Looking East: Kontinentalist’s Design Principles Enhance the Asian Narrative

In many ways, Kontinentalist’s evolution as a data storytelling studio shapes our own professional journey as designers. Having joined the company early in our careers, we gradually cultivated our data visualisation skills and developed into better data storytellers alongside the team over time. 

Today, our purpose has never been clearer: to demystify Asia using data, bridge the gap between research and the public, uplift the stories of underserved communities, and foster a collective of data visualisation enthusiasts in the region. As the team grows more confident and takes on a stronger voice, our visual expression needs to be more distinct and recognisable as our own too. 

However, it is easy to become too engrossed in the day-to-day deliverables and focus solely on the technical improvements of our work that we lose sight of what sets us apart from others in the field. To unify our creative vision and resonate with our audience in Asia, we established shared design principles that extend beyond aesthetics and remain true to our core values: authenticity, integrity, diversity, collaboration, and trust. 

#1 Embrace our identity

Staying grounded in our Asian roots is important to us. After all, Kontinentalist was born out of the desire to reframe the global narrative about Asia, which often lacks nuance and sensitivity. But how does this manifest in our visual identity and creative processes? For us, championing Asia means drawing inspiration from our personal and communal lived experiences as Asians first.

With a team of Southeast Asians from various ethnic backgrounds, it feels only natural that our visual identity pays homage to the diverse and vibrant cultures of our home. Our typography, colour system, and imagery are inspired by Southeast Asian iconography and heritage. Stylistically, we infused a hint of brutalism—now the visual vernacular language of the social media generation— to create a look that is more casual, approachable, and reflective of the zeitgeist. Together, these design elements create a consistent leitmotif and distinctive visual grammar that permeates our work, including the data visualisations. Any extensions to or deviations from our design system would have to be in harmony with our identity.

A color palate of select oranges, purples, greens and grays, with indicators for the shades of each color.
Kontinentalist’s colour system is inspired by the warm tropical climate of Southeast Asia and commonplace items found in Southeast Asian households that may evoke a sense of familiarity. Combinations of these colours are used in our data visualisations with universal design principles such as accessibility in mind. Credit: Unsplash.

Our typography, colour system, and imagery are inspired by Southeast Asian iconography and heritage.

#2 Humanise Asia

Despite the fact that Asia is home to almost 50 countries, Asia’s multifaceted cultures and societies are often inaccurately flattened into a single, monolithic entity in the global discourse. We can see how this plays out in data visualisations too. Presenting Asia in a purely statistical way feels detached from the lived realities on the ground, and oversimplifies the diversity of Asian experiences and identities. How might we take on a more human-centred approach to designing our data stories? 

Two years ago, we collaborated with UNHCR to produce a visual story about the arduous journey of the Rohingya Muslim minority as they fled the Rakhine State in Myanmar in search of safety and refuge. We wanted the story to be intimate and poignant, and spur the audience into action. We chose to structure our narrative and present our data with a cinematic lens, which subtly emphasises the universal themes of survival and longing to belong. 

We begin with an expansive title sequence that places the audience in the perspective of the refugees. Throughout the story, we weave together data visualisations, oral accounts, prose, and portraits, carefully calibrating the flow of information to keep the audience engaged. The choice of accompanying illustrations, personal recounts, and other editorial decisions matter as much to bring to life the human stories behind the numbers and to accurately depict the Rohingya refugees as real people with their own experiences instead of reducing them to tragic victims. By the end credits, we want the audience to feel like they have embarked on a journey of discovery and gained a deeper understanding of the Rohingya’s plight, regardless of their background.

Four screenshots of a project called "Abandoned at Sea: The Desperate Journeys of Rohingya Refugees." The colors are all dark grays and black with the exception of the data points in the charts and on the maps, which are bright blues, reds and greens.
We often use visual cues in our stories to evoke emotions. By sharply contrasting areas of deep darkness with bright pockets of data visualisations and illustrations, not only did we want to accentuate the data, but also convey hope and resilience in the face of devastating loss. Screenshots from Abandoned at Sea: The Desperate Journeys of Rohingya Refugees.

#3 Innovate with the reader in mind

Despite the increasing importance of data in today’s world, multiple studies have shown a worrying lack of data literacy in the Asia Pacific workforce. This means a complex visualisation might be detrimental for viewers who lack experience in discerning patterns or do not have access to high-speed internet, especially in some regions of Asia. On the other hand, a simplistic chart may fail to fully capture the complexity of a dataset. This forces us to be more thoughtful of our audience’s needs and experiences as we strive to experiment with unconventional data visualisations.

Incorporating empathy into our innovation process can transform our stories from mere displays of information into meaningful educational tools that equip our readers with the skills to read data and interpret insights on their own, and empower them to make informed decisions for themselves and their communities. Our design guidelines stress the importance of accessibility and usability without compromising creativity. How might we build a story that supports both the audience’s needs and the ambitions of the story?

