Information as Art
    At The Visual Agency information becomes a beautiful, compelling visual feast. Applying technical prowess with a design sensibility born out of the age of data, this agency shapes our perception with striking images that communicate their messages with innovative style and clarity

    Founded in 2011, The Visual Agency works in close collaboration with Density Design Lab. CEO Paolo Guadagni came up with the idea to create an agency that combines technical know-how and data-science with creative design. After getting a master’s degree in physics, Paolo started his working career as a programmer in the 1980s. After 12 years at Microsoft, he decided to start digital PR – the first internet PR agency in Italy.

    Paolo conceived the idea to create an agency specialising in infographics and data visualisation after meeting Professor Ciuccarelli, head of Density Design Lab at Politecnico di Milano.

    In November 2011, a few months after his encounter with Professor Ciuccarelli, Paolo founded The Visual Agency: a team of designers specialised in data and information visualisation. Initially part of Alchimia Holding, the agency became independent in 2013. Paolo also became partner and co-founder of iCorporate, an Italian PR company.

    “The first thing I did was name the agency,” said Paolo. “The idea was to choose a name that instantly communicated what The Visual Agency could create for our clients. Back in 2011, it was much easier to get the domain name of your choice. Luckily, the .com that we wanted was available.”

    As the web is a visual medium, Paolo explained the importance of having a strong presence online: “The website is the business card of the modern era. We use our website to showcase the latest work we have created for our clients, which also illustrates the design and technical expertise we have. We update the site regularly to expand and extend the content to keep the site fresh. This is time-consuming and wouldn’t be possible without the continuous work of a dedicated visual designer.”

    The Visual Agency has been able to build a diverse range of clients. Matteo Bonera, Creative Director, outlined their approach: “We do believe that you have to pitch for work continually. We pitch almost daily, with a strong accounts team who go into the marketplace and actively contact potential clients.

    “Over the years, of course, we have built a reputation. This does mean we also gain a great deal of work from recommendations and repeat business from existing clients. As a specialist in visual communication, increasing numbers of businesses are realising they need professional help to develop and communicate their ideas and messages in a range of visual formats.”

    As an agency focused on visual communication in all its forms, is there a piece of work that encapsulates the ethos embedded in The Visual Agency? “On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, we fully digitalised his greatest work, the Codex Atlanticus,” Matteo explained to Web Designer. “We think this project truly represents our ethos.”

    “First of all, it allows us to globally communicate a cultural heritage that otherwise wouldn’t be available,” Matteo continued. “Other than that, it has great importance from a technical point of view too. The project requires a wide range of skills: it started with the creation of an extremely large database. Then, due to its complex and full-ranging nature, it involved the work of information designers, graphic designers, motion designers, programmers and marketing officers.”

    Paolo Guadagni Co-Founder and CEO
    “Since our work is an intersection between communication, design and technology, it’s essential for all our staff to stay up-to-date with all new developments to be competitive. We believe that excellence cannot be achieved through an exclusively top-down approach but rather through a top-down and bottom-up mix”

    Deconstructing the story with strong visuals and a striking limited colour palette ensures the information presented is always engaging.

    The visual content of this story unravels a complex story, making it more compelling as the viewer delves deeper into the material.

    Visualising the masses of satellites in orbit meant marshalling diverse data sources to create an immersive experience.

    The diverse nature of the projects The Visual Agency complete for their clients often means a highly flexible development schedule. Their Design Director Francesco Roveta explained their approach: “A large-scale project can take from six to ten weeks. The first step consists of content analysis, which includes a target audience and tone of voice definition, some copywriting activity and an early design of a storytelling concept.”

    The actual design developing then starts. This is the hardest and most complex part of the process. It begins with a benchmarking activity and ends with a proposal of a mock-up, navigable through a prototyping software.

    Once adopted, the proposal turns into the real application through the backend and frontend development. A wide range of professionals are needed to carry out a project of this type: a backend and frontend development team, a design team composed of information design and UX / UI designers, and, if needed, a motion design team.

    The Visual Agency has developed the tools they need to create world-class visual content. Matteo explained their approach: “Since the agency started, Adobe played an important role thanks to its wide range of products. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to fulfil the needs of our designers to visualise data in the most cutting-edge ways.

    “Our approach is to take the Adobe applications and integrate them with specific tools for data visualisation like RAWgraphs – a D3. js-based charts generator developed by Density Design Lab, and Gephi, a network graphs engine. To date, software like Sketch, Zeplin and InVision are fundamental to support a lean production flow, but we’re still experimenting with new ways to help us with charts production with Open-Source and custom graphics libraries.”

    The visual content that supports Corriere della Sera’s La Lettura section ensures each feature is compelling.

    When the content The Visual Agency had produced for La Lettura went online, the true beauty of each information design was revealed.

