Designers Bring Storytelling To Data

Author: Shoshana Burgett,

Our world today is very different from two weeks ago.

Two weeks ago, I was moving forward on my business plan and hitting key milestones. Today, I am working remotely from home with many of my projects on hold. And I know other small business owners, consultants and contractors are in similar positions.

I can’t sit still for long, and therefore, I feel compelled to help in whatever way I can. I’ve asked friends, colleagues and neighbors for ways I might be able to support them, as well as schools, non-profits and other businesses. In those discussions one thing became clear – people are still confused about COVID-19. And it’s easy to see why.  I’ve seen ‘news’ on everything from solid science, doomsday predictions, conspiracies, and complete misinformation. In a 24-hour news cycle, it’s hard for people to keep up or determine the relevant information.

Noodling on how I can help, I did what I do best.  I dug down into the details and discovered a giant pool of data.

“The single biggest problem in
communication is the illusion that
it has taken place.”  ~
Bernard Shaw
round bond
Anusorn_Nakdee -

Data is a beautiful way to get grounded on any topic. If someone asks how much weight you lost, many are proud to say 10 pounds. If someone asks how much did you save, you state the dollar value or percentage. Telling someone you saved 10% is very different than saying a lot. How does one define a lot?  ‘A lot’ is a generalization and doesn’t really tell you much. Data on the other hand is specific and relatable. If you saved 10% on a $10 item, you saved $1.  Quality data is a key element, but telling the story correctly is just as important. Without metrics, the receiver can easily misunderstand the information and take away a very different perspective.

For example, there have been reports that the malaria drug, Hydroxychloroquine, could be used to fight the coronavirus. There were two studies conducted. The first was in France, where 30 patients were given a combination of Hydroxychloroquine and antibiotics.  This combination helped but did not cure those infected.  In that study, 20 of the 30 patients had a lower cough than those without it. That means 67% of patients had a lesser cough. If you saw a news headline that said ‘67% cured by chloroquine’ you might be impressed and hopeful.  Sixty seven percent seems like wonderful success rate. However, almost 80% of these types of studies never make it to Phase 2 testing because the original test group was too small, and the outcomes became more variable as the studies expanded to larger test groups.

In the second study, 15 patients were given the malaria drug. 13 patients tested negative for the coronavirus after a week of treatment.  Sounds great, right?  However, the other 15 patients in the study who didn’t receive Hydroxychloroquine, 14 of them tested negative for the virus after a week. When you look at all the data, this means the drug may have had little or no effect at all.  In a world of clickbait headlines, we are quick to grasp at something but that may not be a complete story.  This is essential to understanding the bigger picture and see the full story.

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Not everyone has time to dig into the data or can take the time required to fully understand what the lines on an excel spreadsheet, bar chart or graph mean. Today, people want the high-level takeaway. You need to tell them a story and explain simply what you are showing them.

This is where a good designer can help – especially for the life science community. Designers can help take data, numbers and ugly charts and turn them into extraordinary visuals and infographics. Creative designers can give a voice to data and help tell a complex story effectively.

In my effort to help visualize the events of our time, I have created a visual timeline of coronavirus information, details and statements from the World Health Organization (WHO), news articles, scientific studies, and White House Briefings. It is not a complete line item of each and every day; that is not the intent.

The intent is to demonstrate the value designers can bring through visual storytelling. The story is simple; COVID-19 is a new virus, but not unknown to scientific, medical and government personnel. The second task is to highlight that having only one part of a story, a quote, a number, an article from one media outlet, will never tell a complete story. You need multiple data points to see the entire story.

With a full set of data points and help from the design community, there is an opportunity for compelling visual storytelling that is both informative and impactful to people.

Yet over the last decade, online algorithms, popularity of right/left news media, and people throwing broad verbs or adjectives around, has narrowed our peripheral perspectives where we only see certain data points. Remember that true storytelling looks at all data points and is meant to force us to examine misconceptions. Nothing is either black or white, most things are complex and gray.



  • A large number of designers are freelancers. Many are filing for unemployment, or worse, not qualified for unemployment, because they are independent and collect 1099’s. If you are a designer and work for an agency, or a brand, I would urge you to help during this critical time in our history.  Your design skill can help communicate complex information in ways people can understand.

    Reach out to a life-science company, a scientist, and history professor or an economist. Is there a new way to design and present information? I see lots of icons and infographics on handwashing on AdobeCanva, and Freepik, but adequately washing our hands will not stop this from spreading.  We need to:

    • Explain social distancing
    • Show the timeline of this disease
    • Show the impact it is having, in life, death, dollars, hours and more
    • Tell the story of how each individual can help
    • Explain what asymptomatic is and what population asymptomatic
    • Show that young people are susceptible
    • Show how young people are asymptomatic and passing it along
    • Show the types of surfaces this disease lives on and for how long.

    Designers are so vital right now, and can offer help. You can use your skills of Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and other design applications to help get factual information out.

    One-way designers in the textile and apparel industries can help is by joining the Gerber Technologies Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) Taskforce. Gerber set up the taskforce to help global customers transition to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE).  This is something in short supply by doctors, nurses and all first responders.

    Over 300 manufacturers are utilizing Gerber Technologies’ software, hardware and expertise to produce masks and other types of PPE. The Gerber PPE Resource team is looking for defining and developing patterns, implementing sewing requirements, and connecting the supply chain. Gerber is looking for experts to share their expertise and join the initiative. You to go sign up at


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