When Smoketown, Louisville, Kentucky’s oldest historically black neighborhood, started gentrifying, infographic designer Jessica Bellamy set out to help educate people about how it was impacting the community.
With roots in Louisville, the matter hit close to home. Bellamy knew that data—graphs and charts, etc.—often fails to bridge the gap between the people impacted and the raw numbers that measure those changes.
She had a potential solution, though. She started using answers from door-to-door surveys of people in the area to make beautiful and compelling infographics that wove in the narratives of the people actually affected by the changing neighborhood.
But it wasn’t until someone used the graphic she created to make a point to a district council member at a public forum that she realized the power of her work. She remembers thinking, “Wow, I just made a weapon.”
We live in a quantifiable world, one ruled by metrics and “insights.” And while many measurements can help us better understand the world around us, looking at just numbers can be overwhelming. “I think when people think of information graphics and the data visualization people think of the data points as being cold and static,” Bellamy told me. “But these are living breathing circumstances,” she says. “This is somebody.”
Bellamy, an infographic designer, Adobe Creative Resident and design justice advocate, uses bright, colorful design to illustrate (literally and figuratively) how “data points represent real people,” she says.
She describes design justice as a “creative response to crisis, reductivism, coercion.” She adds, “it’s a way to embed principles of conscious and responsible design and equity into your work to either empower or even dismantle destructive things or barriers, to communication.”
Her career began after studying a variety of topics at the University of Louisville (she majored in graphic design, Pan-African studies and drawing with a minor in communication). She wanted to find ways to use design to change the narrative around people of color, especially the way black people are represented in media.
Bellamy has since gone on to create GRIDS, the Grassroots Information Design Studio. She’s now part of the Adobe Creative Residency, one of only 6 creatives chosen from around the world each year and equipped with whatever resources they need to complete a project of their choosing.
Her project is twofold: one part is conducting Graphic Ally Hackathons—events that pair nonprofits with creatives to teach people the fundamentals of responsibly designing infographics. During the Hackathons, creatives make graphics for a cause, and then the nonprofit critiques the designs to ensure the data accurately represents the issues at hand. The other half of her project is exploring motion graphics. She’s created a character called Bubble who morphs into infographics as a way to explain data in more dynamic, fluid ways.
If you’ve never heard the term responsible design, Bellamy says it’s at least in part about including the people that the data represents in the design process. “When you’re making your work you’re being inclusive and considerate of lots of different perspectives, you’re constantly in recursive feedback cycles with people that are most affected by whatever issue it is your championing, because you know, those folks are going to know root causes and realistic solutions,” she says.
While something beautiful is likely to be shared more, and have a greater impact as a result, there’s a “delicate balance between making sure the aesthetics don’t take away or detract from the message,” she says. For instance, “If you’re making an information graphic about families affected by incarceration, you don’t want to necessarily make it beautiful and full of rainbows just because those colors are gorgeous because people aren’t going to take away the heartfelt authentic portraiture.”
Designing graphics that have impact is a process that requires a lot of patience, failure and the ability to try again. Bellamy starts her design process by reading the news on whatever topic she’s currently working on. “As I get through the more objective news media sources and start to see more of the emotionally embodied responses, I start to highlight specific data points,” she says.
Then, Bellamy starts to make drafts. Lots of them. “It’s a very scary process because you kind of let your mind do whatever and make whatever,” she says. You have to be “very forgiving of yourself to be willing to explore those failures until you find this spot where you feel like, ‘Okay, I think I’ve gotten to a place where the work is good, I think it’s speaking to what I want.’ And then, start over again from a different angle. Pivot completely.”
Taking her time is central to her work, and something she says is missing from work, design or otherwise, today. She says her dream is that someone who participated in the Hackathon will be able to bring that same thoughtfulness into their own work. “That person at the table that took the Hackathon says, ‘Wait, there’s not enough people at the table. We haven’t talked about anyone directly affected by this issue. Can we have a meeting with them before we even touch our computers?’”
“We’re all taught as designers to quickly find solutions. We’re solution makers,” she told me. “We’re so interesting in finding that solution right now, and things have to be so quick and streamlined, that I think it’s actually a detriment to our work.”
“I really want somebody to stop the conversation,” she says. She wants people to say, “wait, have we done this, have we thought about this, let’s pivot, this is a good point to try something different,” she says. “That’s the culture shift.”
Read more about Bellamy and her work here.