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To Tackle Big Urban Issues, This Architect Became A Data Designer

Herwig Scherabon wanted to communicate the inequality of cities rather than contribute to it.

Herwig Scherabon remembers the exact moment that he no longer wanted to be a practicing architect. He was working on a project based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with a team of fellow Viennese architects, designing a nightclub for Russian oligarchs. At the time, he was also reading a book called Mass Destruction: The Geopolitics of Hunger by Jean Ziegler—a Swiss sociologist and member of the Advisory Committee to the United Nations Human Rights Council—when he came across a particularly disturbing passage that described a human rights violation relating to the project.

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“I found out that 40,000 children live under the streets in Ulaanbaatar, because if they stayed above ground they would freeze,” he told me over the phone last week. Steam pipeline tunnels and other infrastructure underneath the city that is unsafe for habitation often provide warmth and shelter during the country’s long and brutal winter. Scherabon had already began to feel disillusioned by architecture; in practice, he says, the details of building and spatial planning were less interesting than studying its theory. Learning that thousands of children were living underneath the ground upon which he was helping to build a swanky nightclub for the uber-rich led him to question the ethical implications of his career—who his work was supporting and why. He started to look around for something else.

Herwig Scherabon’s Income Inequality Maps are 3D illustrations where the height of the blocks corresponds to the income in the respective output area.

Scherabon landed in information design but never totally left his interest in the built environment behind. His incredibly detailed, completely transfixing data visualizations tackle urban design issues like housing inequality, racial inequality, and evictions—and their skillful, multipart visual narratives trace how each influence the others. Scherabon, now only a few months into his new profession, continues to do self-directed work around urban inequality as he sets up his own studio and works on research projects. And he’s already started to gain recognition in the graphic design world: He’s been profiled in places like the Guardian and the British design publication Creative Review, mostly for Atlas of Gentrification, his self-published book of infographics.

At a time when racial tensions, xenophobia, and nationalist sentiments in the U.S. and Europe seem poised to exacerbate these issues even more, Scherabon sees communication as one of the biggest barriers to potential solutions. When I ask Scherabon what the hardest part about visualizing social issues in urban areas—and visualizing the role that housing and the built environment play in those issues—he tells me it’s the sheer complexity of these issues. “A lot of those problems are multidimensional,” he says. “There are different facets to each of them, and they’re all related to other problems.”

Two graphics visualize the eviction notices filed with the San Francisco Rent Board from 1997 onward.

The instinct when trying to visualize this information in a way that is accessible and engaging is to boil it down into something that’s digestible. What can easily be lost in that process is context. For example, isolating housing discrimination from racial inequality pulls apart two issues that are inextricably intertwined, and makes either issue impossible to fully understand. Scherabon’s solution to this is creating a series of graphics that demonstrate the various factors at play in one overarching topic. This approach allows him to take into account several aspects and allows his readers to grasp a concept while still acknowledging its complexities.

Visualizing London’s rent prices per neighborhood with a nod to Peter Saville’s Joy Division cover.

Take, for example, a series of graphics that tell a story of income inequality in London, one of the least affordable housing markets in the world. One graphic on London rental prices takes inspiration from Peter Saville’s famous album cover for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, transforming the peaking waves of pulsar frequency into a poignant image depicting London neighborhood rent prices. The abstract graphic implies that it’s overlaid on a map of London; as rent prices become higher toward the city’s center, the waves become steeper. In the East End, where London’s poverty and crime rates are highest, the waves shrink and then plateau.

A second graphic in the series melts those same contour lines into a topography map that shows not only the most deprived areas, but the layers of that deprivation—giving percentages of income, employment, housing barriers, and crime.

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For Scherabon, these two graphics together tell a more in-depth story than they could apart. He thinks of his series like a narrative and, like any good storyteller, he creates storyboards that chart out the visualizations and their connections to each other before he even starts to design. “If you visualize data as what it is—material, basically—you often end up with confusing results or you fail to communicate the message,” he says. “It’s crucial that you understand what you’re communicating, the content, and the story. You filter what’s compelling about it and take the reader through what’s interesting.”

Income Inequality map of Los Angeles

Those two visualizations are part of an even larger story, which is told through graphics in Scherabon’s Atlas of Gentrification, which represents gentrification as the amalgamation of several different issues, like segregation and income inequality. It shows London alongside other major cities with particularly striking housing problems, such as San Francisco and Chicago. The book—along with an interactive app addressing these issues called the Affordability Explorer that is still in development—were part of Scherabon’s postgrad thesis at the Glasgow School of Art, where he made the official switch from architecture to graphic design. Since graduating in September, Scherabon has been working in a freelance capacity at the Consumer Data Research Centre in Leeds, where he designed the graphics for a research project on migration in the housing market.

An architectural background has informed these and other projects, says Scherabon, giving him not only a knowledge of programs like the software Cinema 4D, but more importantly, an “understanding of the city as a political space.” The ethical questions he confronted with the Mongolia project are never far away, either. Working with hard data gives the level of assurance that the information being visualized is factual, or at least easy to fact-check if from a reliable source, but information design is not passive. The way designers choose to display data is just as susceptible to the creators’ biases and perspectives as any piece of writing or verbal speech. Scherabon follows a moral code similar to journalistic ethics, and says it’s imperative for him to consider factors like accuracy, credibility, and news value with every piece he creates.

“In a way, it’s always a person’s opinion, even when you’re working with data,” he says. “A lot of data visualizers are proud of the fact that ‘data is the truth.’ I don’t think that; I think there are a lot of gray areas, and that’s when the moral code comes in.”

Scherabon knows that the topics of his graphics reflect his left-leaning politics, but he also believes that communication design can cross the aisle and help people on both sides of the political divide to see their values are not always so different from each other at the core. After publishing a recent graphic in the Daily Mail, a conservative-leaning U.K. publication, for example, Scherabon scoured the comments for reactions that could give him greater insight into how his work is perceived.

What he saw pointed to more of a difference in the language used, and the way the information around inequality is communicated, than in people’s stance on these issues. “A lot of what was being said was disagreeing with the liberal left’s kind of aggressive tone of what’s wrong and right,” he says. “A lot of people are more upset about this than that there is poverty or income inequality. People for the most part seemed to be on the same page with things, but don’t agree on the way that it’s being communicated.”

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Scherabon’s work is thoughtful, considered, and completely compelling, even while relaying the most depressing information. It conveys a certain optimism: Maybe information designers, by presenting data visually, can help bridge the linguistic divide between the left and the right.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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