Stefanie Posavec On Her Handmade Charts Of Famous Novels

Posavec would rather process information with pencil and paper than PHP, and the results are undeniably powerful.

Now that there are entire programming languages dedicated to automating data visualization, you couldn’t be faulted for assuming that Stefanie Posavec creates her dizzingly intricate infographics with algorithmic help. But you’d be wrong. In this gorgeous video profile by Protein, Posavec reveals that she analyzes and creates her data-viz projects by hand.

Yes, it’s hard to believe: How could a sane human being create this cascading diagram of On The Road with mere pencil and paper? Posavec, who admits that her inability to code sets her apart from most of her colleagues, simply says that she "spend[s] lots of time reading and re-reading text, counting words or counting numbers… until I have all the data in a notebook." In fact, she says that even if she could lean on a computer for help, she wouldn’t want to: "By reading and re-reading these texts, I’m able to understand more about a specific subject than I would if I wrote a computer program to analyze that text for me." Take that, Stanford Literary Lab!

Posavec’s no Luddite, though—she recently co-created an iPhone app called MyFry, which graphically represents phrases and themes in Stephen Fry’s autobiography. Maybe pen-and-paper data visualization has a future after all.

[An example of one of Posavec’s exercises in mapping, this one of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Click to view larger.]

[The key. Colors represent the subject mater]

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  • Rock Langston

    Beautiful work, and refreshing to hear that it's in part because she doesn't code. Hurrah! I love my computer, but also love seeing evidence of the hand in design and other creative work. The computer is only one tool. Patience is another.

  • BD

    Beautiful as the infographic is, what does it really convey? "Reading and re-reading these texts, [she's] able to understand more about a specific subject than if [she] wrote a computer program to analyze the text," yet the meaning of the infographic pales in comparison to what she acquired from attentive reading. Meaning in literary work can be attained only between reader and text. 

  • Lorene Edwards Forkner

    crazy good stuff.  Its like when someone - like Fibonacci - recognizes the patterns that repeat themselves throughout the natural world.  It's always there under the surface... it just takes special eyes to see it and make it visible to the rest of us.

  • The_Lisa

    The example is very beautifully executed - the graphic looks like ginkgo flowers. It may seem perverse to produce this manually when a computer could be programmed to do it but it is refreshing to see the result.

  • Elaine Stam

    I can hardly find the time in a day to get myself fed and some laundry done. I can't imagine how someone can find the time and patience to create something like this. Wow.

  • SRD

    This is sort of wonderful.  And sort of silly.  I take her point that she "understands more about a specific topic" by doing this by hand.   Good for her - really.

    But to the extent that this thing is supposed to convey information to others, that benefit gets lost pretty quickly.  And is particularly overwhelmed by the fact that this is a day-long coding exercise for somebody with the right skill set.