Stefanie Posavec had quite a week. She said “fuck” 66 times, “asshole” 12 times and let rip with “shit” on no fewer than 13 occasions. Not that I was counting. She was. And what’s more, she plotted it on a postcard for all the world to see.
Part of a project called Dear Data, the postcard is one of 104 sent between Posavec and fellow designer Giorgia Lupi over the course of a year, each mailing one a week. The aim, they tell me, was to explore whether it was possible to get to know someone through data alone.
“We didn’t know each other; before starting Dear Data we only met twice,” says Lupi. While the pair were aware of each other’s professional work, it was a chance meeting at a data and media art festival in Minneapolis in 2013 that threw them together. And it turned out that Lupi, an Italian living in New York, and Posavec, an American living in London, had plenty in common, besides their love of hand-crafted, information-based design. “We both switched continents, we are the same age  and we are both only children who have travelled far away from our families,” says Lupi.
The upshot, after a second meeting the following year, was an experiment: could they get to know each other by number-crunching their lives, one topic per week, with only a handful of coloured pens to bring their data to life?
“Both the data collection and the way we decided to display the data reveal something about our personalities,” says Lupi, adding that the data collection was largely made by quick jottings on paper or smartphone, with the exception of one week, in which the pair used an app to track their movements. “[Using the app], it felt like we weren’t really in control of our data, and that we weren’t really engaging with it, so after that point we said, ‘Let’s focus on data that an app can’t gather yet,’” says Posavec.
Their obsession with collecting information seems almost de rigueur. The boom of big data, and the technology that makes its collection and analysis possible, has brought with it a global fascination with tracking every step, snooze and calorie. More broadly, every newspaper, advertising agency and campaign group appears to have embraced the trend for sleek graphics and ingenious visuals, while no app would be complete without a thumbnail chart to scrutinise.
So it seems surprising that Lupi and Posavec have thumbed their noses at such digital sophistication. The data collection, they admit, was sometimes imperfect. It’s depiction – using a ruler, pens and pencils – is amusing, even innocent.
But, says Posavec, it has a point. It takes hours to make each postcard, hours that invite reflection. “It helps us better understand and be closer to the subject matter that we are dealing with.”
A look at the postcards, now collected in a book, also named Dear Data, and there’s no mistaking Lupi and Posavec’s different styles. While each week the pair agreed on a topic, ranging from the wildlife they had spotted to the scents they had noticed, the data they gathered and their colourful depictions of it are vastly different.
Lupi’s postcards are almost forensic: swaths of data encoded in painstakingly hand-drawn devices. In week 32 of the project, she charted the different noises she heard, each sound represented by a note bearing a different symbol, drawn on a colour-coded stave corresponding to where it was heard, with the length of each note relating to the prevalence of the sound. Posavec, by contrast, favours a looser, more intuitive approach – her postcard for week 32 boasts brightly coloured rectangles stacked up to chart the sounds she heard against the time of day in which she heard them.
Both are mind-boggling intricate. The keys to each chart are minute, cypher-like instructions, peppered with anecdotes and asides.