"If it’s about farts, draw a butt for god’s sakes": Mona Chalabi tells us how to illustrate data
- Bryony Stone
- 8 March 2018
Mona Chalabi describes herself as “a journalist who really loves numbers.” Mona upped sticks from London to New York to write for Nate Silver’s site FiveThirtyEight. She has written and presented for the BBC, National Geographic, Channel 4 and VICE, and was nominated for an Emmy for her video series Vagina Dispatches.
By day, Mona is a data editor at the US version of the Guardian where she uses self-taught illustration methods to bring data to life. Covering everything from body hair removal to the popularity of nose jobs in the US to the number of decapitated animals found in New York parks, Mona’s tongue-in-cheek approach to information communication has won her column inches and an immovable place in our hearts.
We caught up with Mona Chalabi to find out what she does and why she does it.
What does a data editor actually do?
I look for the most accurate and recent numbers I can possibly find. Then I try to share them with the public using whatever medium I think works best – I draw illustrations, write essays, make animations or else I just talk them through on screen and radio. All that searching and creating becomes more urgent when there’s a subject like gun control or immigration where the public need to understand the numbers if they want to take action like putting pressure on the politicians that represent them.
Run us through your “average” working day.
I’ll just describe today because it’s as close to average as anything gets:
6:40am Stretch. No yoga mat, just try to touch my toes, realise I can’t and give up.
6:41am Shit while I check social media.
6:45am Shower. Add 30 minutes if I have to wash my long-ass hair, then get dressed.
7:35am Eat breakfast and answer some emails while I listen to a podcast. This bit made me cry this morning.
9:30am Go to the dentist. I’m constantly doing life stuff Monday to Friday. Buying moisturiser on my coffee break, calling my Mum from a meeting room or asking my landlord about repairs. It used to make me feel guilty now I don’t think twice about it because I work so much at weekends.
11:30am Came in to the Guardian’s New York office, wrote an article about US intermarriage trends.
1:00pm Ate some leftovers I brought to work, at my desk, while watching Vimeo staff picks.
1:15pm (I’m a fast eater) Reviewed the rough cut of a video I’m working on with Mae Ryan, the woman I made Vagina Dispatches with.
2:00pm Drew a series of illustrations about white people for a new feature I’m working on.
2:30pm Scan the illustrations.
2:40pm Photoshop and recolor the illustrations.
3:30pm Text my friend about her boyfriend.
3:45pm Answer more emails to schedule meetings and respond to readers who have sent me questions and comments.
4:20pm Chase someone who hasn’t paid me for the work I did for them – _ -
4:25pm Go for an ice cream with my colleague.
4:40pm Research episode two of Strange Bird, a podcast I host, write and executive produce. I listen to the new Kendrick album while I Google. Think I have found a great study but it turns out to be useless because it used data from 2002 (16 years can be a long time in social trends!). Hit five more dead ends before finding numbers that are actually useful.
6:30pm Go to the Wing for a meeting.
7:30pm Go to my friend Maeve’s charity comedy show.
10:30pm Ravenously eat some toast
11:00pm Fall asleep in front of Absolutely Fabulous
You started off making infographics about three years ago. Can you tell us a bit more about why you started to conceptualise data in this way? Were you inspired by anyone in particular?
I was inspired by the fact that I was bored out of my tiny mind in a dead end job. My desk was in a little booth so it was easy to doodle discreetly. Slowly though, when people started to respond to my early work, I found it enormously encouraging that there was another way of doing data visualisation — one that would reach more people without compromising on precision. A big part of my philosophy is that computer-generated images overstate certainty, my hand-drawn graphics show the real margin of error in the numbers while reminding people that a human was responsible for the data gathering and analysis.
This interview made me look back at the first one I ever drew. I wonder if I would have kept on doing them without that one lovely comment!
What drew you towards working by hand rather than the many myriad (and probably far faster to execute) ways of representing data digitally?
See above! Also, hand-drawing isn’t always slower. If there’s a sudden news event, sometimes I can really quickly draw something and snap it – although it might look shoddy af, it’s clear it was made in a rush. It’s transparent about its lack of certainty.
Did you have an existing artistic/illustrative practise when you started working in this way?
Hell no. Although my mum recently sent me some of the pictures I drew as a kid and they are… special. Clearly I was always interested in vaginas. The caption on this one (once you tidy up the spelling) reads “if you don’t go toilet you’ll do poo and wee in your knickers because you’ll get a sore bottom.”
I’ve always loved hands too. I make Insta stories all the time of me drawing and I found a bunch of old images at my mum’s place where I had photocopied my hand.
How has illustrating data by hand changed the way that you work?
It means I can connect the visual aesthetic with the data. For most charts, the only clues you have about the subject are the labels. But I think that’s wrong. If it’s about farts, draw a butt for god’s sakes. If it’s about sexual harassment, then draw some pervs. I think data purists think that charts should be neutral, that they should illicit no emotion but I think that’s a mistaken understanding of objectivity. There is no such thing in the social sciences — if you look at a chart of mine about the rise of the KKK and think it looks creepy, well, good.
Why do you think your work has caused such an impact?
I don’t think it has! Not yet!
What do you think is the single biggest issue facing women globally?
… And what can we do about them?
Support one another in every way possible — with information, with instruments for success, with empathy.
Which creative women do you admire the most?
In no particular order Shaina Feinberg, Oprah Winfrey, Mae Ryan, Emma Paterson, Maeve Higgins, Emma-Lee Moss (aka Emmy The Great), Jenna Wortham, Morgan Willis, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Solange Knowles, Laura Callaghan, Ayqa Khan, Suzanne Dias, Sivan Breemhaar, Lisa Chow… Shall I keep going?
About the Author
Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.