Viewing data from a different universe: In conversation with Debbie Millman and Giorgia Lupi
Two formidable names in design unite in this expansive discussion on the significance of data visualisation today. Revealing bags of insight into two of the sharpest creative minds, the Pentagram partner and host of acclaimed podcast Design Matters come together to ponder all things information design: What is the role of the information designer? How has Covid-19 changed society’s relationship with data? How can data visualisation offer an objective view of the world?
Earlier this year, the American research organisation Rand Corporation launched its first artist-in-residency programme, asking groundbreaking creatives to visualise its data in the name of challenging public policy and building community. Co-curated by designer and author Debbie Millman and strategic branding agency founder DeeDee Gordon, the pair had one name and one name only for its inaugural residency: Pentagram partner and information designer Giorgia Lupi. She gladly took on the challenge of diving into Rand’s data, producing three visualisations which tackle pertinent topics today: mental health, income inequality and the American healthcare system. Discussing the above in detail and much, much more, the following conversation takes us through the ins and outs of data visualisation.
It’s Nice That: First of all, I wanted to ask you guys, did you know each other before the Rand residency?
Debbie Millman: Yes (laughter). I am a huge fan of Giorgia and have been for what feels like a decade now. I met her through a dear friend Maria Popova who said to me, ‘you have to meet this woman’. She’s so interesting, she’s so smart, so charismatic. She’s doing work that no one else in the world is doing and handling it in such a unique and human way. And so we did.
Giorgia Lupi: I have been a huge fan of Debbie’s since I was first introduced to Design Matters more than a decade ago. And then being on Design Matters quite a few times now has been a great honour. Even though we don’t get together very often there’s this beautiful connection whatever we do together.
DM: 100 per cent – Giorgia has the distinction of being the second most interviewed person on Design Matters.
“What makes a story for me? At its heart, it’s sharing a universal human experience.”Debbie Millman
GL: After Steven Heller!
DM: Yeah, Steve Heller is number one with 14 episodes in 14 years.
INT: I love this buzzy vibe between you guys! I’m also a huge fan of Design Matters too. Debbie, what I love about the podcast is how you pick a creative’s story apart and tell a much wider narrative beyond the creative lens. I can’t wait to dig into the storytelling element of information design in this interview too. But I’m keen to hear from you Debbie, what makes a good creative story for you?
DM: Thank you. It’s a really wonderful question. What makes a story for me? At its heart, it’s sharing a universal human experience. There might be trepidation or a real fear to reveal something vulnerable that has the higher purpose of sharing what it means to be human. It’s having the courage or the ability to share that, knowing that really, we all experience it too.
That’s really what drew me to Giorgia’s work. There are people that are attempting to do it now, but back when Giorgia first started making humanist data (or data through humanist eyes) it was the first time that I had experienced work like that. So when DeeDee Gordon from The Gordon Co. first approached me about co-curating the Rand residency with her, there was never a moment where we weren’t hoping that Giorgia would be the first artist. In fact, we didn’t have a go-to second person. It was like, well, let’s just hope Giorgia says yes. And I really thought she’d say yes because of what this opportunity could mean; to take the very, very serious data of the Rand Corporation and begin to introduce it to a younger generation of people that are really yearning to see facts, not fake news, but facts communicated in a more telegraphic way so that they can understand.
GL: Oh, thank you Debbie. I just wanted to say it’s been such a great honour, obviously I said yes! But to talk about why Debbie connected to my work, I think that comes down to data. I came to data as a way to fulfill a new obsession of mine at the time: human nature. I’m obsessed by what makes us who we are, what are the open questions that we’re struggling with and keep us up at night. Analysing how we interact with society through our human nature is something I could speak about for hours. I started to see data as a kind of lens or filter beyond this reality of open questions. I started to see this as a tool to keep my interests alive.
“I came to data as a way to fulfill a new obsession of mine at the time: human nature”Giorgia Lupi
As a designer, data is something I collect; it’s rich and full of context. It leads me to create visualisations that people feel are human – they’re dense, they’re imperfect. Telling stories is a little different when telling them through data. But people can still relate and connect to them, and feel less lonely. I think that’s what really connects Debbie and myself: the curiosity of talking about human nature and people.
