The Functional Art: Interview with Stefanie Posavec

Of all the interviews in The Functional Art, the interview with Stefanie Posavec is my favorite.

Alberto Cairo: How did you do the graphics? Did you do use any scripts to count the words, organize them, sort them according to themes, etc.?

Stefanie Posavec: Believe it or not, I didn’t. I did it all by hand.

The Functional Art, p. 343

Wow.

Literary Organism, by Stefanie Posavec. Source: http://www.stefanieposavec.com

I am aware that I need to automate, but sometimes I feel that it’s important to spend that kind of time gathering your information by hand. It feels a little more natural. Also, it creates bonds with what you are working on: I had to read On the Road over and over again, so the outcome was as much a representation of the text as it is a representation of the novel in my head, of my experience of exploring it.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 343

Stefanie’s reply resonates with me so much yet, I have to give this more thought as I’m sleep deprived and my head is a bit scrambled from switching mind gears for each project, but here’s the immediate thought: As a graduate student in an interactive media program, naturally, there is great focus on code and digital. While people, through emphasis on user experience and user research, are at the center of what students create, I’ve often wondered if students, my classmates, feel a connection to the experiences they are creating.

Does that sound weird? I can hear the other side of myself asking, “Why do we need to connect with what we are creating?”

Seriously though, do screens and the code that have been designed to help us making things more efficiently, disconnect us from the experience, the tactile and physical nature of human movement, of making? By removing the slowness of making by hand and touching materials disconnect us as makers, as designers?

Highlighted pages of Stefanie Posavec’s copy of On the Road. Source: ImageKind

When is the last time you really looked at a book and didn’t take it for granted?

I’ve designed photo books where I’ve worked with photographers editing with printed thumbnails and taking those sequences to InDesign and printing tons of dummies, mockups to get a feel for the experience. Then if I could be so lucky, see the book printed.

But I gotta say, nothing compares to literally making a book. I personally am not very good at it as I’m a beginner but when you make a book by hand, you start to truly understand and appreciate every page, measurement, type placement, paper (oh the paper!), fold, stitch and more. It feels more personal.

What is our relationship with books? What is your relationship with books? What is a book?

It’s clear I love paper books. I suppose it isn’t “right” to love paper books in this age of climate change, waste, trash and environmental impact but I can’t help it. It’s an emotional relationship. I love the simplicity of interactions: using your hands and a pen to highlight words, jot down notes in the margins, fold the corners to book mark a page … The fact that you can bring it anywhere (well, depending on size and weight), you don’t need electricity though you may need a light when it is dark.

Above all, I understand more when I read from printed words. I’m not sure what it is but if I read, highlight, and write in a book, I retain the information more. It just isn’t the same with the Kindle, PDFs, or web-based books. If paper books ever disappear, I’m going to be in trouble.

Stefanie’s visualization, Writing Without Words: Sentence Drawings of every sentence from On the Road is the transformation of the experience of the book. It is beautiful, poetic, musical. It looks like an expression of our natural world. Looking at it, I’m reminded of mold, of crystallization, of the beauty of science and biology.

It’s always about awe and wonder for me. That’s why I have decided to call myself a data illustrator, rather than a data visualizer. The reason is that I really like the idea of using data to communicate more subjective concepts about the topics I cover. Everything is accurate in my graphics, but they are not necessarily designed just for efficiency, they are not always what you would call information design.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 348

Sometime I think in the age of digital we have forgotten about awe and wonder; to look at the world as new beings, like children.

Yet, the side of me that loves technology has experienced awe and wonder in multi-layered experiences, especially in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) … Magic Leap being one of my favorites along with Tilt Brush on the Oculus.

Perhaps it isn’t a choice…it isn’t binary but a place where I want to sit; where I want to practice. Hmm…

Stefanie’s interview reminds me that I don’t ever want to be removed from what I create or heaven forbid, dispassionate. Emotions are healthy as much as they can be annoying. They are as beautiful as they are difficult to experience through others and within ourselves.

Mental Barriers, Confidence Intervals, and Questions

I do not suck at math

”I do not suck at math. I do not suck at math. I do not suck at math …”
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …”

The enormous hurdle in my mind that I’ve been working through as I learn about visualization is the math required to properly, truthfully visualize a story. This is not easy as I have believed over the past 30 plus years that I. Suck. At. Math. I’ve shared this fear of math before and I have been training my self to be more positive. I bought some books and at every opportunity I try to practice.

Still, the negative experiences I buried for decades feel like they just happened yesterday and this chapter in The Truthful Art about confidence intervals immediately made my want to close the book. Dramatic perhaps but as a kid who was scolded so many times for not understanding (translation: stupid), the first opportunity to avoid those experiences were a blessing. So for years I managed to avoid situations where I would never have to deal with math.

Yet here I am and planning to keep going. There are pattens in life worth breaking or resolving and I’m determined to re-craft my narrative. So, I have to read this chapter again and again and I think it is going to take more than books to help me feel confident in my abilities. It might be time for a tutor or a summer class.

“The predicted probability of having a data policy for English-language general (red, higher) and specific (blueish-green, lower) journals as a function of their impact factor”. From “Which political science journals will have a data policy

Papers that don’t report significance, effect sizes, and power together deserve extra skepticism, as a general rule.

The Truthful Art, p. 324

Keep Asking Questions

I’ve learned over the years not to be duped by fancy names or titles and somewhere during my career, I figured out that surrounding myself with people who knew more than I or complemented my skills were key to doing great work… as a team.

Off the top of my head, here are just a few people who have helped shape me as a designer in no particular order:

  • Michael Kellams
  • Emily Escalante
  • Tina Ullman
  • David Pratt
  • Jerry Sealy
  • Norie Quintos
  • Leigh Borghesani
  • Bill Marr
  • David Griffin
  • Trish Reynales
  • My husband

Of course there are many others—colleagues (designers, reporters, editors, photographers) and people I’ve never met whose work I’ve admired or whose books and articles have inspired me and challenged how I think.

I started my design career in newspapers interning at The Seattle Times, then went on to The Globe and Mail, Copley Sun Publications, The Chicago Tribune and off to National Geographic Traveler magazine. My focus at that time was on photography. I worked with picture editors and photographers in packaging and presenting stories where the photographs were the lead visuals.

So, as the completion of the semester, this class, and my first year approaches, I find myself reflecting on what has transpired in the past 7-8 months. A lot has happened and one thing I didn’t anticipate was the desire to return to the “newsroom”. I never thought I would want to pursue data visualization, especially because it doesn’t come naturally to me.

The secret behind any successful data project is asking people who know a lot about the data at hand and its shortcomings, about how it was gathered, processed, and tested.

The Truthful Art, p. 316

Asking questions is paramount to collaboration, understanding people, and being a responsible designer. I’m used to working with others, experts, so honestly, my first visualization for this class made me nervous. I was uncomfortable and uncertain about the data because of my inexperience. I did my best and the project comes with a giant asterisk (* school project!) but I suppose I had to start somewhere.

At least I know for certain that I need to learn more about understanding data and ramp up my math skills. I also have to remind myself that I just started in January. So patience, where are you?