Michele Mauri

"Making visible things that are unclear to me it’s somehow relaxing for me"

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Researcher at Politecnico di Milano, Design Department, he’s the scientific director of DensityDesign Lab. Within the laboratory he coordinates the research, the design and development of projects related to the visual communication of data and information. He teaches the courses “Final Synthesis” and “Creative Coding” in the Communication Design programme at Politecnico.

He is one of the authors of RAWGraphs, an open-source platform for the creation of data visualisations.

From 2017 he’s part of the Public Data Lab, an international group of researchers working on the development of innovative formats for the creation and use of public data.

Your definition for “infographics”

I don’t have a specific description for “infographics”. Having been educated at the Polytechnic of Milan, I always relied more on the word “Diagram” referring to is etymology “through sign”: anything that can visually convey information. I always intended “infographics” as the editorial declination of such a concept.

Which are your obligatory references?

I think the first reference I recall on data visualization is the book of Edward Tufte “envisioning Information”, the one with t-shirts on the cover. I remember it in the university library. I don’t know why but that cover fascinated me and I think it played a role in attracting me into the field.

When teaching, I often suggest “The Functional Art” by Alberto Cairo and “Design for Information” by Isabel Mereilles. I find them a good synthesis on the topic, highlighting good practices and criticalities when designing visualizations, without becoming excessively theoretical and providing several visual examples. In the academic work I always keep an eye on what Edward Segel, Jeffrey Heer, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg are doing.

For inspiration I often check The New York Times, The Guardian, adn pudding.cool, in particular their early works. Finally, more related to tools, d3.js is still the pulsing core when dealing with web-based visualization, and I’m always interested to follow the development of tools that enable the creation of visualizations, such as Datawrapper or Flourish.

Is there any special project that you would like to highlight/stand out?

I’m involved in the design of the new version of RAWGraphs, whose development has been recently revamped thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. The challenge is to create a tool that produces visualizations meant to be further edited in any software, opening to new uses rather than black-boxing the user into the software.

How is your work process?

It’s been a while since I designed my last visualization for a newspaper. I’d like to bring this visualization I did for La Lettura – Corriere della sera a few years ago, with my friend Valerio Pellegrini. I think it’s a good example since it shows how I engage in visualization. In that year, we were facing the migrant crisis, particularly in relation to the mediterranean route. In the news we were bombed about numbers of people who died trying to reach Europe, and it was difficult to grasp an idea of the dimension of the phenomenon. It started more as a personal research, to understand the topic.

I got in contact with IOM and they provided us with a dataset containing all the reported incidents, with the number of victims for each one.

The original idea was to provide at least the dignity of a disaggregated graphic sign for each person, and as often I do, I prepared a base layer in digital, printed it and then started drawing over it. The first layer was a plain map with the location of each incident.

Then, using tracing papers, I started drawing a dot for each person involved in order to understand the space required to show all of them.

After evaluating the result, I wrote a small script for Adobe Illustrator (based on Scriptographer) to reach a similar result in digital.

Then, with Valerio we started to think about the general layout. It was clear to both that we wanted to keep it as simple as possible, showing the geographical features and the borders of countries.

Valerio also worked on the visualization of contextual information, adding lateral panels to show the temporal evolution of the topic.

One detail important for us was to provide access to the used sources, and for the biggest incidents we provided a minified URL to allow the reader to get in contact with it.

How was your first “immersion” in this fascinating world of visualization?

I owe a lot to Paolo Ciuccarelli and Donato Ricci for having introduced me to the field with their course at Politecnico, and then the involvement into the DensityDesign group, which allowed me to meet and work with incredible people. It would be long to list all of them,so I’d like to share an old picture of all of us together. It was inspiring to explore this (at the time) new topic with peers, discussing, experimenting, and having fun together, of course with some unmissable drama being first a group of friends and then a group of colleagues.

After more than 10 years most of them moved their interests in other fields of design, and today I’m helding the master course at Polimi with my colleagues Angeles Briones and Gabriele Colombo, which for me is a great honour. Every year we teach young and talented designers, which is always inspiring and refreshing.

Do you have any particular goal to face in 2020 interns of visualization?

In 2020 I’d like to work more on making information visualization more accessible for a larger public. On one side, working on the new release of the RAWGraphs tools, an open-source, open-ended tool for data visualization. We successfully reached the goal with our crowdfunding: now we must deliver a result up to the expectations.

The other side is working on open knowledge platforms, such as the Wikimedia ecosystem, in which, in my opinion, there is still a lack of proper tools for information and data visualization.

What kind of data or information do you dream about visualising in a graphic?

I have some datasets and ideas that I would like to work on when I will have more time, some of them quite frivolous and others less. I’d like to explore more in detail the concept of “reflexive visualizations”, or in other words visualization that helps you to understand how you are positioned when talking about broad topics. I have in mind one project related to the aging population in Italy, and another one related to shifts in musical tastes over the decades. I hope to work on them soon.

Would you dare to say this is not a graphic or this is a graphic? Could you define a clear line?

No, absolutely. As I said before, the line is more than blurry, since in anything visual you will seek an order of reading, a meaning for sizes, colors… I find it difficult to say “from here on, it’s a graph”.

If you weren’t a graphics guy, you’d be a…

Ow, difficult. I love refining technical details, working on tiny features that often are unnoticed. Making visible things that are unclear to me it’s somehow relaxing for me. Often, I feel fulfilling helping people smarter than me to achieve their goals through the means of what I’m able to do. These —I think— are the main reasons why I work in this field. I’m not sure in which other area I could please all my demons, but sometimes I dream about moving to cartography/geographical representation, in particular for hiking.

What are we going to find in your speech in Malofiej?

I will speak about why we—as graphic designers, journalists, scientists— should care more about the visual side of Wikipedia. We strive to bring clarity and correct information to the people. We often are already adopting open licences. We sometimes work on personal projects. Why cannot we use all this work in order to provide truly open, high-quality graphics to the people? After more than a decade several strategies have been formulated to reach a good quality of information in the textual part of such collaborative processes. But still, there is a lack of similar reasoning on the visual part of Wikipedia: charts, diagrams, and visualizations often have a poor visual quality, or even worse, poor data quality. I think it’s time to understand how we can use our work to improve this valuable source of information.

What do you think?