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Where Data Meets Design with Valentina D'Efilippo

May 26, 2022

Valentina D'Elfilippo

Season 3 Episode 4

In this episode we meet with Valentina D’Efilippo, a visual designer, illustrator, and creative director based in London. She has been working with public organizations, start-ups, agencies, and global brands for more than 11 years. 

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Megan Luedke

Data. What is it and is it all around us for every living moment of our lives? Also, how can we communicate this, the global audience, for a quick and easy understanding of any given topic?



Valentina D’Efilippo

The way that I'm seeing my work is really like a bridge between the real source of the raw material that we have and the audience.



Megan Luedke

That's Valentina D’Efilippo, a visual designer illustrator and creative director based in London. She has been working with public organizations, start-ups, agencies, and global brands for more than 11 years, having worked in numerous fields. She currently runs her own practice full time. One of the most unique characteristics of Valentina is that she pursues imaginative and compelling visual language using information design and data visualization, where her work takes many forms from digital to analogue.



Valentina D’Efilippo

I feel especially working with data. There is so much happening in the field from a tech perspective. There are lots of new software’s coming up that allows you to visualize data, but also ways of recording data. So, more data available. Different sectors and companies are becoming more aware of the needs of communicating insights more effectively. So, I think collecting the oil field is really looming right now.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And to be honest with you, I feel like I'm kind of at the beginning. Although I've been I've been working in this field for quite a few years now. I feel like I'm still very much at the beginning. I'm learning every day. I'm exploring new things. So yeah, I'm very excited about this path.



Jens Bringsjord

For Valentina, it's all about presenting the data and engaging the audience to understand exactly what she's trying to communicate through. That data. The exciting part for her is that there are always new mediums to be explored and methods to expand one's ideas. So where exactly did Valentina's love of data design come from?



Valentina D’Efilippo

Well, I guess it's been a journey because I didn't really start to become a data designer or any information designer. In fact, I was trained as an engineer. I studied industrial design in Italy and Spain. And then while I was doing my B.A., I started to get closer to data of visual communication because I like the immediacy of printing on graphic design and photography.



Valentina D’Efilippo

You know, the fact that with an image you can just communicate a story and you can get it out there without going into the engineering process. I've got an idea and that you need to go through three or four years of production before this idea is being produced and put into market. While I was taking some elective courses and started to yeah, be part of visual communication.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So, I decided to move to London, and I did my postgraduate degree in graphic design and while I was studying, I started to basically do data visualization without being fully aware that I was visualizing data, I was just researching topics I was interested in specifically. I was deconstructing, designing by Kubrick, just looking at the colours and the tempo of the movie and how Kubrick was using all these different elements to emphasize innovation and to generate certain emotions in the audience.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And then also I started to investigate gender stereotypes in books for kids, and then look at 100 bestseller books. And I started to identify all this visual grammar of how we present women and men. And this was 2006. And unfortunately, like the visual grammar that I collected, it was sad. You know, like the man sitting on the sofa is the guy that he's got the money, he's the intellectual person wearing the glass.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And then Mum was like cooking all these kinds of things. And I started to basically compile data and then visualize it and then I play with kids for about a week. I had a sample of 50 kids during summer school in Italy where I tested this sample of data it had, and I wanted to understand why their different ages were more prone to recognize these stereotypes or not.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And then they came back to my course and my leader, my tutor at the time was like, Yeah, great, but you're not doing a psychological study here. You're doing a graphic design master. You need to produce something visual. Why don't you visualize your research and.



Jens Bringsjord

So that initial research from her project, coupled with the conversation she had with her university tutor, led her a few years later to a conversation with HarperCollins, one of the world's largest publishing companies.



Valentina D’Efilippo

When they found it online, they were really interesting the way they put it together and they visualized insights and they were like, you would be a good fit to visualize this story that we have in mind of presenting the evolution of the world and the evolution of mankind through infographics. And I was like, really? Me And so, yeah, the book came about, which was an amazing experience.



Valentina D’Efilippo

I wasn't quite sure what I was doing. I was basically learning by doing. She's probably the best way of learning anyway. Yeah, it was probably like the hardest challenge I have undertook, but also the most rewarding one. We created 100 infographics. Each side of the book is kind of like a standalone story. You can open it at any point, and you can read the story, or you can open you can start from the start and then go progressively through prehistory to the modern world.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And yeah, so it was a lot of data, a lot of like experimentation in terms of like you don't want to create 100 bar charts, otherwise the book will not sell. So, a lot of different ways of creating. Yeah, more like illustrations I suppose, base data vs infographics. And then since the book came out, I guess this was like an amazing business card, right?