DM: One of the challenging things about communicating to a mass audience is that we all communicate differently. We speak different languages, we have different points of view that are informed by the way we’re socialised, the way we’re taught as we grow up. And the thing about scientific data, cultural data, research that is quantified by numbers, is that it allows you to have a somewhat objective view of the world. It takes a lot of the subjectivity out of debate. When we’re facing the biggest issues of our time – concerns about mental illness, income inequality, immigration – to be able to communicate in a way that reaches people and doesn’t solely rely on language, on whether they can read or not, these things are really important. It is helping to create a much more democratic way of using design to benefit the world.
INT: Beautiful points to make, thank you Debbie. Giorgia, let’s come over to you. I’d like to know more about your role as an information designer. How would you describe your role?
GL: I’m not a huge fan of definitions but I define myself as an information designer because it’s a broader concept than data visualisation design. Ultimately, I think data is a kind of tool or material. It’s not necessarily the final point, it’s a broader way to describe a type of design that shapes the way clients, visitors, readers and users access different types of information.
It can be a broader umbrella for graphic design because you display this information visually, but you can also do this through sound or tactile experiences. So really, information design is a broader term for designing and shaping the way that people will access information. In my case, this is data. Data can be qualitative or quantitative, it can be big or small data. The way we work is transversal. We’re not experts in any particular field, but we work with clients and experts in a subject matter to act as translators, really digging deep into research, data and context to produce a particular output.
”We’re not experts in any particular field, but we work with clients and experts in a subject matter to act as translators, really digging deep into research, data and context to produce a particular output.“Giorgia Lupi
INT: That’s a really comprehensive way of looking at information design and gives such an expansive idea of what it can be too!
GL: I would love to ask Debbie, do you have anything to add on how you would define information design?
DM: You know the older I get, the more I feel that there needs to be less distinctions between disciplines, because I think all design has a very specific intention. Design makes very specific decisions as to how something should look, read, feel, be experienced; it’s intentional. It’s what separates arbitrary behaviour from design.
INT: That’s a great way to put it. And what about creativity? Where does creativity come into it for you both?
GL: I would say that creativity is always related when it comes to information. Whether it is feelings, thoughts, facts, ideas. I don’t come to see them as separate.
DM: I think we use creativity to disseminate information.
INT: The way I see it, you guys take something quite complicated and make it more digestible, accessible and understandable through design. Following on from that, do you guys have a specific process for dissecting those ideas into a visual language?
GL: For me it’s easier because there’s a lot of information that goes into the process. It’s about understanding the most important things to highlight depending on the goal of the project, from the audience to where the project will be displayed. Going back to data research, you have to really understand how people will engage with this information, then you consolidate and craft the data set. Once that data is in your mind, you can start thinking ‘how can this look?’. Then it’s about digging into visual inspiration, merging things in the back of your mind which help to connect the dots when building the architecture of visualisation. Then you are already in the design process and you can start sketching then finalising the final output whether that’s a physical installation or a digital image. Design for me starts at the very beginning in the way I almost design the data sets, the whole process is designed.
“Design makes very specific decisions as to how something should look, read, feel, be experienced; it’s intentional. It’s what separates arbitrary behaviour from design.”Debbie Millman
DM: I would say that though we have very different disciplines, the approach is very similar. For me, whether I’m making an illustration or a podcast, I’ll start very, very wide, and then continually edit and narrow down as I go. For a podcast, I’d start with 70 pages of research and comb that down to seven pages of questions that I feel have a linear arc and make sense. And then for my writing, or drawing, it’s also a constant process of editing, editing, editing.
Sometimes the process is easy, sometimes I feel like I’m fighting with the page or fighting with the canvas. But I find that the more ease there is in the process (generally speaking) the better the output. If I’m approaching it from desperation or aggression or anything that is cantankerous in any way, that will show up in the work. But if there’s more flow or if I’m more of a zone, I find the work tends to be very responsive to that.
GL: There’s so much that goes into how you experience projects personally. Like how they start with who you’re working with. With the Rand projects for example, sometimes we had some hiccups because there wasn’t enough data and so on. But because of the relationship with Debbie, DeeDee and Rand, there was this ease.
INT: It’s so great to get an insight into the minds of two creative geniuses in our industry! I’m so glad you brought up the Rand residency as I’d love to know more about that. Debbie, I was wondering if you could take us through how it came about and what you and DeeDee set out to achieve?
