Denver native Stefanie Posavec moved to London, England, to complete a Masters of Arts in Communication Design and never went home. Her studies focused mainly on literary visualization, which led to book cover design, then freelance work. Posavec’s work spans from data visualization, information design, and data illustration to designing books and book covers for a variety of clients, including Penguin, Random House, Faber & Faber, Information is Beautiful, and WIRED Magazine.
Her personal projects focus on the visual representation of language and literature and have been exhibited internationally, including at Millennium Galleries, Sheffield (‘On the Map’, 2008); Somerset House, London (‘Pick Me Up 2’, 2011); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (‘Talk to Me’, 2011). We chatted with her about the process behind her passion.
What sparked your interest in information design?
My MA Communication Design course a few years back, though I didn’t realise my work was pointing to information design at the time.
How does your book cover design experience influence your data visualization, and vice versa?
I think the rational thinking required in the realm of data visualization filters over to my design work: every component of a graphic design needs to have a logical reason. Because of this, you will never see me creating spontaneous, intuitive designs…it’s against my nature! On the other side, my graphic design work offers me a chance to explore various image-making techniques that I often don’t get a chance to use in an information graphic.
How are your data projects and book projects similar or different?
I don’t design many book covers these days, but I do design full book layouts. For both a data project and a book layout, you end up creating systems for organising the information.
When you first started in this field, from where did you draw inspiration?
John Maeda and everyone who studied under him. While not data-related, Lucienne Day’s textile patterns have influenced the forms I use.
Who were your favorite designers when you first started?
Paul Rand, John Maeda, Evan Hecox, Lucienne Day, John-Michel Basquiat, and a wide variety of graffiti artists.
Have your influences changed over the years?
Yes, I’m less obsessed with graffiti now—thank goodness! I like botanical illustrations now; it must be a sign I’m growing up.
For you, what is the main purpose of information design?
To communicate a message clearly to a viewer. I suppose it’s the same as the purpose of graphic design, really.
How does combining aesthetics and information improve a viewer’s overall experience?
I think it adds an additional aesthetic layer where a graphic designer can use his or her design skills to communicate additional information to what is found within the data.
At what point can illustration become overwhelming?
It becomes too much when someone creates an information graphic to communicate something that would be communicated more easily in a simple sentence.
A lot of your work is hand-done, and you’ve admitted to not knowing how to code. What do you think manual data analysis and gathering can lead to?
It can lead to a better understanding of the subject matter you are dealing with. Also, I think the idea of obsession or intensive process as a design solution resonates with many viewers, as it makes data that often can come across as cold feel more human and approachable.
What parts of your processes would you be willing to automate?
I would be willing to automate any part of the process, so long as I was able to add a human touch somehow. I often work with developers; but in my personal work, I’m trying to explore the handmade, focusing on what a computer can’t automate.
What originally inspired your Writing Without Words project?
My love of literature, particularly my teenage love of On the Road, by Jack Kerouac.
What were you hoping to show, and were there any surprises?
I was looking to find a system of showing differences in authors’ writing styles. Over time, my intention changed, and the project really became more of a ‘data illustration’ project: that is, I was visualising On the Road in order to communicate my subjective thoughts and feelings about the text to the viewer as much as to reveal the hidden data within the text.
How much total time did it take?
A few months, but it was while I was working on my MA. I can only dream of having that much free time to work on a personal project again.
You worked on a similar project involving the six editions of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with Greg McInerny. How did working collaboratively change the project?
Greg is my brother-in-law, so that probably brought its own special set of issues to our collaboration! It was a different project because all the data was analysed and then visualised using code. I didn’t get my hands dirty in the same way.
Do you prefer working alone or with others?
I prefer working with others, particularly people who have amazing skills I could never dream of attaining. I’m always looking for people to collaborate with (in case there is anyone out there who wants to work with me!).
You left your permanent position two years ago to start freelancing. Is the way you work now appreciably different from how it was then?
The work I do is different, and what I consider a “successful” project has changed as well. Surviving for two years as a freelancer makes me feel invincible, I’m pleased I’m still here!
What kind of environment do you enjoy working in?
A studio environment. I’ve tried working at home, and I feel lonely. I like working with ambitious people around me, it reminds me to work harder.
If you had free-reign over a project with no budgetary restrictions, what would you like to create? What would your subject be? What would you examine?
Something grammar-related. I’ve been wanting to work with English grammar for a while and have never gotten around to it. I’d also like to do something in 3D at some point.
What projects are you currently spending your time on?
Personal/commercial projects related to a book, a poem, a short story, and a sentence. It’s very wordy for me right now!
What should we expect from you in the near future?
Fingers crossed, the personal project. The data-gathering for this one is pretty tedious, but it will be worth it in the end.
Check out more of Stefanie Posavek’s work on her website, ItsBeenReal.co.uk.