Seeing through Data: Visiting the Museum with the Eyes of an Information Designer

by Henry Murphy, with Giorgia Lupi

Imagine getting to know someone halfway across the world through postcards sent through snail mail — but instead of a photo and a brief message, these postcards were covered with hand-drawn signs and symbols representing aspects of daily life. Information designers Stefanie Posavec (based in London) and Giorgia Lupi (based in New York) met in 2014 and embarked on a yearlong project in which they did precisely this. Each week, Giorgia and Stefanie decided on part of their life to represent in a “data drawing,” to be exchanged through the mail. One week they chose to represent compliments they received, for example; another week they chose complaints. These postcards came together in a book called Dear Data, published in September 2016. In November, MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design added Dear Data to the Museum’s collection, including preparatory drafts and Giorgia and Stefanie’s original postcards.

Drawings from “Dear Data.” Courtesy the artist

This acquisition was an occasion for our public to explore information design in what is perhaps its simplest, most accessible form — as storytelling unburdened by computers and intimidatingly big data. So this past December, Giorgia led a MoMA workshop called Draw Your Visit with Data. In a world where our interactions with each other and with art are increasingly mediated by screens, working with Giorgia presented an opportunity to think about how data and information can drive us toward radically intimate encounters with ourselves and others through art. Giorgia shared with me some thoughts about the project:

The Draw Your Visit with Data workshop is part of my ongoing research on what I call Data Humanism: an approach to the data world through which, I argue, we are ready to question the impersonality of a merely technical approach to data, and to reconnect numbers to what they really stand for: our lives.

Specifically, it is an opportunity to investigate how we can find and use data in contexts you wouldn’t expect — as a second pair of eyes: to learn how to see more and better, and to explore how small and subjective data can be an observational tool and a creative material we could bring to, for example, the way we experience an exhibition.

During the one-day workshop, we focused on a specific exhibition with works exclusively from the 1960s, “a decade in which interdisciplinary artistic experimentation flourished, traditional mediums were transformed, and sociopolitical upheaval occurred across the globe.” In the very nature of the exhibition, there is purposely no narrative that links the artworks other than chronology. Thus participants needed to find their own story, using data as the guiding material to build their own personal, unique experience.

The limited amount of time and the vast number of pieces (over 350 artworks) forced them to pick a criterion to decide which artworks to look at in the first place. They then walked through the galleries with the eyes of data collectors, producing multidimensional datasets by observing four elements per piece of their choice. They detected qualitative and quantitative details about each artwork: it’s type and feature, the artist’s demographics, or even more fluid data such as their subjective experience of it or how other visitors would interact with the pieces — a somehow volatile but inherent part of the museum experience.

Workshop participants collecting data in “From the Collection: 1960–1969.” Photo: Manuel Martagon. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

We also explored ways to take visual inspiration from what we observe and translate it into abstract symbols to guide a data drawing. We learned to dissect the qualities and features of what we like and then use them as design materials. In fact, I believe that learning to see and to reproduce the aesthetic traits that attract our eyes to our surroundings is essential for creators of any kind. Looking for clues in unusual contexts and mapping out what our mind’s eye is captured by is an invaluable resource for inspiration and a guiding principle to any kind of design; if a set of aesthetic rules for shapes, for colors, and for spatial composition works in a context we observe, there should be a way to apply them to the designs we are working on.

Information Designer Giorgia Lupi guiding workshop participant through creating a data visualization. Photo: Manuel Martagon. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Attendees didn’t have any previous data or design backgrounds, but the results were really stunning. In fact, even though for many the words “data visualization” might be associated with heavy programming or statistical skills, complex softwares, and huge numbers, great results and insights can be achieved by approaching data in this very manual, analog way. On the other hand, working with quantities and variables to represent, and deriving visual inspiration from visual languages we are familiar with, helps everyone who’s afraid to draw or paint to overcome the “fear of the blank page.” Working with small data and design rules gives anyone enough structure to produce compelling artworks.

Workshop participant’s completed data visualization. Photo: Manuel Martagon. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Data is a material for creative production and doesn’t have to be burdened by technology. There is a clear benefit in what a physical approach to observing and representing data can bring to the process that computers cannot. Sketching with data not only makes data more accessible and understandable, it also introduces novel ways of thinking and leads to designs that are uniquely customized for the specific type of problems we are working with.

Drawing with data is a limiting practice that helps to reveal new possible avenues of analysis to perform. Instead of being overwhelmed by the size of a dataset and by millions of numbers, we focus only on their nature, their organization, and new opportunities often arise from this vantage point.

Even when we work with “Big Data,” the whole point is making it meaningful, contextual. It’s all about making it smarter, smaller, and more understandable. Even small quantities of data (or the lack of it) can tell us a lot about ourselves, the world we live in, and how we live in it. Data celebrates the incomplete, imperfect yet precious human details of life.

This is why I believe we have to reclaim a personal approach to how all kinds of data are captured, analyzed, and displayed, in any data-driven story or project where we want our audience to truly engage, to truly relate.

Another participant’s completed data visualization. Photo: Manuel Martagon. © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Working with Giorgia to design Draw Your Visit with Data is an exciting instance of a recent addition to the Museum’s collection providing an interpretive lens for other objects in the collection — and a set of experimental methodologies for activating the work itself. Just as Giorgia and Stefanie developed systems and visual metaphors to collect and represent information about their personal lives, workshop participants established their own datasets and criteria for collecting data and represented that information in their own visual languages inspired by the works in the galleries. Paola Antonelli, the MoMA curator who brought Dear Data into the collection, was delighted that the workshop was born out of the acquisition:

“One of my most favorite roles as a curator is to support and display the work of great designers, and to expose the public to them and to new forms of design. It makes me so happy to hear that Giorgia’s beautiful approach to data visualization was not only shared with MoMA visitors, but that this was interwoven through the interdepartmental context of the 1960s exhibition, too. Learning to look in new and more sustained ways is important wherever we are, but perhaps especially so in the museum context.”

This process of collecting data to then represent in data drawings inspires close, slow observation of works of art and, beyond that, other elements of a museum visit — the circulation/interests of other guests, curatorial choices, or elements of exhibition design. What begins to emerge is a personalized visual narrative of an individual’s interests in and interactions with works of art and the museum itself — and hopefully a new point of entry to both information design and viewing works of art.

For further inspiration, check out a selection from Giorgia’s workshop guidelines.