Designing the Whole Story

“I’ve come to believe that pure beautiful visual works are somehow relevant in everyday life, because they can become a trigger to get people curious to explore the contents these visuals convey.” – Giorgia Lupi, information designer

I’ll be the first to admit that data used to intimidate me. While I could parrot back key statistics on my non-profit’s program outcomes, revenue streams, and client demographics, I felt intense apprehension whenever a board member or major donor would ask me to explain the data in more detail. My head would swim with mixed-up, tumbled-about, backward, lopsided numbers—and when I opened my mouth they would all fall out in a jumbled up mess. (If you are at all familiar with the children’s story Chicka Chicka 1,2,3 then you’ll have a fairly good visual of my relationship with numbers). Yet I’ve always found it easy to explain the emotional appeal of our impact—human stories that fueled personal connection and motivated the listener to act.

Then, one night in a Pinterest binge, I stumbled across the beautiful data visualization design of Giorgia Lupi. She describes her work as that which “challenges the impersonality that data might communicate, designing engaging visual narratives able to connect numbers to what they stand for: knowledge, behaviors, people.”

I spent hours poring over her Pinterest boards and website. As an over-consumer of all things design, I was hooked. Her data was visual, sumptuous, rich, engaging, arresting, thought-provoking, and motivating. In the wee hours of that morning it finally clicked.

My anxiety over data was a disconnect.

I had always regarded data as numbers and charts, not as behaviors and people. I had regarded it as something clinical and foreign, not as something that could be both beautiful and inviting.

So, what could happen if I began to think of all those numbers as data that was telling a beautiful, complicated, surprising story—and that my job was to bring the story to life?

I had a fairly clear understanding of infographics (scroll down for some great resources if infographics are new to you—don’t worry, you aren’t alone!), but what I was truly interested in exploring was the engaging, illustrative, beautiful world of data visualizations. Data that was interactive and not static. A space where the lines between science and art seemed to be blurred and challenged, and a new realm of possibilities for storytelling unlocked.

The for-profit world definitely has a leg-up on data visualizations. Read an online paper recently? Obsessed over your Fitbit dashboard? Struggled with an excel spreadsheet graph or pie chart? From the New York Times to your local metro map, data visualization is actually part of our every day in a very big way. The problem is that non-profits haven’t quite mastered how to incorporate data visualization into our everyday (even in a very small way).

So, here is my new battle cry: To be effective fundraisers, we absolutely must integrate data visualization into the narrative we are communicating! It’s not enough to simply be great “story tellers” anymore. We have to be “whole story” designers, and create engagement beyond the standard written and spoken word. For stories, quite simply, are much like numbers—recognizable patterns that help us find meaning in the world around us.

Is it possible to design a better and more whole storytelling narrative through the incorporation of data visualizations? I believe the answer is yes, and below are a few of my favorite examples that can easily stand alone, or be integrated into a more traditional narrative.

Check out this minimalist, cheeky, and revealing visualization from the Data Cuisine Workshop about gender inequality in the food industry. Beautifully done (and tasteful too!)





Though perhaps not as beautiful as the visualization from Data Cuisine Workshop, below is an interactive data visualization—in a recognizable map format—from the folks at the American Red Cross and DataKind, which has the potential to save thousands of lives from home fires.


Take a moment to watch Periscopic’s Stolen Years data visualization on gun deaths with its strong, masterful, and tragic story arc (literally). It’s gritty, raw, gut wrenching, and, yet, beautiful in design.



Beautiful evidence“ is what Edward Tufte—statistician, artist, and pioneer in the field of data visualization—calls good visualization. While some of us may have the luxury of more data at our fingertips than others (see footnote), most of us have program outcomes that support our traditional human-interest stories.

If you haven’t already started using infographics, give them a try. If you’ve “been there done that,” check out what’s happening in the emerging medium of data visualizations and see if there are some beautiful ways you might find a design that really makes people stop getting bogged down in the data and start reading your stories.

Further reading:

7 Great Visualizations from history

Different types of data vis and when to use them

Dear Data

Giorgia Lupi

David McCandless

Edward Tufte

Info on Infographics:

Infographics enable a non-profit to highlight key statistics and trends, as well as tell powerful stories through compelling illustrations, emotive language, surprising facts, and/or moving quotes. However, it is key to remember that infographics are designed to promote or guide readers to a specific conclusion—the value of your investment on youth experiencing homelessness, the importance of spaying or neutering your pet, the urgency for addressing workplace diversity. While data visualization, on the other hand, allows the reader to find her own story or answer.

If you aren’t using infographics yet, I encourage you to try to incorporate some into your next newsletter, board report, or thank you note. One caveat: infographics should be beautiful. But don’t worry! Beautiful doesn’t need to be complicated, and there are plenty of free tools out there that can help you. Check out some of my collected favorites here.


Data is only a valuable tool when the data quality is assured. (And bad data used with good intentions is still bad data.) It takes an investment of time and resources to get good data in the right shape, and then a great deal of understanding to effectively analyze and evaluate it before you can use data visualization.

It is also important to remember that data visualization should be used to help people make decisions, investigate problems, and draw their own conclusions. At the end of the day, this needs to be the motivation behind designing a data-driven visualization, more than simply developing a pretty picture that looks beautiful but doesn’t tell your story.

“A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” – Godfrey Harold Hardy, English mathematician

Photo: Hot Tea for Twin Cities Pride 2016; credit @gigilovexo via Twitter


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s