Can Data Be Human? The Work of Giorgia Lupi

Alexandra Lange:

The designer Giorgia Lupi was born in 1981 and believes that she is part of a special bridge generation. “I was raised in a completely analog environment,” she says. “I was a teen-ager when all of the awkward connection and human connection needed to be made in real life. But, at the same time, because I started to use technology as a teen-ager, I’m fluent in both worlds.” This week, Lupi joins the graphic-design firm Pentagram as the only partner who has a focus on information design. Her work, consistent with her upbringing, brings a tactile feel to computer code, and her appointment is an occasion to assess information design—a field located between graphic design and data science—and the possibilities it holds.

Sitting in Pentagram’s crisp quarters, on Park Avenue South, Lupi cuts an extremely organized figure: petite and black-clad, with a looping black necklace and round black glasses, accented by a cap of red hair. Born in Modena, Italy, and trained as an architect, Lupi had her first brush with information design while in college via an exercise in urban mapping, inspired by the planner Kevin Lynch. In his landmark book, “The Image of the City,” published in 1961, Lynch asked people to draw their city for a visitor, paying attention to their own everyday paths and major landmarks, without reference to geography. Of course, each person’s map, both in Lynch’s book and Lupi’s exercise, was different—but that did not mean that one map was more accurate than another. Rather, each person was telling a different story through cartography.

Today, Lupi describes her profession as “telling stories with data,” which sounds like an oxymoron, until you see her work. For the Milan Design Triennial, Lupi and her previous design studio, Accurat, created a so-called data tapestry, made up of horizontal bands crosshatched with vertical lines, that wraps around three sides of a gallery, titled “The Room of Change.” Each horizontal band represents a different data set, ranging from world population to animal extinctions, alcohol consumption, and technology access. Each vertical slice represents a moment in time. The wow factor comes when you step back and realize that all those numbers—all that data—look from afar like the sketch for a Bauhaus tapestry, done in colored pencil. The installation works as both visual art and a narrative of environmental decline.

Lupi calls what she does “data humanism,” a reaction against the computer-generated, harsh-toned bar graphs, pie charts, and rows of tiny humans that leapt from corporate reports into mainstream media in the nineties. In a manifesto of sorts that was published in Print magazine, Lupi writes how “ ‘cool’ infographics promised us the key to master this untamable complexity.” When that did not work out, “we were left with gigabytes of unreadable 3D pie charts and cheap translucent user interfaces full of widgets.” The ostensibly neutral visual language of these graphics suggested authority, but they could easily mislead or be misread. What was needed was a more honest, approachable, graspable way to present data.