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Accurat is a design agency and consultancy based in Milan, Italy, transforming data into meaningful stories, and developing multimedia narratives and interactive applications. They have been working on a weekly column, Visual Data, in La Lettura, the Sunday cultural supplement of Corriere della Sera, the biggest Italian newspaper. The column started from a collaboration between the cultural editorial office of Corriere della Sera and Density Design Lab, a research lab in the design department of the Politecnico di Milano. Since June 2012, Accurat has worked on the column on a regular basis, designing and realizing eight articles so far.
Our studio doesn’t have a formal information visualization education background. The four associates have majors in completely different fields: Architecture, Sociology, Design and Economics.
This is a strange skill composition for a design studio, but indeed it’s what brings novelty in Accurat’s body of work.
When working on information visualization, like on La Lettura, this multifaceted background clearly emerges, leading to the design of unorthodox visual metaphors, where our focus is on the data analysis, theories and storytelling side more than on respecting the visual canons on which many visualizers base their work.
Of course, golden rules are here for good reason, and even in our work, you can see a clear effort towards legibility, clearness, and a wise use of colors and shapes. But these things are here more because of generally good graphic design principles, than visualization best practices.
In practice, this translates into a very straightforward process in the design of the visualizations: instead of starting with a selection of the most proper metaphor among widely used models of graphs, charts and tables, the visual starts with the story we want to tell, without any constriction coming from the chosen format. This way, it’s way easier to break rules, let fantasy wander, merge ideas together and come up with naive but powerful and new visual schemes.
Like Andy Kirk described on VisualisingData, the process starts every week with a brainstorming on possible topics we think are particularly interesting to explore, ranging from current affairs and news to historical or cultural issues. Our different backgrounds, of course, play a very important role because each one of us has different interests, sensibility and culture, leading to interesting cross-overs between disciplines.
The project for La Lettura is directed and conducted mainly by Simone Quadri and Giorgia Lupi. Since Simone is a sociologist and not a designer, his main task is to spot the opportunities, analyze and validate the theories or systems we stumble upon in books, articles, news and other media. We then either start with interesting and curious socio-cultural theories and try to demonstrate their effectiveness using data, or with an interesting database and experiment with visualization in order to extract any sort of meaningful pattern.
Once we find an interesting topic, the next step is to start sketching and evaluating the first ideas. Giorgia has an architectural background, and she takes care of the definition of the overall structure of the visualizations, hand-sketching the first prototypes that focus on how we could cross contents, highlight patterns and, last but not least, harmoniously fill the page. She usually doesn’t look at data line by line, entry by entry. Simone tells a story he hopes to find in the data and Georgia builds the structure that would illustrate it.
Once the prototyping phase satisfies our expectations, the work is divided in two: a team, lead by Simone, takes care of refining the data and making it consistent for the purpose, while a graphic designer starts developing the actual layout on computer with Giorgia.
We also work with many different graphic designers and illustrators that we match with the specific style, topic, and flavor we want for each of our projects. Not being involved with the actual production of the visual details of the visualization (while also not being a Graphic Designer), helps Giorgia to keep a bird’s eye view on the layout of information and avoid falling into a development rut. All of our visualizations on La Lettura were in fact realized by different graphic designers: what keeps them consistent is the work of concept definition, art direction behind them, and the graphical constraints and guidelines we get from the newspaper itself.
The Painters’ Time
Let’s look at our visualization, called The Painters’ Time, where many fundamental infographic rules are broken and even more symbols and shapes are used to tell a very complex story.
We got the idea from the an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, in which he tries to unveil the rules behind creativity and genius, comparing those artists that succeeded very early in their career, the young geniuses like Picasso, with those who had to wait until their mature years and had to practice way more to see their true art take form, the old masters like Cezanne. Was it possible to draw a timeline that showed in what period of their lives the most famous painters of all times painted their masterpieces?
After settling on this direction, we had another question to answer: What criteria should be used to define which painting is considered a masterpiece? A first consultation with the art expert from the editorial staff at Corriere della Sera lead to the choice of the Italian edition of the Garzanti Art Encyclopedia as a main reference for the “official” point of view, but what about the “people’s” choice? The first result related to the name of the painter on Google Images was the easiest answer! The Sacred and The Profane, all together.
At every stage of development, paper sketches become very useful to fast-prototype ideas, check if a visual solution is viable and review the format with the client.
The study moved on, and the visual research encountered another problem: how to depict the life of the single painter and his fertile period along with all the others? Accurat’s team started defining three periods in the life of artists: young (up to 35 yo), adult (36 to 60 yo) and mature (61and over). How to deal with the fact that people in the past died earlier and had a shorter life? The intervals had to be normalized according to the average life expectancy for each century.
