The Good Stuff: Design from scratch #1

by Megan Hunt

Just over a month in and The Data School thus far has focused relatively heavily on the number crunching side of data viz, and fair play for that – after all what is the point of visualising data if you can’t find an interesting story in it? Interesting stories inevitably come out of interesting questions, and interesting questions usually require a certain level of calculation-based enquiry to provide the answers. I’m not gonna lie – let’s just put it out there into the world – I am not a lady who enjoys mathematics. There, I said it. Statistics scare me, calculations confuse me, algebra alarms me, regression analysis makes me agitated. Here’s the thing, numbers make me nervous.  I’ve even bought a book called Mathematics Minus Fear to help to get over this block.  So I guess you’re asking the same thing I have been wondering the last four weeks – what on earth would possess me to embark on a career in data, a world literally filled with numbers and stats? The answer: Design. Taking complicated data and making it easy to understand.

So imagine my utter delight when we kicked off this week with a session from Caroline Beavon – data journalist, designer, infographics extraordinaire and all round data visualisation expert.   No calculated fields, no profit ratios, almost no computers for a large proportion of the day – just ideas, sketches, post-it notes and coloured pens.  Heaven.

So many great tips came out of Monday.  I’ll attempt to blog about them and other design related tips in the future, but right now this is easily my favourite tip from the day…


Pen before Mouse

As a habitable sketcher and visual thinker this really struck a chord with me.  When I have to explain things to other people I am guilty of being someone who instantly wants to draw a diagram on the back of an envelope or flap their arms around making shapes in the air.  I’ve been known to annotate my mother’s shopping lists with individual drawings of each item, and can frequently be found with a whiteboard marker in my hand asking, “Wait, is this what you mean?”  I think in pictures, always have done.  Even when I’m thinking about writing, I ‘see’ the shapes of the words in my head first.

Remembering the importance of getting ideas down on paper before embarking on a viz is paramount.  It’s also something that definitely got forgotten along the way during last week’s Dashboard Week (we were given a new data set each day and tasked with creating and presenting a new dashboard every morning).  The temptation to dive head first into the dataset is always so strong that it’s difficult to remember the importance of stopping, stepping back and sketching out what your ultimate outcome could be.

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