In 2012, Qingyue Li made a life-changing decision to move halfway around the world from Beijing to Blacksburg to study architecture at Virginia Tech. Another life-altering decision landed her on a world stage, earning recognition for an award-winning data visualization poster.

Scrolling through videos during a break from her studies, Li came across a TED Talk on data visualization and was intrigued by the marriage of design and data, both interests of hers. She decided to combine her design education in architecture with data analysis. After exploring graduate programs, she enrolled at Northeastern University to pursue a Master of Fine Arts program in data visualization.

"I feel architecture is the most comprehensive of the design fields, and my experience in the program at Virginia Tech was important in nurturing my creative thinking and design abilities," Li said. "Although my career took a different path, the core principles of problem-solving remain constant. The architecture program emphasized innovative problem-solving techniques, which have proven invaluable in my current role as a UX/UI designer and in my data visualization side projects."

Li seeks to improve human interactions with data, products, and systems in her daily role. After work, she would scroll through social media accounts and save graphic creations of information presented in a beautiful, easy-to-understand way. Connections with like-minded people through these channels sparked unexpected collaborations. Li, now residing in Seattle, and Enrique Mendoza, a Peruvian data visualization and information designer, met on Instagram.

Mendoza approached Li about combining forces and skill sets to submit a poster for the World Data Visualization Prize. The annual global competition, founded by London-based designer David McCandless and located on the organization's website, recognizes outstanding design in the presentation of data, information, and knowledge.

Graphic of poster titled Happy People, Happy Planet
The "Happy People, Happy Planet?" poster.

For the competition, the duo combined the Happy Planet Index, an international ranking of human well-being and environmental impact, with an ecological footprint data set to create an impactful data story with the theme of "sustainable happiness." The smiling face emoji used by Li and Mendoza became the foundation for the poster's cohesive visual system that expressed the relationship between each nation's happiness and environmental impact.

Li's decisions, first to delve into data visualization and then to pair with Mendoza, resulted in their award-winning poster "Happy People, Happy Planet?" The notification of their prize took them a little by surprise.

"Since the competition, I've received so many amazing opportunities. My journey toward expressing and understanding happiness through data visualization continues," Li said. "I was inspired by the saying, 'Think globally, act locally,' and seeing happiness from a macro level increases my appreciation and awareness of smaller joys in my daily life."

The concept of happiness resonates across cultures, countries, and continents, especially in the post-pandemic phase, where depression and anxiety rates are at an all-time high. Li and Mendoza hope to inspire people through their work to think about happiness and the environment from a fresh perspective.

Believing happiness to be a universal human pursuit, Li and Mendoza are considering more projects relating to the topic.

"I hope our 'Happy People, Happy Planet?' project can encourage more people to find a balance between consumption and personal happiness," Li said. "I want to invite people to embark on a journey of self-exploration and discovery."

Li is currently collaborating with another information designer from the Netherlands on an Instagram side project, where they capture and document small moments of joy in daily life.

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