What Makes Us Human, After All

by Lorenz Tschopp

Giorgia Lupi, My 2020 in Data (So Far) (detail)

Since early 2020, the human species is going through an ecological crisis affecting everyone of us. Our journey through this crisis is accompanied by a flood of numbers delivered by the media. The publication of these numbers has become a daily ritual and the numbers themselves a fixation we stare at like rabbits caught in the headlights.

Often these numbers are presented in the form of data visualizations of all kinds and shapes. Thus, aiming to communicate numbers with clarity and efficiency. Although many of these data visualizations succeed in making, for example, the trend of the infection rate more tangible, in most cases the numbers themselves remain abstract. In a crisis of this magnitude, neither efficiency nor clarity necessarily succeed in providing meaning. From an ontological point of view, what do the daily numbers of infections or deaths visualised over a period of time in a chart really mean? How do these numbers relate to our very own experience?

I propose it is rare that the presentation of data aims to address the following questions: How to make data tangible in way that relates to our very own experience of existence in relation to the unfolding events in the world at large? And subsequently, how to present data in a manner that invites us to pause and reflect? I suggest two covers by the New York Times presented here (see below) aim to do exactly that. To me, they represent an antidote to the daily flood of numbers continuously spat at us, which in return makes us increasingly transfixed, numb and exhausted. 

May 24, 2020 marks a grim milestone in the pandemic in the USA: It is officially the day when the number of people who have died from the conronavirus passed 100,000. Marking this occasion, the New York Times featured a list of one thousand of these victims on its cover. Every entry in this list represents a name, followed by a short sentence: 

Israel Sauz, 22, Broken Arrow, Okla., new father. 

Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Ga., sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school every year. 

Sawarrelita Redmond, 52, Riverdales, Ill., youngest of 21 siblings. 

[…]

All the data was collected from obituaries. The typography is meticulous: The names are set in bold, further information is separated whith commas and a middle dot separates the entries.The writing down of the names gives the crisis a personal dimension we can relate to. The addition of the short line of text gives a reason to acknowledge, if not to celebrate these very lives, despite the tragedy of death. 

According to creative director Tom Bodkin it is the first cover of the New York Times in forty years that does not feature any images or graphics. Nevertheless, it is highly visual. Aware of the fact, that the names on the list represent only a fraction of the deceased, thousands of pages unfold in front of my inner eye. The reference to memorials is immediate. Leaving us to reflect upon the outstanding question of what is it a memorial for?

Cover of the At Home section of the New York Times on 22.11.2020: My 2020 in Data (So Far) by Giorgia Lupi

On November 22, 2020 the cover of the At Home section of the New York Times featured a data visualization by Pentagram partner Giorgia Lupi. This data visualization is a documentation of her life during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. It consists of a simple mapping of individual events along a vertical time axis. Every event is indicated with a dot. A colour coding emphasises the firsts (blue) and lasts (red):

Last time I saw mum

First socially distant walk with a friend

[…]

These firsts and lasts are classified according to different categories. The most intimate category maps the development of a new love: First cooked together. The entire graphics are – fittingly – hand drawn. Looking at the graphics as a whole, the rupture caused by the pandemic in Giorgia’s life becomesvisible immediately.  

At first, this data visualization could easily be dismissed as the personal indulgence of a member of a privileged class. But this would not do it justice. While wandering through Giorgia’s firsts and lasts, one gets reminded of one’s own journey through the last months, and thereby of the little things we hold dear in our lives. Giorgia’s presentation of her personal data unfolds a story we can relate to and empathise with. She has coined her own term for this kind of data visualization: data humanism. A kind of data visualization that does not simply adhere to the criteria of efficiency, but welcomes subjectivity and thereby involvement. 

Both of these two covers of the New York Times invite us to pause, to look closer, to take time. For those who take the time, they let us connect with what makes us human, after all.


Sources

The New York Times, Times Insider, The Project Behind a Front Page Full of Names

Giorgia Lupi, My 2020 in Data (So Far)


Lorenz Tschopp is an information designer and alumnus of the Bern University of the Arts HKB. He currently works in Zurich, Switzerland. Over the last fifteen years he worked internationally and realised diverse projects in the fields of branding, editorial design, digital applications, type design, signaletics and exhibition design.


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