Once the pieces were all there, everything was laid out on a timeline. The life span of the artist became a line hovering over the timeline, the three normalized phases laid as three grey bars behind this line.
The first step was to highlight the phase that corresponded to the painting from the Garzanti Art Encyclopedia.
The depiction of the painting was an opportunity to add another layer of information, the main colors of the art piece. With the use of simple web software, ColorExplorer, the four dominant colors in the picture were picked. Another layer was then added, the size of the frame; the area of the square containing the four colors was made proportional to the size of the painting. The last touch was adding a small symbol indicating the technique used. All of this was then applied to all the authors, both for the “official” choice and the “people’s” choice.
Visualizations of this kind are meant to let people take their time to explore and understand a very complex phenomenon; in this way it’s interesting to add many layers of additional information to give the viewer the chance to connect the dots and get a better picture of the whole system.
The next step was to create a clear and easily understandable legend explaining how to read the viz, and how to get around the shapes, colors, and symbols.
Every piece was falling into place, but still something was missing: half of the right hand page was still empty. The art critic who chose the most significant painters to depict clearly preferred the last two centuries, and this left a huge hole to fill on the top right side.
How could that space be filled?
We can say that a very silly and practical question originated one of the most interesting aspects of this visualization. More, of course, could be said about eight centuries of art, so the team started looking at the whole picture: “Why can’t we fill the void with a few statistics for each century regarding average life expectancy, colors, sizes and techniques?”
What came out of this is a reference table that highlights interesting patterns in time: the dark colors that dominate the 17th century, the new techinques of the 1900s, the very low average age in Medieval times.
A few examples of the other visualizations, and the paper sketches that originated them, follow:
For this visualization we came up with an original layout where every column represents a novel from the series (in cronological order) and where patterns develop horizontally, evolving while years pass in Montalbano’s life.
Is it possible to visualize the development of the character of Commissario Montalbano througout all 19 novels written by Andrea Camilleri? This analysis and visualization explores meaningful trends in the fictional life of the police chief, representing his relationships with recurring characters, his habits and his attitude, the real or fictional places he visits, and other curiosities in a complex temporal score.
Time Machine For Art Movies
We were very attracted by the idea that we could spot a relation between the year when a movie was filmed and the year of setting. We then developed a double timeline that visualizes these “time travels” with colored lines.
The visualization explores the 52 best movies of all time, according to the British Film Institute (http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time), and investigates the relationship between the year of release and the time-setting of the story. Further details show interesting patterns on genres, durations, reality vs fantasy, nationality, and awards over time.
Empires Strike Again
We’ve seen many visualizations of the rise and history of empires through the ages, but what about how they fall? We studied a way to link and compare this events, trying to describe and display statistics on the reason behind such great destructive happenings.
Do we really know the reason why the biggest empires collapsed? The visualization proposes a new historical, geographical and demographical render of 21 big emperors of the past 2500 years. Empires are visualized according to the moment and reason of their fall; more information about size, population, govern and geography are visually provided for each.
Subterranean Veins Of Europe
We know and have seen a lot about different transport systems, but we had an intuition: where could we go if we lined up all the tube lines of London one after the other? Can we visualize this? The answer: we could go to Paris and beyond!
How long are the underground veins that run below major cities in Europe? With this visualization, we compare the total length and fares of the different subway systems across the continent, revealing interesting insights and confronting the actual sizes on the map.
The More You Study, The Longer You Live
A small book full of data from the Economist was on our table, and we wondered what would happen if we tried to link the tables from different pages. Focusing on life expectancy, we crossed it with other values and found interesting possible relations…
What is truly influencing life expectancy? Could it be GDP per capita? What about family size and education? Is it better to live in a urban environment? We compared many differents countries all over the world and found out that the more you study, the longer you live. Or is it the other way round?
Inspired by a geographical encyclopedia and by the 2012 Olympic Games, we decided to compare continent sizes and came up with a new, extremely simplified world atlas.
Is it possible to create a new map of the world visually comparing continents and their sizes; rivers, mountains, lakes and island dimensions; city population, density and even the number of passengers transits through the most important airports each year? Playing with scales, we tried to do it.
Giorgia Lupi is a co-founder and design director at Accurat. She has a background in architecture and is pursuing a PhD at Milan Politecnico’s INDACO department. She’s currently a visiting scholar at New York Parsons’ Institute for Information Mapping. You can follow her @giorgialupi.
Simone Quadri is a co-founder and content manager at Accurat. Simone is a sociologist and a teacher at NABA design. He is interested in urban dynamics, local development processes and new service models.
Gabriele Rossi is a co-founder and production manager at Accurat. He studied at Politecnico di Milano and University of Illinois at Chicago, started Bonsaininja Studio in 2005 and now teaches communication design at NABA and Politecnico.