Data editor at The Guardian (U.S. edition) Mona Chalabi’s work straddles the written and the visual, analyzing and presenting information in a way that advocates the importance of data in working to prevent politicians from making false claims. Born into an Arabic-speaking immigrant family, she grew up in England and earned her degree in economics before going on to work for FiveThirtyEight, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and the International Organization for Migration. Her interests and subjects are diverse, from researching the 100 most edited Wikipedia pages, to fact-checking Trump’s claims, information about the gender pay gap, and co-hosting a multimedia column on The Guardian called “Vagina Dispatches” (illustrated by none other than Laura Callaghan).
Here, she tells us about the process behind her first print commission—an interactive infographic for music magazine The Fader that illustrates statistics pertaining to migrants and refugees.
“Naomi Zeichner got in touch in February when she was the editor of The Fader (she’s since moved to YouTube) to say that they were doing a special issue on diaspora and would I like to contribute some statistics. I’m not sure why she got in touch—maybe she had seen my data illustrations on my Instagram account or had read about my experiences of being an immigrant in America. I’m just happy I got the email. I exchanged a few messages with Naomi and Duncan Cooper (who has since become editor there) about how I could contribute.
“Both of them gave me loads of room to suggest whichever statistics might be relevant. And they were also really generous in offering me a double-page spread—knowing that I had so much space really freed me up to think about some different ways of visualizing the data.
“Normally my data illustrations take a couple of days at most but this project took weeks. I’ll try to talk through the stages of the design as accurately and honestly as I can remember:
“1. I tried to imagine who would be holding the magazine. Were standard charts the best way to grab, then keep, their attention? Probably not.
“2. I really wanted to somehow use the physical paper. My illustrations have been printed before but often that’s an afterthought, and the digital product has come first. It was exciting to do things the other way around this time.
“3. Those first two steps got me thinking about origami. I thought about how doing origami has that special mix of being frustrating and satisfying. I’ve only ever tried it once or twice before but I liked the way it forces you to slow down and concentrate, knowing that you have to be precise if you want your final product to make sense (which is actually loads like handling statistics).
“4. But when I think of origami, the things that come to mind are dragons and birds and flowers, pieces with dozens of intricate folds that feel near impossible. I wanted to make something simple that could be explained in five steps or less. Just as importantly, I wanted the final visualization to be closely tied to the theme of diaspora. I thought of a paper airplane and got excited. It’s that perfect mix of familiar (everyone remembers making them at least once when they were a kid) and also unfamiliar (but how exactly did you fold it back then? Was it any good at flying? Do you remember?)
“5. Steps one to four were a piece of cake compared to this! I printed the paper airplane design and measured the surface area. Then I worked out what percentage of the paper I was folding with each step to make the paper airplane. Next, I had to find statistics about the global diaspora that matched up to each of those percentages—this involved loads of trial and error which you can see happening in this spreadsheet where I kept track of my calculations.
“I definitely wanted this to be beautiful, but I wanted it to be meaningful, too. So I had to find the most reliable, most recent numbers available—I ended up settling on United Nations 2015 statistics.
“6. I left the illustrations part last. I think I kind of messed up here by overcomplicating things. I was thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who imagined human needs as a pyramid with five levels. At the bottom most essential level are physical needs like food water and warmth, then the next level is the human need for safety and security. At upper levels are things like love and self-esteem (creativity is at the top of the pyramid, something that can only happen once our other needs are satisfied!)
“Migrants, especially refugees, spend so much of their time just trying to ensure the basic human dignity of those lower tiers of the pyramid, so I wanted the steps of this design to reflect that. The folds about food, warmth and water come before the final fold which is freedom (represented by clouds which is maybe a silly cliché—I should have spent more time on that).
“I learned a ton throughout this process! I wanted the design to be digital, too, so I spent some time making a stop-motion animation for those who didn’t get a physical copy of the magazine.
“The most challenging thing was working backwards. I normally start with statistics, those numbers are the constraints within which I’m designing my illustration or animation. But this time, I started out with a really clear design in mind and then had to find numbers that fit that constraint.
“The experience has made me want to use physical objects a lot more to help people make better sense of scale.
“After the commission, I went to Math for America so that I could meet high school teachers and find out about how design like this could be used in classrooms. They invited me to attend their math origami class and it was amazing. Now I’ll be going back this fall to give a course with a high school math teacher to help them come up with ideas about how to teach math with more real world examples in the classroom. I’m excited for what comes next!”