October 9th 2020
The #Hi_IMadeIt series features the work and stories of creatives from all over the world as we dig into what it really takes to make something and bring it to life on the internet. Submit your own on Instagram—share your design or code project, tag us @hisuperhi and include the hashtag #Hi_IMadeIt for a chance to be featured. Today, we chat to information designer Giorgia Lupi on how she manages her creative process, making Happy Data, and the book she's writing next.
I’m Giorgia (@giorgialupi) and I define myself as an Information Designer. Every day, along with my team, we shape the way different clients and different audiences access information, specifically data.
My approach to data is probably not a very traditional one. I like to think about data as a way to abstract and describe our reality and not necessarily just as cold numbers. Data is always collected because there’s a hunch, a question, or something that we human beings want to discover. Data is always contextual. And so this is how we treat it in every project.
My background is not in computer science or statistics. I studied architecture and started to become very intrigued by urban mapping and urban planning. If you think about it, that’s already an information design language because it’s about abstracting the reality of a city and then mapping it and planning it, and representing it for people to understand.
That fascination led me to focus on data and information of any kind, not necessarily geographical. I then collaborated with many design firms in Italy. (I’m Italian.) In 2011, I both co-founded my own company, Accurat, with three other partners and studied a PhD in Communication Design and Information Design at Milan Politecnico. In 2012, I moved to New York, where I still live, and in 2019 I joined Pentagram as a partner, where I’m the only partner who focuses on data visualization and information design.
I’m always curious about where people grew up and how that influences their creative perspective. How would you say being Italian influences your work?
I do feel that being Italian influenced the way that I think. There’s great design in Italy. Because of that, I have a certain type of aesthetic. What influenced me a lot is having studied architecture because my mind layers information as if it was a floor plan. And so I think visually using the concepts of layering and using visual hierarchies to communicate different layers.
Culturally, coming to the U.S. was definitely very interesting. It’s kind of hard to put my finger on exactly what it did to me. But I would say growing up in Italy, it’s like you’re in a living museum. If you’re a person who pays attention to the visuals of life, it gets embedded into who you are.
Courtesy of: Giorgia Lupi
It’s quite a journey from architecture, to starting your own firm, to then joining Pentagram and all the projects you’ve done in between that. Could you talk a bit about your Dear Data project and how that came to be?
It’s interesting because Dear Data is a very personal project, self-initiated without a client, where Stefanie [Posavec] and I didn’t know each other before we found out that we had so many similarities in the way that we think, that we designed, the way that we use data.
I live in New York, she lives in London. So over 52 weeks for one year, we hand-drew data on a postcard that we sent over to each other.
Dear Data’s important to me because it started in 2014 when, already with my company, I was working primarily digitally and directing people. And that project brought me back to the making and to taking time to really decode your data.
The way the project has been received—because many people that were not even designers or statisticians really learned about the project and wanted to experiment on themselves—it really reconnected me to the very nature of data, which again, is just a lens that we can use to parse and filter all of our reality through. It becomes a design or creative material that we have for telling stories.
After this project, I started to apply this definition of data in my work, through all of my other projects, even my client projects.
How has that come through in your other projects?
Last year I worked with & Other Stories, which is a fashion brand in the H&M group. And we created an entire collection of clothes and accessories, primarily clothes, that have patterns on top of them that represent the stories of three women who’ve been pioneers in their fields and really opened the ground for other women to thrive.
Courtesy of: Giorgia Lupi
These women are Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. And there was really a very handcrafted way of decoding her algorithm. The algorithm that is at the base of the computer, that then went into three or four pieces of the clothes.
Then Rachel Carson is the first environmentalist. And I analyzed a book that is her seminal work, that then became a pattern that people can wear.
And finally, Mae Jemison. She was the first African American woman astronaut.
What really links Dear Data to this project is the idea that the data was not really there to begin with. I went to figure out what were the stories and the messages that people would want to hopefully carry around with them in a completely different medium, which is fashion.
The open human question of curiosity for these environments and for how we could tell the stories of empowering women, have been the drive for me, on this project.
What I like about my work is that the mediums could be completely different. Postcards, editorial, a collection, a digital experience, an experience in physical space, personal stories, healthcare, culture.
There’s really an infinite possibility of engaging with data, if you look at data this way.
I feel like a lot of people, they want to get into their niche. Whereas for you, you’re really interested in exploring this concept of data as a whole, across different mediums. How does that process of working across mediums come about?
For client projects, most of the time the client has an output in mind. Sometimes not necessarily, for example, when we’re creating creative campaigns out of data that in the beginning started out as a brand identity project, and then later on, it becomes something else.
Sometimes we have conversations with my clients and our clients determine the output. But most of the time with the clients, it’s more like, let’s build an installation or, can you design a fashion collection that’s based on data?
On the projects that are more self-initiated both from me and my team, it’s really mostly about: I want to experiment with that and I’d like to try this out.
Speaking about that self-initiated work versus client work, you do a lot of self-initiated work and you have definitely a body of work separate of your client work as well. Can you talk a little bit about how you balance that? Are you always working on something self-initiated, is it part of your creativity? How do you balance that?
Since I joined Pentagram, pretty much 100% of the self-initiated work that I do, I also do it with my team. We’d really love Pentagram to be the umbrella for everything that I do and try.
During COVID, we released a few projects, one that’s called Happy Data. We made a few visualizations of data about COVID that were completely self-initiated. The world is actually full of data and right now people, especially through COVID, are looking at these numbers more and more.