    Daniele Berto, The Visual Agency’s CTO, added: “It’s true that HTML, CSS and JavaScript will continue to be the building blocks of the web, with technologies such as jQuery now being resigned to the past. The design scene is dominated by JavaScript and the related frameworks built onto it such as React, Angular and Vue; we can also add some special-purposes libraries as D3 for data visualisation and three.js for 3D animations.”

    Daniele continued: “Regarding the future, it’s not easy to make predictions in this sector. Every year some web components appear on the scene and are defined as de facto standards. The web development scene is confused among independent projects and others supported by the big names in the industry. In the future, we hope that the chaos will reduce so that every single component does not need to be re-implemented whenever a new framework appears.

    “The panorama of development tools and information technologies is continually changing. Every day we are looking for new frameworks and components that improve the solutions we create. Regarding frameworks, we recently used Svelte, realized by The New York Times programmer Richard Harris. This framework inspired us because it offers some great functions focused on interactive visualisations and long-form production.

    Matteo Bonera Creative Director
    Communicating complexity is at the heart of our professional activity. We believe in making that information accessible. This process requires a wide range of competencies to be harmonically integrated: design, data and knowledge visualisation, art direction, and storytelling are only some of them”

    “And an exciting library we ran into is Lottie-Web. We used it to develop the intro of our Codex Atlanticus website. It allows us to integrate a motion graphic video with a website and to customise the fruition of a vector animated video into a website.”

    As the content that The Visual Agency produces could be viewed on several devices, Matteo outlined how they handle these channels: “Depending on the nature of the project, several solutions for the different devices are studied. In cases where there is a lot of textual content and the visualisations are static or not that complex, such as long-form articles, the responsive design works properly and is the best solution.

    “It is also necessary to design interface and web browsing solutions that ensure a satisfying experience, similar to that on the desktop. In other cases, especially for those projects that require complex or interactive visualisations, we design customised interfaces completely different from the desktop version for every device. In these cases, responsive design can’t fit the needs, and the visualisations are designed based on the device features.”

    With so much content now consumed on social media networks, The Design Agency pays close attention to how their visualisations appear. The agency’s Social Media Manager Nicola Petrus explained: “As an information design agency, we don’t provide social media and advertising related solutions in general. However, we recently decided to give more importance to our social media channels. We regularly monitor and publish content on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Medium.

    “Every channel is useful for different targets and goals, and not all are suitable for driving traffic to the main website. In any case, social media can be used in various ways, depending on the goals of a campaign or a publishing plan: increasing the followers, the engagement or the traffic to the website are some of them. We think that good social media management is an added value in terms of brand awareness. Furthermore, the social media profiles act as a company cover letter, as they are usually the first thing a client sees.”

    The specific nature of the work The Visual Agency produces has meant gathering an eclectic group of professionals. Paolo explained his approach to recruiting: “Since the agency’s birth, we’re always looking for dynamic, clever and resourceful employees, both in the production department and in marketing. At the moment, the team consists of 20 people, including employees, trainees and apprentices.

    “We are lucky being based in Milan. This is also the location of the Density Design Lab and the research lab of the Politecnico di Milano, where a renowned communication design degree course is available. These institutions ensure a steady flow and generational turnover of talented young designers with excellent backgrounds in information design.

    “Also, since our work is an intersection between communication, design and technology, it’s essential for all our staff to stay up-to-date with all new developments to be competitive. We believe that excellence cannot be achieved through an exclusively top-down approach, but rather through a top-down and bottom-up

    mix. Therefore, we have implemented individual and collective learning initiatives such as sharing experiences and constant technological updating.

    “The data visualisation industry is constantly changing. There’s space in the market with demand for these services growing. To anyone who wants to step into the industry, our advice is simple and clear: don’t expect the business and the opportunities to come to you. You have to go out and find your own.”

    Accessible at the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the Codex Atlanticus is a tour de force of visual presentation.

    With a steady stream of high-profile clients and a drive to transform how information is presented, the future looks bright for The Visual Agency. Paolo said: “The agency is in continuous expansion. We have just restructured the office, and we are widening our team. For the coming years, the main goal is to expand our services abroad.

    “First of all, we’re entering the German, Austrian and Swiss market, thanks to the work of our German-speaking Client Director, who is establishing a contacts network in the United Kingdom and the USA too. Our production will not diversify, quite the contrary. This path will lead us to become data visualisation specialists.”

    As the world is awash with information, making sense of this vast array of data is at the heart of The Visual Agency. Built on a love of information and how its meaning can be communicated to an audience, this agency develops information spaces that are engaging and exciting to inhabit. Information becomes art in the hands of The Visual Agency.

    The Visual Agency used its skills to enable the Codex Atlanticus to be easily accessed by applying several filters to the data.