Beyond the Bounds - June 1, 2019
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Visualizing Belonging

By Grace Herndon

Problem Exploration and Inspiration

The problem area which I chose to explore was the space on the outside of a community. While multifaceted and wicked, one of the most pertinent problems plaguing our society is loneliness and polarization. The more distant people feel from each other, the more of a serious impact it can have on a community. There are countless studies on the harmful effects that loneliness—which can also be defined as the lack of a sense of belonging—has on an individual (Whon, 2014).

The initial spark for this dive into community belonging came from a workshop led by fellow classmates who challenged us to visualize a dataset that could create a portrait of ourselves. The idea was to discover ways that data tell a story, create a portrait, and be more readily understood when translated into a visual format. The present idea was that designers have the power to bring understanding and meaning to large audiences. Creating my own data portrait also prompted thoughts on how subtle formal choices in data visualizations could not only bring understanding but also give a richer essence to what boils down to numbers.

The other essential source of inspiration for this research came from two AIGA Designer 2025 articles, “Bridging Digital and Physical Boundaries,” as well as “Core Values Matter” (Davis, 2019). The AIGA 2025 articles, are meant to paint a picture of the attributes and skills that designers must cultivate today in order to stay relevant tomorrow.  The article “Bridging Digital and Physical Boundaries” presents the idea of making the invisible visible. What are the forces or elements of our lives that are seen and unseen, and how can designers help or hurt by switching the two? I wondered if it could be beneficial to be able to visualize belonging and if it could strengthen a community to know if others felt like they belonged or not. This AIGA article prompted me to think about what the physical yet invisible experience of inclusion would look like when translated digitally. The “Core Values Matter” article discusses how a designer of the future might design for a more ethically and environmentally concerned audience (Davis, 2019). I thought it was powerful that a large portion of the consumer base is beginning to take into consideration how consistent an entity’s actions are with their advertised message. If an entity advertises belonging and inclusion as one of its values, a designer could then hold this community accountable through data on the actual sense of belonging. Discussions on theories of communities with my cohort also informed these ideas on belonging. The honeypot effect is one theory that breaks down how an individual may move from the periphery of a community to an acting participant and eventually to an advocate. An example given to explain the theory was how audience members in one study participated in an interactive art installation (Cox, 2016). Art and curiosity as a method for involvement sparked my attention as an opportunity.

The previously mentioned investigations ultimately lead me to the question: How can Designers facilitate belonging among newcomers in a small city context such as Raleigh, NC? In Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, she defines belonging as:

The innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. (Brown, 2010, p. 26).

The component of belonging that I will focus in on in this speculative exploration is the idea of a sense of belonging that comes from “be[ing] part of something larger than us” (Brown, 2010, p. 26). I will also supplement Brown’s definition with the addition of social support as an integral piece of belonging, which makes it so important to a community. Social support has been found to have notable influence on mental and physical health (Hale, 2005).

What could it be?

The research culminated in an idea for a large-scale art installation visualizing how much Raleigh citizens feel they belong to the community. This visualization acts as an aid to Raleigh citizens, allowing them to see how others in the community feel about their own sense of inclusion. The desired outcomes of this installation are an increased awareness of the belonging-climate, meaning and understanding of how many people feel like they belong and how much they feel like they belong in Raleigh, and a sense among users of being a part of something larger than themselves. The methods of achieving these outcomes are the visualization of abstract concepts, participatory structure of the installation, and supplemental resources to increase involvement.  

Who is it for?

This visualization is meant for Raleigh community members who may rate themselves as having a low sense of belonging and who do not feel connected to the community. The imagined user is an individual who has just moved to the area. This user would have a new residence, a new occupation, and potentially no ties to the local community. Participation in this installation would allow the newcomer to easily visualize the surrounding community and their shared states of connection. In addition to an increased awareness of the city’s belonging-climate, the survey used to collect belonging data would also be able to provide each user with customized suggestions for getting involved. This visualization could also function as a way for the city’s initiatives to reflect their value of inclusivity, a way for the city to communicate to newcomers that their sense of belonging is a priority.

How does it work?

Placed in a central location to the community, three large screens containing projections of small dots of varying opacities, locations, and sizes, make up the physical visualization. Each dot represents an individual user. The location and opacity of the dot determine the reported belonging of the user. A more opaque dot located towards the center of the screen reflects a user with a greater sense of belonging whereas a more translucent dot on the further edges of the screen reflects a more disconnected user (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  How the data visualization might represent a community that reports a low sense of belonging.

An essential feature of this visualization is its interactive nature. For the purpose of this explanation, I will describe those visiting the installation as interactors and those contributing their data as users. Using sensors in the installation space, as interaction increases (more people enter the space), so does the brightness of the data on the screens (Figure 2). This relatively simple reaction is meant to provoke the sense that together, the interactors have had an impact on their environment. Closer investigation of the installation allows interactors to access more information about individual users represented by the dots. By tapping a single dot on the screen, an interactor will be able to pull up the age, gender, neighborhood, and level of reported belonging of a user (Figure 3). The option to find out more personal information about each user is an attempt to facilitate finding similarities between interactors and users, but primarily to reinforce the understanding that each dot on the screen represents a real human being (Figure 4).

Figure 2. How the data visualization might represent a community that reports a high sense of belonging.

Figure 3. How an interactor would tap the screen.   

Figure 4. What would be displayed after a dot is tapped.

By downloading an app, the participant in the visualization is provided a survey to fill out regarding their sense of belonging in the Raleigh community. Data collected from the app serves as the primary source for data on belonging used in the visualization. The questions posed to the user on the in-app survey are based on both psychological and sociological qualifications for a sense of belonging (Hagerty, 1995). After the survey, the user is supplied with further resources for connecting and getting involved. As users begin to feel more connected and update their belonging data through the app, the changes are recorded live in the visualization, creating a moving, living, and breathing quality to the data displayed in the installation.


In the continuation of this project, one of the primary questions is the way that a more full definition of belonging could incorporate into this model for community involvement. While I chose to focus on a single aspect of belonging defined by Brown (2010), there are further opportunities in other aspects she goes on to define, such as “presenting our authentic, imperfect selves to the world” (p. 26). Facilitated and embraced by a designer, it would be interesting to explore the idea of presenting our authentic selves digitally or through an installation.

Grace Herndon (MGD ‘20) is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. She is interested in design for social innovation and design education.


  • Brown, B., & OverDrive Inc. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
  • Cox, T., Downs, J., Harrop, M., Moere, Oliveira, E., A.V., Vetere, F., Webber, S. &  Wouters, N. (2016).  Uncovering the Honeypot Effect: How Audiences Engage with Public Interactive Systems. Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, [doi>10.1145/2901790.2901796].
  • Davis, Meredith. (2019). Introduction to Design Futures. Retrieved from
  • Hagerty, B. M. K., & Patusky, K. (1995). Developing a measure of sense of belonging. Nursing Research, 44(1), 9-13.
  • Hale, C. J., Hannum, J. W., & Espelage, D. L. (2005). Social support and physical health: The importance of belonging. Journal of American College Health, 53(6), 276-84. doi:
  • Wohn and LaRose. (2014) Effects of loneliness and differential usage of Facebook on college adjustment of first-year students. Computers & Education 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.03.018

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