Valentina D’Efilippo

Like a case study for people to say, okay, she can do, she can do this kind of thing. And there was 2013 and then, yes, since then I've been basically flying solo, running my own business, and really doing all sorts of things from brand identity to travel around the presentation of insights and visualization to museum exhibitions. We also brought data visualization insights to performances, all sorts of things, really.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So yeah, fun.



Megan Luedke

That fun though, as you can imagine, can also be highly complex for Valentina. There's an element of intrigue when she must work hard at something to fully understand and grasp the concept and then in turn visually represent her understanding through the correlations and the representations of the data.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Yeah. So, I guess like I always had this interest there was about working with complexity or working at the intersection of visual communication and science and the supposed are so backed up by this background that I have right engineering and then moving into visual communication. So, after my postgraduate degree in London, I decided to stay in London because it was offering my first job in an advertising agency.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And I remember while everybody was like keen to do a brand identity project, so the cool typographic posters, the execution, I was always the black sheep of like a place was coming in. It was complex. I was like, Can I take it on? I really would like to dive into this into this project. So, I think I was just naturally prone to work with data somehow, and data for me is just a way to kind of like understand the world we live in, right?



Valentina D’Efilippo

A core ingredient, I suppose, of what I'm doing is curiosity of I've always been this annoying kind of like asking, why is that? Why, why? Why do we call that? And why? Or why is it working like? So, I never really stop asking whys and I guess like data for me is just a way to figure out why things are the way they are.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So I guess like the transition was never like one day I woke up and I was like, Oh, now I'm going to be working with data, but was more like a natural progression of moving along the way, you know, and finding opportunities that allow me to engage that part of the brain to allow me to work with this complexity, with data, with this material.



Jens Bringsjord

All right. So, we know a thing or two about Valentina. Now, her love of data was instilled in her from a very early age with an appetite to question everything around her. And, just by simply having a curiosity for how things work, behave, and develop in today's world. And with the Internet and all its powerful social media platforms, data has been exploited and represented in a way to skew the public perception about specific concepts, ideas, and issues.



Jens Bringsjord

But we must take a moment and stop here because what makes good data and how does Valentina work to ensure her data is valid, accurate and trusted?



Valentina D’Efilippo

I guess like good quality data is just data. This fits to purpose to whatever you're trying to do. I guess there are like just general rules of what you want to investigate the dataset in terms of like is validity, right? Like how complete, how consistent, how large is the sample that the dataset is based on? What was the methodology in collecting samples?



Valentina D’Efilippo

So maybe aggregating and comparing different regions reasons. So, there are many kinds of like variables, I suppose that we can question whether a dataset is good or not. If we're using a dataset that is already out there, that is compiled, is available, I guess it's just a matter of vetting the source who is made publicly available. Is it an organization that we trust but also like because it goes so much deeper than just whether this source is now taught, even like a place that you trust.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Because I remember thinking about what makes a good dataset in terms of like is completeness, right? So, who makes good data is also like deep understanding. And then we put the context of framing the questions that we ask when we're collecting data.



Megan Luedke

So, let's say we have a good solid dataset from a credible source ready for us to visualize. But how exactly should we as designers approach data visualization? Valentina provides some insights.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Yeah, I guess the first step would be to understand the brief. So before jumping into how we visualize this data is more like why we're visualizing it was the purpose of this visualization and we are our audience as any design project. I suppose you need to understand what you're doing before you can create something. And for who, of course, and because it's a communicate is an act of communication, it's visualization.



Valentina D’Efilippo

You need to know who it is they are. They're on the other side, right. Because based on who you're trying to reach and how you will present the data in a completely different way, just a simple example. If I'm creating a pulse for social media, it's going to be completely different. As if it's something that leaves is an interactive website because it's completely different.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Interaction, context, state of mind, attention span and all of that, even if the data is the same. So having a good understanding of the brief, the purpose and the audience is crucial before we define the storytelling as well as the visual elements. And then I guess once we know that is about finding those hidden stories, right?



