Have you ever wondered how many times you swear in a week? How many doors you pass through? How often you check the time, and how that corresponds to moments of stress, hunger or activity? What if you had the tools to see these plotted as charts and maps, outlining these instinctive habits and behaviours visually? That’s exactly what Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec have done in their charming and peculiar new book, Dear Data, a lavishly illustrated collection of postcards and doodles that tracks an entire year of their most quotidian actions.

It all began at a design conference in Minneapolis back in 2014, where Lupi and Posavec first met and bonded over a number of similarities between their respective lives on either side of the Atlantic. Both were award-winning designers and recently married ex-pats (Lupi is Italian but lives in New York, Posavec is American but lives in London). Most importantly, they were on a mission: to make the often impenetrable world of data design accessible, by stripping it back to its most human level.

They mailed postcards to each other once a week, spending every moment of their free time devising the most intuitive means of representing their observations in visual form, then drafting up their key or legend for the reverse side so that their drawings could be decoded at the other end. Eventually they began posting them online. In a manner reminiscent of the mid-noughties internet phenomenon of the PostSecret, the project ballooned into something participatory as people formed an online community and began contributing their own designs.

Given their willingness to candidly share the intimate details of their daily lives, Lupi and Posavec are just as you would expect – friendly, enthusiastic and refreshingly jargon-free when discussing the esoteric practice of data design. The modus operandi of data design is to streamline, to communicate complex sets of information through concise diagrams. Why then did they choose to focus on something as sprawling and unknowable as their daily habits?

We both work with data in a very hand-made, sketch-based way – Giorgia Lupi

“When we started the project, we had only met twice in person,” Posavec notes. “We started talking because we both work with data in a very hand-made, sketch-based way, which is pretty different to how a lot of other people visualise data.” Lupi adds,  “In essence, they are weekly self-portraits. We thought that celebrating imperfections and looking at this very personal representation of data could be something that would engage people even outside our community, as that was definitely one of our goals.”

Data with feelings

Most data designers are working to maximise efficiency and speed up this process of communicating complex information. Did they find that slowing down to reflect on these very personal sets of data ended up having a therapeutic value? “It forced us to get off our phones,” Posavec notes with a smile. “Definitely,” says Lupi. “The process of slowing down was a very conscious decision – we wanted it to contrast with the fast pace of the world we live in. The process was not slow just because of the postal service, but also because hand-drawing your own data takes a lot of time. I like to think that this kind of data collection can also be a form of meditation, because it helps you to slow down and really live in the present, at least for a moment.”

Their work is especially interesting given the growing trend for Quantified Self technology – products like the Apple Watch or the FitBit, that gather personal data for health or fitness purposes. Both Lupi and Posavec, however, are ambivalent about the potential of these products to truly capture the nuance, or as Stefanie puts it, “the rhythms, sounds and feelings” of daily life. “We can’t really expect something digital to really tell us something about ourselves, if we don't really engage in that process of making sense of things,” Lupi says. “We wanted to find a way to include lots of details, like our emotions in that moment – data that only a human being can gather.” Posavec adds, “It’s personal documentary, but it's not as if we are trying to discover academic-level, core truths about ourselves. They're snapshots”.

Musical notation, if you think about it, is an information design language - Lupi

The visual element of their project is equally distinctive. I mention to them the aesthetic similarities between their abstract drawings and the process-oriented, conceptual art practices of US artists like Sol LeWitt and the early work of Ellsworth Kelly, in which experiments with chance were translated into geometric, diagrammatic paintings. Posavec notes that she finds “the idea of spontaneous drawing a challenge, which is why I choose to work this way. Maybe that's what makes it more accessible – it's less scary perhaps than having to sit down and draw a still life, as our work is so heavily codified. It's very precise – every dot and colour has a specific meaning. I suppose that's the difference.”

Lupi agrees. “Lots of my visual ideas were lifted directly from the musical notation system, which if you think about it is an information design language – taking something as abstract as a melody, and making it intelligible for people who have to play the melody back. It's very similar, actually. That's what being a designer is all about. It's the combination of having that mathematical, structural meaning but still with the freedom of creativity. That's what I find compelling about it.”

Numbers game

The book itself brims with personality, and one of the most captivating discoveries is tracking the ways in which their two approaches differ – by the time you’re a third of the way through, it’s possible to discern whose diagram is whose simply by the visual schema they’ve used. It inevitably leads you to think about the way in which your own mind organises the data it accumulates, often subconsciously. Do I think in geometric shapes, sharp lines, bold colours? Or do my days unfold in a more organic fashion, with the serpentine lines and curlicues of a growing plant?

Given the phenomenal success of what began as a distinctly personal project, I ask them whether they feel their initial objective has been achieved, and what must seem in hindsight a relatively modest task – simply getting to know each other. “I think we both shared parts of our lives with the other that we didn't share with the friends we see on a regular basis, because the data we were gathering was so granular and introspective in some ways”, says Posavec. “As Giorgia and I hang out more and more in person, I still reference the project all the time. I say, oh yes, I know this about you, because I read it in your postcard.”

“The postcard was just the entry point – it triggered our curiosity to know more about the other person,” Lupi concludes. “We discovered that data is more like the beginning of the conversation than a final answer.” With contributions to the project continuing to build, it’s a conversation that’s now going global.

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