What We Talk About
When We Talk About
Data Physicality


Data physicalizations “map data to physical form,” yet many canonical examples are not based on external data sets. To address this contradiction, I argue that the practice of physicalization forces us to rethink traditional notions of data. This article proposes a conceptual framework to examine how physicalizations relate to data. This article develops a two-dimensional conceptual space for comparing different perspectives on data used in physicalization, drawing from design theory and critical data studies literature. One axis distinguishes between epistemological and ontological perspectives, focusing on the relationship between data and the mind. The second axis distinguishes how data relate to the world, differentiating between representational and relational perspectives. To clarify the aesthetic and conceptual implications of these different perspectives, the article discusses examples of data physicalization for each quadrant of the continuous space. It further uses the framework to examine the explicit and implicit assumptions about data in physicalization literature. As a theoretical article, it encourages practitioners to think about how data relate to the manifestations and the phenomena they try to capture. It invites exploration of the relationship between data and the world as a generative source of creative tension.