So, that was a response to be like, hey, what can we do as information designers to contribute to this moment?
And then, there is always some research that I’m doing. I’m working on, hopefully, a third book that is really very personal in this moment. The macro topic is about relationships and dating and data. So, this is more of a longer arc of research that I’m starting and I always have going on.
There are months where the client work is so intense or, things are going on in your life, that you can’t do more and everything at once. But I always have a list of things that I’m exploring.
Courtesy of: Giorgia Lupi
I know everyone has a different process, especially creatives. How do you manage that ongoing, never ending list of things you want to work on?
Sometimes I get a little antsy and want to just do things. But when I have so many ideas, but not a lot of mental space and time, I get frustrated because I want to be able to do more. So, it’s always this balance between being very excited about the ideas that you have, and then being realistic about the amount of time that you can dedicate.
It’s really important sometimes to go and explore things that come from you and not necessarily from a client. These things ultimately define your unique approach to whatever type of design discipline, or data discipline, that you have, because it speaks to what you’re obsessed about, what you really want to work on.
But it needs to feel natural. It’s not that we need to work on a personal project just for the sake of it or to put stuff out on Instagram. You need to have something to say, and sometimes it doesn’t come for a while. We also need to be patient with ourselves and expect that there will be moments in which it’s not feasible or is not going to happen.
You talked a little bit about some of the work, the self-initiated projects you did more recently. Could you tell us more about Happy Data. What influenced you there and what was that process was like?
Happy Data is a series of hand-drawn visualizations that we started to create that have a particular concept. So, we’re in lockdown in the spring and everybody, pretty much in all parts of the world, who were looking at the world from our windows and also at the same time, looking at all the very grim and sad numbers that you read out there every day.
We were dreaming of positive information, positive data. And so, the idea was to create these data-positive pills, like data windows. They’re crowdsourced photos of windows that then gets drawn with “Happy Data”.
We put information out there about the amount of people, for example, that volunteered or the progress that has been made in healthcare—the things that were not really so grim. When the Black Lives Matter movement started, we showed views from the windows of people protesting.
People really related to that, I think for two reasons. One is really, we were all really, really hoping to see these Happy Data statistics and I think also the other one, it was a concept that was really easy to relate to.
Could you talk a little bit about the tools that you use and how that plays into your creative process and how you think that influences your unique perspective?
I think that my favorite tool in general is a pen and paper, but not necessarily for the final output, but because it’s the way that I have to understand that I have an idea in the first place. When I’m thinking about data, I need to sketch. It gives me the freedom to explore the very best way for me in that moment to represent the data.
Once I have the idea, either by myself or most of the time with my team, it’s about really seeing what’s in the data and seeing if there are patterns that emerge.
I’ll sketch things that I share with my team, or we may even start looking at visual references and mood boards.
Are there any sort of challenges that you’ve experienced in terms of translating your ideas from paper to that end product? Is there ever a challenge with that?
In every project there’s always that moment where you feel overwhelmed by the dataset and before you really find the thing that you want to do or the visual or the experience that you want to design, there’s always that moment of challenge. Like, wow, this is a lot of information.
The projects that we work on are very, very different and most of the time, we do things that we’ve never done before.
So designing for an exhibition that is very particular with data that has never been explored before, or designing for a fashion collection or even working with a big nonprofit organization and creating a campaign that is entirely based on data. That informs all the outputs.
There’s always a moment in which you need to frame the process. It’s a challenge because it’s a different process all the time and you have different data all the time. But I’ve found over the years, that then there’s a moment in which you feel it’s right, you’ve shaped the work ahead and that’s when it starts to feel more like a descending slope.
Courtesy of: Giorgia Lupi
What are you working on next? What are you thinking about next? What’s really interesting to you right now?
I’m personally very, very interested in romantic relationships and personal relationships in general. I’ve always been very fascinated by it. I was with my ex for 10 years: we’re still really good friends and we’re still like family to each other. Last year we broke up. Now I’m in my late thirties, I’ve started to explore what it means to date again.
So I started to collect data about my dates. I started to have open questions about dating, dating when you’re not 22 anymore, and how observing and paying attention and collecting certain types of data, can help us understand a bit more of how we navigate relationships.
That’s what I’m working on right now.
And then what excites me about Pentagram and the reason why I decided to join as a partner, is that I really see this as a next chapter of my life, and not only the next thing.
If you think about Pentagram, my partners really influenced our visual culture. Since the ‘70s, way before I was even born, they started to design the logos and the visuals and the brands that many of us are super familiar with. For me, joining Pentagram is really a way for me to expand the way that we think about data.
Data can really become a communication material. It can become something that’s for everybody to be able to read. And it can become a medium to convey even mass types of messages or communication.
More and more, the brands and the companies that we love and we use, they gather our data as customers. We all know that. In the near future, what interests me is working with brands that are ready to take a stance and to own it and to be like, yes, we are gathering your data and we want to give you something valuable back as a design experience.
As human beings, so few of us can have the use of a raw spreadsheet, right? So we can’t really make any use of a company that gives us back a spreadsheet.
It’s only through design that maybe these conversations can be more interesting rather than just, I’m giving you a recommendation of a thing that you might like because you bought X, Y, and Z. I know it’s kind of vague, but I feel that there’s a future in which brands, data and design come together. For me, that’s an interesting space to explore.
-As told to Ana Wang, August 2020