Writing with visual alphabets
As a data visualization designer, I think about the pieces I’m working on as the visual equivalent of articles or stories. I love reading and writing using words, but I also love reading and writing using shapes and visual alphabets. Keeping in mind the people who will see and read my visualizations is essential, especially because most of my potential readers are not data visualization experts and may need keys and support to read these visual stories.
Over the years, I’ve created pieces for all different types of readers, but they all had a common characteristic: they were adults. A few years ago I was asked to use data visualization to communicate with children. I loved this challenge from the start and I’m going to talk about what I learned and the unique characteristics of this project here (thanks Nightingale for hosting my words!).
But before that, I’d like to quickly explain how I got there. I’ve been designing data visualizations as a freelancer since 2015 and I’m extremely interested in visual experimentation as a way to communicate to readers, and to engage them (when the usage context justifies it). A collaboration that allows me to explore my interest for this kind of experimentations is the one I have with La Lettura, the cultural supplement of Corriere della Sera. I design static data visualization pieces for them, combining informative content with data art: I’m in fact asked to visually experiment while communicating topics and stories.
Designing a Sky Map
Some years ago they asked me to design something different from the projects I usually work on: a “Sky Map” that would combine cartography, data visualization and illustrations to depict our world as seen by the eyes of an airplane pilot, with different boundaries and reference points to navigate the world. The visualization was inspired by Mark Vanhoenacker’s book Skyfaring. A Journey with a Pilot.
I had never mixed data visualization and illustrations before, so that project was a very interesting starting point. I’ve always loved to draw, but I stopped doing it when I started working as a designer and was losing confidence in my illustration skills. (I still don’t consider myself a professional illustrator.) In fact, at the beginning I didn’t think I would have been able to work on the illustrations and I had contacted a very talented friend of mine asking her if she had time to work on it with me (Debora Guidi). But she wasn’t available and I decided to give it a try myself. I’m very happy about that decision now!
Airplane pilots use reference points called waypoints to define their routes. Some waypoints have very nice and evocative names, such as MOON or GNOME or WHALE. I decided to use this aspect as starting point to add an illustrative element to the map and I’ve drawn some of them.
I was particularly focused on finding a style for the illustrations that would work in concert with the data visualizations — I visualized data about airplane passengers by country and airports — and I worked a lot on the palette and the shades to obtain such a result. Sky Map is a project I’m still very fond of. First, it pushed me to use illustrations as communicative and informative layers and now I love mixing drawings and data visualization when I can. Moreover it allowed me to look at the world — and then to illustrate it — from a totally different perspective: I saw it and then depicted it with different eyes, borrowing an airplane pilot’s glance (and — fun fact — I love traveling but I definitely don’t love airplanes, so it was an interesting change of perspective!)
And finally, I’m very fond of it also because it brought me a beautiful, entirely different opportunity.
A few months after the publication of the piece I was contacted by a publisher: they had seen the way I had combined illustrations and data visualization and they asked me to try something similar for a children’s book.
‘Planet Earth’: an infographics children’s book
The aim of the book, which was titled Planet Earth: Infographics for Discovering Our World, was to depict our planet combining infographics and illustrations. I was extremely excited about the idea of working on an infographic children’s book: shifting my focus from adult readers to kids would allowed me to look at things — again — with new glances and from a new perspective (such a refreshing one!) so I accepted the proposal almost immediately.
Even so, I was conscious of the fact that there would be challenges. First of all, I had never designed data visualizations for children before: I mentioned how keeping the audience in mind is essential for my job and in this case I needed support to better understand how to talk to my potential readers. Many of my visualizations — as the ones for La Lettura for instance — explore topics in their complexity layering different levels of information: they are the visual equivalent of a long article and they need time to be read.
I don’t think this is a problem when the usage context allows it: I think there is a wide range of possible approaches to designing data visualizations that depend on context, readers and communicative purposes. But such a “long reading” approach wasn’t the right one this instance. I remember a lot from my childhood, including the things I didn’t understand (I perfectly remember the first time I saw division on a blackboard at elementary school: I immediately thought, “Will I really be able to understand such a thing?”). Similarly, I wanted to entertain the young readers with something interesting, easily understandable and enjoyable.
This is why I decided to work on Planet Earth with Chiara Piroddi, who is the co-author of the book. She is a psychologist, expert in Developmental Neuropsychology and her role was extremely important because she helped me design visualizations that could be understood by our young readers. During the design process I used to send her my ideas and sketches for the potential visual representations and she was able to tell me if she thought they would be understandable for children. I think that without her support I would have oversimplified the project, afraid of designing unreadable pieces. I wanted to work on clear but also evocative and organic shapes and her feedback helped me in finding a balance.