DM: We were thinking about how we could broaden Rand’s reach to a younger generation of people that are really interested in information. We had a brainstorm to think about unique, experimental, unprecedented ways of looking at data through an art lens. DeeDee came up with the idea of creating a residency, a year-long commitment for Rand to support, that DeeDee and I would curate.
We wanted to invite designers and artists into the vast archives of Rand’s research, to look at topics that were particularly interesting to them because we wanted this to be a passion project for them as well. We started with a very short list of people that we would consider for the first year of quarterly presidencies and as I mentioned before, Giorgia was always number one at the top of the list. We didn’t ask anybody else until we heard back from Giorgia –
GL: Which was in a minute, by the way!
DM: I was really happy with that, it made me look good Giorgia so thank you [laughter]. We’re also committed to a good range of diversity. We didn’t want four white men. We’re committed to gender, race and class orientation diversity. In fact our next designers are launching today, Jonathan Key and Morcos Wael of Morcos Key. They’re creating the next three visualisations and today it is launching. So super excited about that!
Going back to what Giorgia did with her visualisation on income ineqaulity which is, again, unprecedented. It’s an installation and that will live on forever in the real world, not just online. Now we’re looking into how to get that over to Rand because it is a sculptural installation that is both beautiful to look at and very challenging to accept in terms of how we treat other humans.
GL: I will second that it is harsh data to look at. It’s a massive task to physicalise data around income inequality and to capture the “what ifs” for so many people in the United States.
INT: Giorgia, can I ask how you decided on the three topics you visualised in your residency? The three topics being income inequality, mental health and the American healthcare system.
GL: I wanted to explore stories that a younger audience wouldn’t be as familiar with, especially if you don’t usually read the paper or look at boring charts. We also worked closely with Rand to find out what they found most interesting. After months of isolation, the subject of mental health was timely to start with. Many of us can relate to it.
The second visualisation, The Internet of Bodies [based on a new category of technology which has the potential to transform our relationship with ourselves, our health, and others we interact with] was very fascinating because of the implications that came out of the research.
Thirdly, I’ve always known that I wanted to do something around income inequality, so it was really great to have it as a third topic. There are so many charts out there relating to the subject but I knew I wanted to something different, something to make you really say ‘wow, I need to pay attention to that.’
DM: The foundation of this residency programme for Rand is part of a bigger initiative of ongoing projects called Next Gen. It comes down to fostering civic engagement and communicating extensive public policy research in novel and creative ways. I think Giorgia’s work in particular illustrates the relevancy of policy in everyday life in ways that people can fundamentally and telegraphically comprehend.
“But if we want to talk about data with younger generations, I think we need to show the breadth of ways you can think about data in a visual way and the number of ways it can be communicated.”Giorgia Lupi
INT: Indeed, well the proof is in the pudding because I didn’t know a lot about any of these topics until I saw Giorgia’s visualisations. I also love how different each one is!
DM: Talk about range right!
GL: That was one of the goals we gave ourselves but not for the sake of making things different. It’s one of the reasons we like our work so much, because there’s a lot of possibilities to explore; to go beyond your comfort zone. But if we want to talk about data with younger generations, I think we need to show the breadth of ways you can think about data in a visual way and the number of ways it can be communicated.
INT: You really see that across all the three visualisations. I wanted to ask you about the income inequality visualisation in particular. How do you put an image like this together? How do you go about creating something so beautiful and organic, but then also incorporating the data as well?
GL: Well really, everything starts with the data, really powerful statistics put together by Rand. It found that income growth in America has stayed equitable to the three decades after World War Two. So after the second world war, for three decades, income inequality was steady. But from 1975, the cumulative income of the bottom 90 per cent of workers would have been (if income growth was steady) $47 trillion higher by 2018. That is stunning data and it speaks about the missed earnings of the majority of the American population. The chart that Rand presents shows that for nearly half a century, income inequality served only the top one per cent of Americans and pretty much nobody else. We wanted to focus on that particular statistic from 1975 to 2018, comparing different percentiles of the population earning in a certain bracket.
The more we read the data the more we felt the visualisation needed to be tangible, it needed to be something that could be visually stunning but at the same time really speak to the missed earnings. At the same time, because of the topic, we gave ourselves a super small budget. We worked with paper and found receipts, things that could talk about the economical topic but ultimately, the total budget was around $70 or something like that. We decided to cut these little pieces of paper in round shapes to resemble money, coins and currency. Hopefully making a strong, visible comparison between the two years.
