Years ago, I took the advice of a famous writer whose name I can’t recall. He suggested that for an idea to be thoroughly examined, one should write it as prose, as poetry, write it as a song. Make it a haiku. Reduce it to one line. He said that once it’s been examined from all angles, it becomes dimensional. It takes on shape.
I use this principle every day in my work. I apply it to my relationships and to how I engage with my kids. Whether I’m animating, writing, parenting or householding, I make a point of turning things around in my head, looking at how everything fits together and examining the in-between spaces. I find the most interesting insights in the hidey-holes. The loud parts of a story are obvious. The real story happens in the quiet places – like how we’re most ourselves when nobody’s watching.
When I embarked on the SOTI challenge, I was excited at the prospect of excavating people’s stories from within this pile of data. I wondered if I could apply the approach I use in my art practice to these unique stories, hidden in the survey results.
I like people. I like to observe their worlds and imagine their quietness. I lived in New York City for thirteen years, and people don’t care about closing their blinds at night. They do their makeup on the subway. They fight with their partners on the sidewalk. There’s this beautiful tension between people’s public and private lives in a big city, where anonymity and intimacy are smashed together.
The same holds true, in a way, for our lives online. Take a survey. We’re sharing details of our experiences in an anonymous setting. With the SOTI survey, the questions themselves aren’t wildly personal but there’s intimacy in the act of participating. People are more honest when taking a survey. Nobody’s reading your body language or growing impatient while you contemplate. There’s no judgement.
As I read the SOTI data, I imagined each person taking time away from their routine to participate. A person – many people – driven by the desire to shape a story that’s bigger than themselves. There’s fellowship here, an invitation to have our stories held by others.
What I love about surveys is that the information becomes a constellation – no one person or piece of data holds the key. When you tumble the data points together they begin to contextualize one another. The story emerges from the relationship between them. Like a row of tenements windows, together, they become the picture of a community.
I’m writing, I realize, as though I know a thing about dataviz. I don’t. I do, however, know a bit about creative processes.
When the SOTI challenge was announced I saw an opportunity to try something new. I’d been fangirling DataViz from the sidelines for some time and I loved seeing work created using the rules of data. In my studio art practice, projects are wide and malleable, and the meaning of my work is open to interpretation. Having this much space to fill with my imagination can be a burden and I have to invent my own constraints.
What interests me most about the stories hidden in data is that they are fixed. I’m not inventing anything. As an artist, this gives me the opportunity to world-build from a really meaningful place. I wanted to play in this constellation-making space, where the story is right there for me to discover. Perhaps that’s what my nameless writer friend was pointing at: everything you need is in front of you, if you take the time to look for it.
The way I make art demands that I pay close attention to where I am, recognizing that it’s a journey. The process begins in a dark place where I know nothing, meandering towards something that feels like truth. Along the way, I discover what problem I’m actually trying to solve, challenge my assumptions, and find new solutions. On any project, my first step is to become deeply attached to a concept that may or may not align with the project goals. For the SOTI challenge, I doubled-down on this important step.
I was sure I wanted a visualization inspired by this 1930 illustration by Jaro Hess that lives on the wall in our home. I love getting lost in this world. I’d been looking for a project that would allow me to illustrate a fantasy space like this one using real-world elements. Why not a data project?
With Jaro Hess’ image in mind, I began analyzing the SOTI data. I started sketching. I imagined that I could combine mining the data with a viz that looked like an ant mine. But there would have to be more than one anthill, and each one would need so many branches. I went back to the data and tried hard to make it fit my beloved fantasy map idea. As I worked, I sensed that my devotion to the design structure was creating bias in my data selections. I kept grabbing the wheel from the information and trying to drive. We know how this story ends.
Frustrated and feeling the limitations of my inexperience, I scrapped it all. The project went into a resting phase – a period of actively ignoring it. In truth, rest can look like a lot of things. While I’m percolating on a project, I engage with the many other tasks I have on the go. All the while, SOTI is still running in the background. I’m busy noticing things and tying them into the familiarity I’d built with the data. I’m working on other projects, reading, drawing, running around with my kids, walking the dog and making meals. The data of life; I’m a participant too.
I recently set fire to my kitchen. Trying to juggle too much, I let an oiled pan overheat. When I added fresh tomatoes, the whole thing burst into flames. My kids watched in horror as I maneuvered this small inferno out of the kitchen and into the yard. They dubbed this meal Fire Tomatoes.
I don’t enjoy cooking. I started out of necessity after becoming a parent. In the blurry space between work and family, I often work, parent, and cook simultaneously, giving none of it my full attention. I have the tools I need and access to great ingredients, but having put no effort into learning how to cook I don’t know what umami means or how to use zataar. I‘m sure my meals would be more successful if I understood the rules, but I’m not invested enough to educate myself.
