Originally published on Alumnline by Matt Manguso.
Data is a notoriously cold medium. For most people, the facts, figures, and statistics found within it are best relegated to spreadsheets and graphs where they tell a dry and tedious story. Stefanie Posavec (B.F.A., ’02) sees data differently. As an artist and award-winning-author, Posavec has done something most people wouldn’t even contemplate – showcasing the warmth and playfulness of data.
This is most purely exemplified in her newest book, I Am a Book. I Am a Portal to the Universe, which received the 2021 Young People’s Book Prize from the Royal Society, the oldest scientific institution in the world.
“It’s really incredible to be part of that lineage,” Posavec said from her home in England. “It’s also incredibly validating because young children chose it as their favorite book.”
Co-authored with her frequent collaborator, Miriam Quick, the book is a unique expression of science and data. It doesn’t so much as tell the story of how many molecules exist on a piece of paper or how many people are born each second, the book itself is the story.
Hello. I am a book. But I’m also a portal to the universe. I have 112 pages, measuring 20cm high and wide. I weigh 465g. And I have the power to show you the wonders of the world. Is how I Am a Book begins, and throughout its pages it brings readers on a scientific journey unlike any most have ever experienced.
“Miriam and I were sitting in a café trying to come up with an idea, and we thought, ‘What if the book was the measuring device?’ There’s a lot of infographic books around, but we wanted to try something totally different,” she said. “It’s a very physical, super tactile way of engaging with information because all the measurements in the book are based on the book itself.”
Quick, a data journalist and writer, researched and calculated all the data in the book. Posavec, an artist and designer whose exploration with using data as a medium has led to having her work exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, including a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was tasked with visually translating Quick’s equations.
“Whenever Miriam and I work together, it tends to be different ways of communicating information,” Posavec explained. “We’re so used to charts and data being boring, and we tried to make this the opposite of that. We wanted it be something playful and bright so it feels engaging and enjoyable.”
It was this novel approach that led the book to be shortlisted by the Royal Society, and since it was considered a children’s book (though Posavec asserts the book is meant to be enjoyed by people of all ages), about 11,500 eight- to 14-year-olds read the book, critiqued it, and ultimately chose it as the winner.
“It’s such an honor, and it really means so much because it was actually young people who decided it,” Posavec said earnestly. “It’s very different to have a science book like this, and it was validating to see it resonated with kids who were physically engaging with the information. That was the best bit.”
It’s a gratifying end to a journey that began with a whimsical idea in a coffee shop, saw pushback from publishers who weren’t initially sold on it, and faced the challenge of trying to publish a book that is meant to be picked up and held during a time when most people were sequestered in their homes because of COVID-19. Those data points are, for Posavec, what I Am Book is all about.
“I think the point of the book is to show the wonder of our world and how weird it is,” Posavec said. “I like projects that inspire wonder in me, and that’s what I wanted to share with readers. It’s also a book that doesn’t quite fit into any specific category. There’s value in that.”
For more information about Posavec’s books, art, and other work, visit http://www.stefanieposavec.com/