Swiss designer Cybu Richli has a mission: to bring a lively, down-to-earth sensibility to scientific charts and data graphs, those PowerPoint backwaters of anti-design. In Richli’s universe, rubber bands twist into vertebrae, children’s balloons swell like ripening avocados, and hamburger packaging reflects a well-balanced financial portfolio.
Richli argues that data visualization can and should be intuitive, humorous—maybe even moving. “Unfortunately, a lot of infographics aren’t informative or appealing,” he says. “Making a great graphic requires functional thinking but also aesthetics, independent-mindedness, even stubbornness to find that really innovative way of explaining things.”
After a stint studying architecture, he switched to graphic design and earned his degree in 2004 from the University of Art and Design in Lucerne. Richli founded his own studio and began turning out projects ranging from book design and typography to an award-winning poster for cultural events at a hilltop club in Lucerne. In 2005, he won a Swiss Federal Design Grant and a Design Network Switzerland Award.
Visual Explanations, his thesis that was nominated for the Design Preis Schweiz, transformed snapshots of everyday objects into easy-to-understand metaphors for scientific phenomena. The results take the reader through some magical cognitive leaps—an expanding balloon resembles an avocado’s growth pattern, and an umbrella’s spine evokes the flight of birds. “I try not to set too many limits as I experiment, taking notes about everything as I go,” he says. “I get all my ideas and discoveries along the way.”
In 2005, Richli received an invitation to reimagine the graphics for Morningstar, a Chicago-basedprovider of mutual fund research. The company had already set industry standards by reducing financial data to three items: a pie chart, a triangle, and its trademark Style Box, a nine-square graphic that makes it easy for investors to track their money through the stock market. Philip Burton, a designer consultant for Morningstar, explains that they asked Richli to consolidate these three images into one graphic device so that investors could check a portfolio’s balance by several measures in a single glance. The results took Morningstar’s designers through a wild thought experiment, in which recognizable shapes—hamburger packaging, a lake’s smooth surface—incorporate all three sets of data and highlight imbalances in the portfolio. Although Morningstar is sticking with its current graphics system, Burton believes research like Richli’s is the way a company moves forward. “It shook up our thinking,” he says.
For now, Richli works from a studio “walled in by books” with a black box full of drills, tools, photographer’s lamps, and all the crazy objects that fascinate his eye. He won’t speculate on future projects, but admits a weakness for mixing things up even further. “Right now,” he says, “I’d love to design a book or poster for a museum, a CD cover for a rock band, and a new hat for Santa Claus.”