that you need to reach to feel okay about yourself,” she says. “As long as you know when it starts to become a little obsessive, then you can step back, and reassess. As long as these measurements, the endeavor serves you. Keep asking yourself while you're doing it, why you’re doing it.”
Lupi’s work speaks to this, and she likes to take on both professional and personal commissions that excite her. A recent work for Moleskine Foundation (shown above) saw her telling the story of her life through data represented by 14,496 stitches, one for each day she’s lived so far.
It’s all a process of discovery. “Something that my grandfather used to tell me is that you don't have to have it all figured out,” says Lupi. “Not now and not ever because otherwise, what’s the fun?” Her ability to share her findings with enthusiasm and vigor is an added bonus of her gift.
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