Herwig Scherabon unveils harsh stories of inequality through his stylish data visualisations

Information is Beautiful 2016 shortlister Herwig Scherabon tells us about his fascination with urban fabric, his love for travel and his desire to unveil inequality and segregation through data visualisation.

Austrian graphic designer Herwig Scherabon has two data visualisations that have made it into the Information is Beautiful 2016 shortlist - his unique prints on income inequality in the US and an interactive app The Affordability Explorer (as seen in the video above). 

His data visualisations are detailed, beautiful and designed in way that could only be a reflection his urban planning and architectural background, giving him insight into unpleasant economic and social trends.

Herwig studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and remains based in the Scottish city. He creates 3D, interactive or print in-depth data pieces driven by topics ranging from London house prices to the number of gang members in Los Angeles.

You can find out more information, or vote for Herwig's Affordability Explorer interactive map and his two prints on income inequality in Los Angeles and Chicago by clicking on the links. 

His abstract visual representations of the raw economic truths behind inequality creates a unique talent.

Herwig tells us about his fascination with the patterns and correlations in the urban fabric, his love for travel and his desire to not only simplify information, but to try and unveil inequality and segregation.

Image: New York City income inequality height map looking from East New York to Manhattan. Tthe height of the blocks represent income in the respective output areas.

Miriam Harris: Did you expect to be shortlisted for the Information is Beautiful awards?

Herwig Scherabon: I clearly didn’t expect to be shortlisted for the awards. There is an incredible amount of great work under the shortlisted projects. I feel really honoured to be on the same list with those amazing people.

MH: Tell us a bit about how you became interested in data visualisation.

HS: I always had a strong interest in visual narratives, especially when one still image can tell a whole story. I also have a background in architecture and urban planning and back then was totally into presentation diagrams. For each project we used to do some sort of urban analysis and make visualisations of it. Every place has their own story, and I think these stories are worth sharing.

Two years ago, I started making interpretive digital drawings of cities I was traveling to. The series is called America and is still on my website. This set the ground for other pieces on income inequality. The process was extremely intuitive, so I wanted to take this further and draw cities by facts. This inevitably led me to data visualisation and a more rigorous data driven design approach.

Image: Six time pieces about Los Angeles 1990-2016 in poster form.

MH: What's the creative process in creating an infographic? 

HS: A lot of my data visualisations are about urban life and cities in general. I travel a lot, and when I go to new places I am always fascinated by the patterns and correlations in the urban fabric. The politics behind urban planning tell us a lot about the people who live in these places and the powers that shape them.

I think that it is utterly important to try to unveil the inequalities and segregating mechanisms that we get used to living with. More broadly speaking, data visualisation is a tool for visual storytelling. What I do in the very beginning is look for a story myself. Sometimes I do get a brief instead but even then my first question would be, “What’s your story?” Data doesn’t speak by itself - it needs to be crafted into a thoroughly designed framework.

Image: A diagram showing the multi-axial problems that evolved from the eviction of the Heygate Estate in London.

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MH: How do you decide on a visual representation of the data?

HS: Once my storyboard is ready, I make my decisions on visual representation. In a way I am a very traditional person because I try to stick to the fundamental principles of information design. I believe that Edward Tufte and earlier Jacques Bertin already set the ground to a complete guide to infographics. Only after that, I would consider more daring and unconventional approaches.

To be honest, even when you restrict yourself to the rigorous framework of traditional information design, the possibilities are endless. My work on income inequality for example is essentially a heatmap; the only difference being colour is replaced by size in order to indicate income. It is the same thing, just more striking I believe.

Image: Infographic roughly visualising the more expensive parts of London in terms of house prices "with a little nod to Peter Saville's Joy Division cover".

MH: Do you aim to simplify information with your data visualisations, or create meaning, or something else?

HS: I am mainly interested in the accessibility of information and getting people to sit down and explore different topics. We live in an information age, therefore it is not enough to simplify. What really matters is to stick out. So yes, simplification is usually part of the process but it is not the only way to make people aware of something. Sometimes it is even the opposite; you would spend a long time to make something dead simple look more interesting. I personally believe that it is part of the decision making in communication design to decide whether simple suits the situation.

MH: How would you describe your style, and how does this translate into your data visualisations?

HS: I would say that I am a modernist but with edges. I like to know the rules and then break them ever so slightly. I use a lot of grids and asymmetric layouts in my graphic design. There are often some geometric remnants from back when I was an architect. I cannot help it, but I do have a fascination with space and isometric representations of space. I guess there is a bit of a cinematic tendency behind some of my visualisations as well.

Image: A topography of deprivation in London.

MH: Tell me a bit about your interactive map on socio-demographic aspects around housing in Glasgow.

HS: The Nine Maps on Glasgow was an academic project during my studies at the Glasgow School of Art that took about two months from start to finish. It follows a storyline from neoliberal housing policies and an entirely deregulated housing market to socio-demographic problems in Glasgow.

I tried to explore the causalities for these problems through correlations on different maps. I was essentially recycling existing maps in order to tell this story. A lot of credit therefore goes to researchers like Oliver O’Brien or the Institute for Future Cities whose work helped me get there.

Image: Nine Maps on Glasgow is an interactive map exploring socio-demographic aspects around housing in the Scottish city.

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 MH: What projects are coming up for you?

HS: For the next few months I am working with researcher Nik Lomax at the Consumer Data Research Center on visualisations about housing affordability and mobility. We are exploring the patterns behind where and why people move from one place to another. There are also a few opportunities for freelance jobs around data visualisation. In the long run however, I really want to settle in a design studio and explore the intersection of graphic design and information design.

Image: Height map of income inequality in East London.