I am, however, invested in DataViz, in learning the rules, and having my experiments result in meaningful outcomes. Experience has shown me that I learn well independently, taking stock of my failures and generating successes from what I’ve learned. I’m comfortable with setting fires so long as I know how to put them out. My work in DataViz draws from my experience in other facets of visual communications, but still, I wondered, “Is that enough?” and “How important is a formal education in this industry?” These questions became the foundation for my second pass at the SOTI challenge.
I reanalysed the data, this time, allowing the structure of the information to drive the form. My first time working with a robust dataset, I found analysing the information digitally to be overwhelming. I needed to find a process for correlating the information where I could work with it rather than against it. So I went where I always go to think, my drawing table, and began mapping out the data by hand.
Thankfully, my studio practice has gifted me heaps of patience. I did much of the data analysis on paper. While this isn’t the most efficient approach, it allowed me to fully grasp the information. I created elaborate charts that had to be made and remade, discovering new relationships through the process of iteration. Working this way with physical materials creates connections to content in a way I can’t replicate on a computer. I need to hold the information in my hands.
As I was getting dirty in the data, it struck me that the process felt like the fun part of cooking. Here I was, inventing a new recipe from the ingredients that were available to me. But instead of ignoring the rules, I allowed them to guide my process. It was like making a reduction, a process of alchemy that reveals the essence of a thing. Step by step, I was refining the material and distilling it into something delicious.
I started thinking about the relationship between resources, tools and successful outcomes in our endeavours. Powerpoint is a tool; so is a frying pan. If you want to make lobster bisque and all you have is a tiny saucepan, you’re pretty out of luck. Access is part of the equation, education and experience are another. I have a LeCrueset and I never use it. It’s a fancier tool than I need, and I’m afraid of ruining it with my messy process. You can have all the resources in the world but they mean nothing if you don’t have the right skills to use them.
I grabbed my trusty cutting board and chef’s knife and got busy prepping. Using education as a framework for analysis, I started dicing the data. I was curious to see what the big picture outcome looks like for people with different access points. Which tools are universal? How are people spicing up their experience? My aim was to examine a cross-section of people, doing what they do in their everyday lives.
Each frame captures someone’s experience. The survey participants become invisible characters, rooted in their daily act of doing. I have a soft spot for scenes where characters are implied rather than seen. It leaves room to imagine myself there, like an unmade bed, or times square on New Year’s morning. Everyone’s made a mess of a kitchen at some point. This could be my kitchen. This person could be me.
In a story, character is the primary material. In data visualization, it’s information. I liked the idea of transforming information into character and place, and the data into something that happens: an action, a doing of something. I decided to build one scene, marked by different messes – the detritus of people cookin’ up their careers. The method became the material and “What’s Cookin’?” was born.
With an illustration for each level of education, the information becomes a dynamic interplay between data stories; you can see the shifts as different parameters are applied. In building it as a series, I aimed to illustrate not only the stories but the relationships between them; a row of windows, a community, alive, like the people it describes.
Much like my pantry experiments, the meals being made in the illustrations are unconventional. I chose the visual elements – the tools and ingredients – for how they best represent data points rather than how they’d come together as an actual meal. It was important to me that the scenes feel loose, at times even a little chaotic. Creative work is messy. We can never be certain of the outcome as it’s reliant on the context of an audience. It doesn’t come alive until someone else experiences it, and some of us have mixed feelings about aubergine.
It turns out that even with a Ph.D. your kitchen can still catch fire. This revelation felt oddly comforting. Fires flare not only when people have too few resources, but too many. There’s a sweet spot, where you’ve got all the staples you need in your kitchen but not enough to clutter and overwhelm.
The SOTI challenge reinforced that the more frustrating a project seems, the more opportunity for growth it holds. I could have forced the data into my fantasy map idea, but that would have meant breaking my accountability to the survey. I would have been telling my story, instead of the participant’s.
I might have dropped the project altogether but nothing ignites me like a good creative challenge. A little discomfort goes a long way. I chose instead to challenge my biases and move in uncomfortable new ways. It helped to frame the data itself as my client. This allowed me to clarify where I needed to stay rigid and where I could take creative license.
Working through this challenge opened my mind to a whole world of stories that lie quietly beneath the surface – beneath my assumptions – waiting to be discovered. Had it been easy I might only have noticed the first story that presented itself, rather than turning it over in my hands. Looking at things from different angles is how my work, and relationships, get better. It frees me to step into a space where there are no failures. Even in the kitchen.
Sarah is a transdisciplinary designer and artist who is passionate about building understanding through design. Her practice is informed by process, employing whatever medium best suits the message. Be it animation, illustration, art activations or data visualization, her aim is to invite people into conversation. Her commercial work is built on the foundation of an independent arts-based research practice. Working at the intersection of fine arts and information design helps her to generate meaning in the context of real-world issues.
When she’s not busy problem-solving or spreading enthusiasm, you’ll find her in, on, or near the Pacific Ocean. Based on Vancouver Island, Canada, she’s surrounded by her favourite place.
Learn more about Sarah and her work at sarahemeryclark.com