Book review: “Dear Data” (Penguin)

To craft something requires skills, mastery and patience. It means to create something step by step, with a passion for details and execution. Crafted products are en vogue these days, and in a world where industrial and digital creation processes are the norm, hand-crafted things appeal to us as rare and precious gems.

Such are the qualities one associates with „Dear Data“—a beautiful personal project by two highly skilled and creative data designers, Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi. The two share a passion for the hand-made, for drawing and for sketching as a tool for conceiving of their visuals. Living in London and New York City, respectively, they had met only a few times when they decided they wanted to collaborate and get to know each other.

dd3

Over the course of a year, they sent each other postcards – each with a very personal data portrait drawn from their daily lives. In autumn 2016, their correspondence has been published as a beautiful book by Penguin (UK) and Princeton Architectural Press (US). Giorgia and Stefanie defined a particular theme each week, on which they would manually track their data.

To visualize the results, they would create a data drawing and send it via snail mail. So until the postcard arrived, they wouldn’t know which visual form the other would find to express their data set. Themes revolved around personal issues such as „How many times did I check my appearance in the mirror“ or  around the moments when their respective partners inspired positive or negative feelings in them.

dd1

There are several things which make this project so appealing. Both Giorgia and Stefanie went to great lengths to invent new visual forms to express their data sets. This approach, which they both have been known for in their previous work, is taken to incredible heights in this project. Each postcard features a highly detailed drawing which can be read as a data visualization. The legend explains how the information is coded in forms, shapes and colors etc.

Furthermore, the very personal character of the project is underscored by the fact that the book contains an extra layer of comments throughout. About the difficulties of data gathering („Note of data void Friday + Saturday: Three boozy xmas parties / nights out in 48 hours means I was not so good at keeping track, oops.“), about how Giorgia cursed one overly detailed layout she had invented („Jealous of regular people who enjoy their weekends grrrr!“).

What makes the book so special in my perception is that Stefanie and Giorgia accomplished to create a language – both visually and verbally – to use data drawings as a means to portray someone. The themes for each data set are carefully chosen („I am so sorry Stefanie! I suggested a boring topic this week!“), data are manually gathered and expressed in customized drawings.

dd4

Both authors mentioned repeatedly, how they had learned things about their own everyday lives that they hadn’t previously been aware of. In a time when everyone creates his or her larger self on social media, this way of portraying yourself through highly crafted data drawings seems like a humble and meditative practice, focussing our attention on the little things in life: how we live and why we live this way.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the project has inspired many people to go and create their own data drawings. A really nice selection can be found on FiveThirtyEight, who asked the listeners of their podcast to sketch their daily habits. More reader postcards are regularly posted on Dear Data’s  Twitter and Instagram accounts.

bildschirmfoto-2017-03-01-um-11-39-40