DM: The first time we saw it our heads exploded. You know that emoji where the person’s head explodes. What I found to be so interesting in Giorgia’s process (and designers that are listening will do too) is that even her presentation of ideas possessed the art of storytelling. It was almost like revealing the idea, piece by piece until the whole thing ocurred. I found that to be incredibly refreshing. Each idea was supported by a strategic foundation of deep thinking. It was of course connected to the data, and supported by sketches that helped articulate the idea, as opposed to the sketches having to do all the visualising work.
GL: There’s a lot of trust that went into this collaboration, between myself, DeeDee and the Rand Foundation, a trust that you don’t always get when working with clients. The trust is what makes the design process beautiful. It’s so important.
INT: We’ve spoken quite a bit about the benefits of data visualisations. But what are the watch-outs when you’re working with such sensitive information?
GL: Data is very well known as a source of information that might be used for good or for evil, so we need to be very careful. And, obviously, you should never visually manipulate information to tell a different story. But at the same time – and this is something that is very much part of my work – every data set in any case is subjective. Because you know, it doesn’t tell a full story. In the case of income inequality, that data is really stunning, but it’s only one aspect of the whole reality that makes up 50 years of context. A data set can never be a full representation of reality, there’s always a layer of subjectivity or authorship.
If you’re faithful to the sources, and if you present the information in a way that enables readers, visitors, users to understand what is missing and the choices that are made, then there's not a lot of concern because you’re showing access to a specific source of information. It’s like writing an article or a research paper, there’s always authorship and room for interpretation. Debbie, has there ever been a moment where you felt because the data is sensitive, we should be extra careful?
“A data set can never be a full representation of reality, there’s always a layer of subjectivity or authorship.”Giorgia Lupi
DM: Not really, I mean, I think accuracy is super important. But I was never worried because this is what Georgia knows best. With the amazing research team at Rand, everything was perfect. There is nothing that we have presented that is inaccurate, that is fuzzy, blurry, could be misinterpreted. It’s really clean.
INT: That’s great. Thank you so much for your time today with the interview. We’re coming to the end of our interview, with just a couple of questions left. Penultimate question, I wanted to ask how the Rand residency has influenced your other work. Debbie, I wonder if we could come to you first?
DM: Well, I’m known to my close friends and family as quite a technophobe. I have trouble with maps, I have trouble with dense material. So this has really helped me see data, not even just from a new perspective, but from a new universe. It’s given me a way to understand information that I didn’t previously. I’ve learned a lot and that’s a gift. When you get to this place in your career or even in your life, where you’re still learning something new and being challenged by information, that’s really cool.
INT: For sure, I feel the same as well. I never understood the scope of data before I was introduced to Giorgia’s amazing work. And Giorgia, same question to you too please. How has this work with Rand influenced you?
GL: Well first of all, it makes me really want to cooperate with Rand more.
I want to dig into more data, create more visualisations and help the general public understand more about this research. Because in the quest to humanise data, this was a perfect opportunity. But outside of that, being a Pentagram partner (which is a branding agency) and through talking especially with Debbie, this project has really allowed me to think about data visualisation as a form of branding. I’m really intrigued as to how we can work more with corporate clients to visualise their data in a unique, signature way. At this moment in time, being at the intersection of data, branding, and design is something that I would like to explore a lot more of. So that’s where my mind is.
“One thing that really blows my mind is how a term like ‘flattening the curve’ – a statistical term – has become colloquial”Giorgia Lupi
INT: Amazing. Moving onto the final question, I would love to know, what do you predict for the future of information design? Giorgia, can we come to you first?
GL: There’s never been a better moment in time to advocate for everybody to learn how to speak data. In the past year and a half, since we started dealing with Covid-19, we went from being a population where only a few of us cared about data, to a population where every single morning, people refreshed their news and checked maps and charts as their primary source of decision making for the day.
Decisions such as do I wear a mask, do I go out, these were all based on data. People are starting to ask critical questions about what this data really means and many critical questions are being asked. One thing that really blows my mind is how a term like “flattening the curve” – a statistical term – has become colloquial. There’s never been a better moment to advocate for design to be the way we teach people how to learn data. So I think the future of information design will be more and more people needing to understand data, wanting to work with data and wanting to explore ways to communicate data in a clear way.
DM: My hope is that the use of compelling data that’s visualised in a more democratic manner can help to eradicate the notion of fake news.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.