We also worked together on the main structure of the book, which provides information on our planet from different points of view: from the atmosphere to the ocean depths, showing data on animals, plants and the environments.
Then she focused on the research phase: she extracted data from official sources and encyclopedia and we worked together to clean them and select the information to be visualized. In the meantime — while she was looking for the data — I started defining the overall style of the book: the second challenge.
Defining the style of a project is always a challenge, and this time I particularly wanted to work on the connection that a children’s book can create with readers.
I’m constantly interested in such connection with the readers. I strive for an emotional component when designing for adults, but I think that working on a book for children particularly requires giving a lot of space to this aspect. It’s important to create an emotional relationship with young readers in my opinion, trying to turn on the spark of joyful connection that a child can have with a book: I curated shapes, colors and the overall composition to try to turn on such connection.
In general, I often find it useful to start from a personal point of view when I begin a new project: I “start from myself” trying to put myself in my potential readers’ shoes. For this reason, in my design process I dedicated a lot of time to remembering. As child I loved to lose myself in the pages of books and I remember that I really loved certain illustrated books because of the colors, the shapes and the details. This is why I spent an afternoon re-looking at my old children’s book — my parents still keep them — flipping through the pages and re-feeling all the positive emotions that they used to bring me (that they still bring me, actually). These positive feelings — and the feelings I get from the visual elements in particular — were the starting point for my own work.
The first aspect I focused my attention on was the illustrative element. I’m not a professional illustrator and I wanted to make sure that my style would have been approved by the publisher.
I already knew that they liked my illustrations for the Sky Map, so I used them as starting point. I hand-drawn the illustrations (with a black pen — I always use the same one) scanned them and then colored them with Photoshop.
I love soft shades and light colors, but this time I “pushed the saturation button” a little bit more than usual, inspired by my old children’s books. I defined a main palette of ~10 colors and I used them to create different shades.
Designing data visualizations for children
I then worked on combining them with the data visualizations. I wanted to design elements that were understandable but also visually evocative at the same time. There are certain shapes I love — I’m often inspired by the shapes of nature such as leaves, flowers, jellyfishes (I’ve been inspired by a cabbage lately) — and I kept such shapes as base also in this case and then I simplified them.
I worked on small compositions of infographics and illustrations. Drawing soft and clean visualizations helped me in creating a dialogue between the hand-drawn illustrations and the vectorial infographics: I didn’t want the two elements to clash, but rather to have a harmonic relationship.
Again, Chiara Piroddi’s role was essential. She helped me understand if my visuals would have been clear enough for a young public. A very useful suggestion that came from her is that — with data visualization being a new language for most children (and not only for them actually) — creating a familiarity connection with the shapes was important: for this reason there are some shapes and visual models that recur often in the chapters, to help children get used to them. I worked on creating a consistent alphabet and then on constantly helping the readers in using it.
This is why I’ve designed both small legends for each chapter, and also — at the same time — a unique legend in the first pages of the book, so that they could have all the tools to visually read the information and slowly learning how to use them.
This was a great opportunity to work on the emotional component of visualizations and visual elements and on how this component can help me — as designer — in creating a connection with the readers. And I had the chance to see some children’s reactions during a few workshops I’ve given. I guided them in designing compositions of infographics and illustrations inspired by the book and their enthusiasm, care and interest were truly heartwarming.
I’ve talked about the importance of keeping our readers in mind: working on this book allowed me to think about that focus during all the design phases. And this constant reminder has been absorbed and then consolidated in my current design process. This book made me also reflect on the importance of starting from a personal point of view to design a project that can create a “connection.” I’ve started from my memories and I used them to design shapes and elements with the purpose of explaining topics, communicating stories and contents but also engaging the readers. The coexistence of these factors is very important for me, also when I design visualization for adults: using the communicative potential of shapes, colors and compositions to create engagement and understanding.
And talking about potentials, I think that data visualization can be a very useful tool to communicate information and contents to children. Giving a shape to numbers is a good way to transform their abstractness into something that young readers can actually count, measure and compare. Numbers can carry with them interesting and meaningful stories and visually translating them can help bring these stories to light. I loved bringing some of our planet’s stories to light and narrating them to children.
P.S. While writing this article I was forgetting to mention two important aspects!
- Caffeine was a major support for this project: Chiara Piroddi and I only had four months to create the book and we spent a few nights awake working on it. Time was another significant challenge!
- The publisher asked us to design a mascot who would have guided the children in discovering the different environments, from space to oceans. I’m a longtime fan of tardigrades because they’re simply amazing and they can basically survive everywhere. So I didn’t think too much about who our mascot could have been 🙂