Valentina D’Efilippo

It's not just about rendering data is creating an experience that would make you click and will make you understand, oh, I understand why this data matters or the relationship of these numbers. And I guess in that I usually what I try to do whenever I'm finalizing a dataset is just again wearing the heart of the investigator with a curious mindset and pose questions.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Who is in this dataset? Who are the people represented? Because usually statistics are presenting people real human behaviour, so human experiences. So, what are we trying to say with these data about people and if it's not about people is yep, regions and geographies and if there is a where is it also when do we see a trend? Things are changing over time and if there is a warped how much of that of the thing we're visualizing, what are there what are the metrics that we are looking at?



Valentina D’Efilippo

What are the smallest values? The largest values? What are the outliers? So, things that are falling outside the density of the data and that basically guides you to interesting points you want to surface in reveal. And then from that you go into the encoding which is transforming numbers into a visual system and to encode data, what you use is visual perception.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So how our brain processes information in a very fast and rapid and automatic way so size, contrast, position, all of that as well as like visual literacy, semiotics, the kind of like meanings that we associate to visual attributes. So, we create meaning into colours, into iconography, into visual metaphors. And then you combine these visual patterns and visual literacy, and you try to create an encoding system that is truly bespoke into the dataset that we're visualizing.



Megan Luedke

Valentina has worked with numerous partners, clients, and customers, and from both ends of the spectrum, some bring exactly their visions, goals, and data to communicate an idea and concept, while others bring a question with no data but want to explore things further to build an understanding to their audience about a given topic. A few years ago, Valentina had the opportunity to work together in collaboration with Signal Noise, a digital agency, and Simmons, a German multinational corporation and one of the largest industrial manufacturing companies in Europe.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And Siemens came to us saying we would like to position our brand as this desired digital digitally Asian partner that makes your city smarter. So how do we engage the broad public with this idea of digitalization? By seeing something that is quite visible, like smart sensor, smart system. So, we went into basically taking advantage of a partnership between Siemens and FC Bayern and we harvest the data.



Valentina D’Efilippo

We didn't have any data, but we harvest the data during a football game. And then we look at first what was happening on the pitch. So, the game itself, but also what was happening in the stadium and we, we recorded the energy of the funds. How, how much noise we could reduce the balls of the type of noise through the sequence of events.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And then we correlated this to datasets, and we started to surface some interesting stories that were used for marketing purposes to talk about how Siemens is, is making our city smarter through sensors. So obviously there was a quite an ambitious project. We had to collect the data. We use technology and sensors. So, I was I was part of I was part of a big team to client, was very much involved in all of that.



Jens Bringsjord

Another example of a project that Valentina occasionally works on is a simple magazine publication coming to for help to visualize something, for example, spaceflights.



Valentina D’Efilippo

You have a month to come up with. This story is going to be a printed infographic on the I did the BBC Science focus, and they do all the data research, the design, and the visualization by myself. Of course. Of course. The editor of the magazine, I've got people, on the other hand, that will give me feedback and will validate the process and all of that.



Valentina D’Efilippo

But yeah, I'm kind of like more in charge of every step.



Megan Luedke

Back to data. It's all around us and as you can see, there are infinite possibilities on how to visualize it as well. But why is data so important to communicate?



Valentina D’Efilippo

Yeah, well, I guess like data is important because you say very worrying. Whatever we do, you know, like we tend to think about data as numbers in a spreadsheet, but data is really like a footprint of human activities. Like ever say whatever we consume, we buy, we interact online, we eat, we watch robots, and that kind of data is used right to influence our lives.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So, data is important because it's part of our lives. We can’t separate ourselves from that. And then visualizing it is because we can make the stories hidden into data visible. I use data to learn about the world we live in, and when I visualize them, I'm hoping that these discoveries that they make are made accessible to other people so that we can expand the way that we're seeing the world.



Megan Luedke

When we visualize the data. It's so much more than just rendering the data. For example, a bar chart might display the same data in a very static way, but it may not be the best representation of the data in its purest form. It's all about humanizing the data.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Ultimately just stands for making relatable, making it personable so that you can access what it means. You can understand the implication of the numbers. You can understand a figure that might be just so big that he's like, I don't even know what he means, you know, because I've never got disclosed such as to such a big figure.



Valentina D’Efilippo

How can you break it down in a way that people can finally see it, understand it, and yeah, and take this piece of information and digest it. The way that I'm seeing my work is really like a bridge between the raw source or the raw material that we have and the audience.



