Information Design for the Common Good: Behind the Scenes with Author Courtney Marchese

Book cover: Information Design for the Common Good

As an environmental analyst, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to use information design to help solve societal problems. I think about the power of science communication to clarify, of design to engage, and of storytelling to motivate. I love a good data story. 

So when I heard about Courtney Marchese’s new book, Information Design for the Common Good, which explores the critical role of information design and data visualization in the explanation of today’s thorniest societal issues, I added it to my reading list straight away. The book just launched on September 9 so I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy yet, but I did have the chance to chat with Courtney about what to expect from the book and what she learned from writing it.

Highlights from our conversation are summarized below.

Claire Santoro: Your forthcoming book is about the role of information design in explaining and addressing society’s greatest challenges, like environmental or public health crises. What brought you to this topic?

Courtney Marchese: My background is in UX (user experience) design and user research, but I’ve always been interested in educating. I’m always looking for new ways to teach because everyone learns differently. Over 11 years as a professor, I found that I was frequently leaning on information design and dataviz to distill information and provide “grand overview” graphics for students to reference.

I have also worked with nonprofit groups like the Gates Foundation and United Way, and those projects were always about the information available and how we could make it accessible to the public in a way that helped people recognize its importance. I realized I could pull from my user-centered design background to tailor common-good messages to a particular audience.

CS: Almost by definition, many of these critical societal issues are polarizing topics among the public, particularly in the U.S. Can information design help change minds and lead to action, or is its role more objective (e.g., a tool to help communicate data to an audience that is already engaged and interested)?

CM: I think the answer is both. As one example: I teach at Quinnipiac University, home of a widely cited political poll, and around the time of the 2018 U.S. midterm elections we began to ask, “How should people engage with political information?” There’s so much misinformation out there; there are so many policies to read about; there’s so much data. There is almost too much information. How can you possibly engage with it all?

So one of my students worked with me to look at the poll data and pull in information from other neutral, government-type sources to contextualize the issues. For each poll question, we grounded it in background information and showed trends for as many years as the data were available. We asked questions like: Why are we talking about this right now? Why did the poll show a spike in public perception here? We created a huge report with a bunch of visuals detailing each issue. And, using that information, we were able to register the largest number of Quinnipiac students ever to vote. Though it was a small project, the result was encouraging.

But in general, I do think that I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind through information design. I just want to present people with facts and context, and they can do what they want with it.

Images from the 2018 Midterm Election Guide and Mini Guide created by Courtney

CS: What are some of your favorite examples of information design that lead to action?

CM: The last chapter of my book covers the idea of measuring impact because, in a lot of cases, we don’t know how much of an impact a particular visualization has had. Pulling from my background in user research and UX design, I have been trying to implement more of an evaluation plan with my work. Before sharing a visualization, I ask myself, what are some meaningful things that we hope the audience gets out of it? What can we measure to see if that’s happening? That’s something I really hope to see more of in the future of dataviz: meaningful measurement.

With that said, I can point to favorite dataviz examples, but it’s not always possible to know how much change they generated.

One example of action-oriented dataviz is a project I worked on with United Way. Quinnipiac University is in Hamden, Connecticut, a town with a significant gap between the wealthy and the poor. There was a report circulating that teachers at the local high school and middle school were keeping extra food in their desks for students who were hungry. So for this project, students created surveys and went around town, building trust with people at soup kitchens and at food pantries, to talk to them about their experiences. We gathered information and stories and pulled it together with the help of the United Way of Greater New Haven. That report was used for public policy presentations at the state capitol, and our U.S. Representative, Rosa DeLauro, brought a copy back to Washington. Although I don’t know what came of that, the outreach itself is an impact I can point to.

CS: What strikes me about the two examples that you’ve described so far – the Quinnipiac poll project and the Hamden hunger project – is the extent to which you were working on the ground with the community. Is that a key element of information design for the common good?