One way we try to achieve this is by introducing exploratory breathers into our stories when a chart or concept may be unfamiliar to the audience. In our story on Asian representation in Hollywood blockbusters, we invite the audience to take an active role in uncovering insights by engaging with the chart first-hand in a sandbox-like environment at the end of the story. By doing so, they can peel back the layers of the data themselves, focusing on the details that matter most to them.

A stacked bar chart where each section of each bar has a popup to see more information.
After a few sections of linear, guided narrative to set the context and familiarise the audience with the chart, the story slowed down and opened itself up to exploration and interaction. Source: Asian Representation in Movies: Have Things Changed Since 1997?

Furthermore, we often experiment with narrative formats. In a story about what goes into the preparation of the Diwali festival in a household, we use comics to tell our data stories. By directly addressing the audience in a conversational tone, we are able to break down data and information into easily digestible visuals and text.

A comic with dialogue bubbles.
Comics introduce point-of-view characters that anchor the reading experience and allow us to be more expressive when visualising data. Source: Deepavali Sweet Surprise.

#4 Enrich through visuals

We learned that visual encoding, when used effectively, can delight the audience and add depth to visual communication, elevating our stories on a cultural and emotional level. Visual expressions are also an avenue to celebrate the rich culture and diversity of Asia. However, using cultural motifs in data visualisation requires a fine balance between creativity and sensitivity. 

Asia is a diverse continent and being Asian does not give us a free pass to appropriate cultural elements without understanding their significance. Exoticism and tokenism will undermine any meaningful representation of data. As much as we want to use visual shorthands that are instantly recognisable and intuitive, it is crucial to do our research and acknowledge any inherent Eurocentric biases that may cloud our judgement. We avoid using cultural symbols superficially as decorative elements or aesthetic choices without making any meaningful connection to the content and context of the data they represent.

A collage of images showing Mao, pandas, the Chinese flag, dragons, army line formations, surveillance cameras, a tank, and Xi Jinping
An excellent article by Selina Lee and Ramona Li for Foreign Policy dissects the most common symbolisms and aesthetics used to visually represent China, and warns of the resulting harmful perpetuation of otherness and stereotypes that pander to the American combative and orientalist views of the country.

To explore the changing patterns of Han Chinese names and their connection to China’s societal norms, we designed custom visualisations inspired by the ancient game of Chinese chess, Xiangqi. Using chessboard pieces to represent the data points is especially fitting because each piece contains a single character that implies a role and conveys a specific meaning, much like the names discussed in the story. 

 Xiangqi’s distinct aesthetic and popularity make it particularly resonant with our Chinese audience. For audiences who are non-Chinese, the design helps pique their interest to explore the data, with more information available on hover. Source: What Can We Tell From The Evolution of Han Chinese names?

We believe that good guidelines can empower us to be adaptive, flexible, and responsive in this rapidly-evolving field while remaining true to our core values.

Develop living, breathing design guidelines

Data storytelling can be like a team sport, as friends from Thibi, a data storytelling and design consultancy, once pointed out, and this analogy certainly rings true for Kontinentalist. While designers are responsible for the final design outputs, our data stories are often the product of the organic exchange of ideas and collaborative efforts involving editors, writers, developers, subject matter experts and community partners. Visual guidelines are not important just for the designers but also for other team members because shared language and expectations allow us to mediate different perspectives when solving problems and ideating visualisations together. 

At Kontinentalist, we “#1 Embrace our identity”, “#2 Humanise Asia”, “#3 Innovate with the reader in mind”, “#4 Enrich through visuals.” Each designer actively participates in the development and iterations of our visual guidelines by formulating or reviewing design methodologies that put these principles into concrete practice and workflows. We believe that good guidelines can empower us to be adaptive, flexible, and responsive in this rapidly-evolving field while remaining true to our core values. Therefore, our visual guidelines are not designed to be restrictive, but rather to evolve alongside our expertise and the changing landscape of our industry. Currently, we are maintaining a total of 10 design-related guidelines, including data visualisation and social media guidelines. By encouraging participation and collaboration, we foster a sense of ownership and accountability among designers and cultivate a culture in which everyone is invested in the success of their projects, and more likely to embrace the guidelines.

We compile all of our design guidelines on Notion, which serves as a single source of truth for every team member.

Lastly, advocating for good design principles goes beyond our team and that is why we’re committed to sharing knowledge with a wider audience through workshops and the educational Data Deep Dive series on social media. By sharing our best practices and creative processes with our audience, we hope that they will grow alongside us in their data storytelling journey.

Joceline Kuswanto headshot
Joceline Kuswanto
Design Team Lead at Kontinentalist

Joceline has more than five years of experience in UI/UX design, art direction, brand identities, editorial design, and illustrations for digital platforms. She leads Kontinentalist’s art direction, UI/UX design, and editorial design.

CategoriesData Journalism