Jens Bringsjord

And the audience's understanding of the work is critical to Valentina's success. As we alluded to a little bit earlier on gathering data from credible and trustworthy sources is important. But equally important is the way in which we look and use the data. For example, is there really a way to look at data in a neutral perspective?



Valentina D’Efilippo

I think you're bringing up an interesting and important point of like, is there a neutral way of looking at data? And the reason? Three D There is always an agenda behind because we are communicating and where people are communicating to people, there is always an intent, a purpose. And based on that intent and the purpose, as we were saying before, because you're communicating to an audience, you will frame the data in a specific way.



Valentina D’Efilippo

You might also frame it to lie because there might be your agenda. And we've seen it in politics like often in recent years. And it’s also quite it's quite important to talk about it, to raise awareness and data literacy in the public, because this visualization comes with a lot of programs as well. Right? Like people's takes of our charts in a pie chart in a serious way, like more than perhaps just reading words.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So, from my point of view, I suppose the way that I'm approaching whatever I do is always questioning those things like ethics and what are we trying to say here? And like, what was the reason why we're saying these things? But being aware and being transparent I think is important. So, we do methodology way the kinds of decisions that are being taken and just to make it available so that people can make up their own mind.



Megan Luedke

As our third season focuses on the intersection of space, science, engineering and how design fits into it all. We asked Valentina if she had any space themed projects that she had worked on to visually depict the dataset in a captivating, fun and creative way.



Valentina D’Efilippo

I guess I'm very fond of all my self-initiated research, I guess, because it's coming from a place of passion rather than, you know, like a financial reward. So yeah, I suppose like oddities. Is it a tribute to David Bowie? We created ten sculptures engraved on our disks of the ten layers that make Space Oddity such a great song, I work with a musicologist, me around quick to deconstruct a song and then to put it together into this visual format.



Valentina D’Efilippo

And yet the sculptures were paired with posters as well as like an animation. And in Biden and Kennedy here in London provided us with a space. This was 2017 to then celebrate the artists after one year of his stuff then, and to get together to kind of like a sit-down scene, to see the lyrics, to also see the emotions and all these different layers that this song contains.



Valentina D’Efilippo

At the end, we're all kind of like laughed with suspends because the reason quite close to this song, we're almost like left wondering in space we do with major thumbs. So, the line does never really come down in any of the 50 responses that we gather. It stays kind of in this suspended world.



Jens Bringsjord

For any of you designers out there who are looking to get into the data visualization part of the industry. Mellon Tina has some advice for you.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Yeah, I guess like, yeah, my own advice is not to get too demotivated or maybe intimidated by the field of this visualization because it feels like there are so many things that you need to master from handling the data and the research and analysis to then designing and then maybe also developing. I think it's sketching out a lot of like digital visualization projects that you see out there are the results of great collaboration stories and usually like just one person doing everything.



Valentina D’Efilippo

So, a collaboration is key, focusing on one aspect of their journey, whether is the data handling, maybe because you like the research part or you're good with math could be your specialty. Or maybe you just want to focus on the design. It's totally fine. Of course, you will need to break the ice with a spreadsheet. That's. That's totally part of the job.



Valentina D’Efilippo

Yeah. You don't need to become like a data scientist. There are going to be people that are going to be doing all the heavy lifting for you. And I suppose the best way to learn, in my opinion, is just by doing so through self-initiative projects are looking to a dataset that you're interested in. Find it online or create it.



Valentina D’Efilippo

You can create your own data by just looking at something that you're interested in and then start visualizing and start to create a portfolio. This is based on data design projects and it's usually the best way to not be to apply for work and then to get the positive response is when you can prove that you could do it.



Megan Luedke

In a world that has had to fight for information and confront misinformation, it's people like Valentina that are ensuring quality and accuracy in their work to make sure the public is informed correctly, both for ethical and influential purposes. Communicating data can be powerful, and it's how we use these powerful tools and skill sets that will make all the difference in the presentation and future of the world of data visualization.



Megan Luedke

To learn more about Valentina DeFilippo and to see some of her work, visit her website. Valentina D’Efilippo echoed that UK You can also purchase her book of 100 visual depictions of our world titled The Infographic History of the World, which is co-authored by Valentina D’Efilippo and James Ball.





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