Friday, June 1, 2012

Stefanie Posavec: Infographics and Literature

I wrote about Stefanie Posavec right after I talked with her on Skype a few months ago. I decided to include her as the last interviewee in The Functional Art because —even if she is not a journalist or an information designer (she calls herself a "data illustrator")— I am a devoted fan of her elegant and intricate literary visualizations, particularly of her Literary Organism, which is one of the graphics that we discussed during our conversation. Click to enlarge:

The Literary Organism, which is part of a series of visualizations that I showcase in The Functional Art, displays the structure of Part One of On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. It visualizes it using a tree structure. Part One divides into chapters, chapters divide into paragraphs, paragraphs divide into sentences, and sentences divide into words. Everything is color-coded according to key themes in the book. Here you have some excerpts from the interview, where Stefanie explains the project. What is more impressive to me is that she did all this manually, using just color markers and Illustrator:

How did you design the Literary Organism? Did you use any script to count the words, organize them, sort them according to themes, etc.?
Believe it or not, I didn’t. I did it all by hand. I could not get an electronic version of On the Road and I couldn’t figure out how to digitize the copy I had, either. So I ended up counting all the words one by one, and sorting them by key themes. I spent a lot of time going through the book and highlighting different sections (see images below).

I made the graphics in Illustrator. They were not generated with code. I know it’s possible to do it using scripting, and there are wonderful tooks for that, like Processing, but I don’t know how to use them.  I am aware that I need to automate, but sometimes I feel that it’s important to spend that kind of time gathering your information by hand. It feels a little more natural. Also, it creates bonds with what you are working on: I had to read the On the Road over and over again, so the outcome was as much a representation of the text as it is a representation of the novel in my head, of my experience of exploring it.

Did you want to make a particular point with your graphics or did you just wish to create an art project?
To tell you the truth, my only goal was to be able to put the entirety of the book on the wall, maybe just with the intention of inspiring awe and wonder: after seeing the graphic, I wanted people to see On the Road in a different way.

As its name says, I consciously made the Literary Organism feel organic: I am intrigued by the parallel between how books are celular, and plants and animals are celular as well. I wanted to make that connection. With the circular arrangement of lines and colors I also tried to convey the rythm of the book. On the Road reads like a poem. So the graphic is not so much about insight, but about making you think differently about the book.

Here you have a photograph of Stefanie's copy of On the Road, and a selection of its pages, covered with highlights.