CM: That’s a huge part of it. It’s important to talk with the people who are affected, whether that is locally or in a broader context. Sometimes for larger-scale, international projects, there is no way for me to engage with users or the audience directly, but I can certainly talk to the scientists doing the research or others trying to understand and pass along the data. It’s always more powerful if you’re right there on the front lines, but it’s not always realistic.

CS: Tell me about the process of researching and writing your book. How and when did you get the idea for the book?

CM: I actually never intended to write this book! I was a research fellow with Design Incubation when I attended one of their writing retreats. I just wanted to write a book review. I was looking to improve my writing skills. But as I was pitching my ideas, they told me, “This sounds like a book.” And my response was, “That’s not what I came here for!” I was very, very intimidated, but thanks to Design Incubation’s relationship with Bloomsbury Press, I was able to work with editors to help craft the idea.

I started by writing the case studies that appear throughout the book because that felt less intimidating to me. I interviewed contributors, learned about their processes for creating visualizations, and looked through their images. Then I began organizing content into categories, depending on the focus of each case study. I tacked up a bunch of random notes on my wall, and I moved them around until they fit the story that I was trying to tell.

CS: How did you find the examples you highlight in the case studies? Do you have favorite sources for “common good” visualizations?

CM: It was important to me to highlight a range of examples—I’m not a data scientist; I’m a generalist, and I wanted that to come across in the book. I started by reaching out to some of my former advisors at Savannah College of Art and Design (where I received my MFA) to ask for recommendations, including work from MFA students who, like me, took on data-driven projects for their theses. I also poked through some of my favorite information design sources: Scientific American, National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. The examples I had to dig more for were the international ones, but since this book is written for a global audience, it was important to me that I included examples representing other parts of the world.

The Pacific Salmon Explorer, a visualization tool designed by Periscopic, one of many examples highlighted in Courtney’s book

CS: Who is the book for?

CM: I think it is for anyone interested in information design (although hardcore data people might not be as interested in it!). It’s for anyone who has been thinking about how to make information more approachable or more connected to their audience. The book has a strong focus on empathy-centered design and speaking to your audience, but also on the collaborative, interdisciplinary process of creating a data visual—it’s hard to do good dataviz work without the help of experts in other fields.

And I hope educators at all levels are interested, too. I have two young kids, and I find that it is helpful to talk with them about information design and its uses, even at their young ages.

I like to think there’s a place for everyone in this book.

CS: After having gone through the process of writing this book, has it changed how you think about your work?

CM: Oh, absolutely! Even just hearing all the different ways people make data visualizations was fascinating—we’re all in the same game doing the same things to some extent, but hearing about people’s unique processes, inspirations, and the stories that they try to tell was fascinating. For example, the book has a chapter on different approaches for exploratory versus explanatory data visuals. Some of the examples I highlight are data visuals carved from wood, or an interactive book. I think I have always had an appreciation for the process of making data visualizations, but now even more so—I find myself going through a mental cycle of creating a plan to measure impact; of making sure I’m in tune with my audience; of asking questions like, “compared to what?,” to make sure everything is in context. I have this hyper-awareness of the process now.

CS: The aim of the Data Visualization Society is to foster a supportive community among data visualization practitioners of all skill levels and backgrounds. For people just starting out in information design who want to create visualizations that lead to change, what advice would you give them (without giving away too many spoilers from the book, of course!)?

CM: It all starts with identifying a clear problem that you feel passionate about. If you do that, I believe you will be more invested in finding good data sources and identifying the type of impact you’re trying to make. But at the same time, counteract your passion by making sure you are grounding your research in the full context. It can be easy to put on your blinders and forget about the other factors at play. The humbling part of doing any sort of dataviz work is that there’s the focus of your piece, but there’s also this huge landscape surrounding it. 

For more information or to order a copy of the book, check out Courtney’s book page here.

Claire Santoro is an information designer with a passion for energy and sustainability. For 10 years, Claire has worked with governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, and higher education to accelerate climate action by communicating complex information in an engaging, approachable way. Claire holds an M.S. in environmental science from the University of Michigan.