Six questions with… John Nelson

In order to sprinkle some star dust into the contents of my book I’ve been doing a few interviews with various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. These people span the spectrum of industries, backgrounds, roles and perspectives. I’ve only scratched the surface with those I have interviewed so far, there’s a long wish list of other people who I haven’t approached yet but will be doing so. My aim is to publish a new interview each week through to the publication of my book around April/May 2016 so look out for updates every Thursday!

I gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. This latest interview is with John Nelson, Director of Visualization at IDV Solutions. Thank you, John!

Q1 | When you begin working on a visualisation task/project, typically, what is the first thing you do?

A1 | I kick it over into a rough picture as soon as possible. When I can see something then I am able to ask better questions of it –then the what-about-this iterations begin. I try to look at the same data in as many different dimensions as possible. For example, if I have a spreadsheet of bird sighting locations and times, first, I like to see where they happen, previewing it in some mapping software. I’ll also look for patterns in the timing of the phenomenon, usually using a pivot table in a spreadsheet. The real magic happens when a pattern reveals itself only when seen in both dimensions at the same time.

Q2 | With deadlines looming, as you head towards the end of a task/project, how do you determine when something is ‘complete’? What judgment do you make to decide to stop making changes?

A2 | I have the benefit of, for the most part, making visualizations for fun, as time permits (my official capacity revolves around software user experience and information architecture). As such, I’m generally the only one who has to decide if when something is done, and there really are no looming deadlines, other than my impatience to share the results on the web. When I step back and think, ‘Ok, they are really going to like this’ then I know I’m in an alright spot. Invariably I have a spelling mistake in there though, that a reader will point out early on, so there is usually one last unfortunate revision before I am actually done.

Q3 | How do you mitigate the risk of drifting towards content creep (eg. trying to include more dimensions of a story or analysis than is necessary) and/or feature creep (eg. too many functions of interactivity)?

A3 | Once I heard a quote by Billy Wilder, on effective storytelling, where he said something like “…give them two and two, and let them add it up.” The most exciting dialogues I’ve had around visualizations was when I just show the data with no commentary or explanation. Visualization designers are almost never experts in the topic we design for; I learn the most when I like to stick to the showing and then listen. Also, this way you engage visualization participants, rather than pitch to visualization readers.

Q4 | At the start of a design process we are often consumed by different ideas and mental concepts about what a project ‘could’ look like. How do you maintain the discipline to recognise when a concept is not fit for purpose (for the data, analysis or subject you are ultimately pursuing)?

A4 | I have the lazy benefit of being a specialist. If the data isn’t spatial, it is unlikely I’ll dig into it for a visualization. Most of my head-scratching comes when trying to determine what complimentary graphics to include or not to include. I have had some projects where I found the analytical method I was walking down yielded beautiful, though misleading, visuals. Then I had to throw it away and start over (see “False Start” section)

Q5 | Whilst there is a great deal of science underpinning the use of colour in data visualisations, a lot can be achieved through applying common sense. What is the most practical advice you’ve read, heard or have for relative beginners in respect of their application of colour?

A5 | Too many colors! Keep the palette simple and clean. If the background is dark, use brightness to denote higher values; if the background is light, darker values. The phenomenon and the background lightness should oppose each other; contrast is the vehicle for magnitude.

Q6 | Presenting spatial data is a specialist discipline and one that involves a lot of different challenges to other types of charts and graphics. Not wishing to reduce this discipline to a diluted bullet point list but what would be 2/3 key pieces of advice – or pitfalls to avoid – you would offer folks facing this kind of challenge?

A6 | When making a choropleth map, chose your range breaks carefully. There is an elusive balance between choosing color ranges that respect the user and the integrity of the phenomenon, and in teasing out the story the phenomenon has to tell. That balance lies somewhere between mathematically dogmatic range breaks that communicate little and creative range breaks that propagandize. (see article “Telling the Truth“)

Most maps are now made with readily-available software that lowers the barrier to entry for many designers, and this is terrifically exciting to me. It does, however, also give me the opportunity to encourage more novice map-makers to avoid the defaults. Each factor should be an active choice by the designer, rather than automated passive acceptance (see “Avoid the Defaults” section)

Six questions with… Kennedy Elliott

In order to sprinkle some star dust into the contents of my book I’ve been doing a few interviews with various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. These people span the spectrum of industries, backgrounds, roles and perspectives. I’ve only scratched the surface with those I have interviewed so far, there’s a long wish list of other people who I haven’t approached yet but will be doing so. I’m aiming to publish a new interview every week through to the publication of my book around April/May 2016, we’ll see how that goes…

I gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. The first interview is with Kennedy Elliott, Visual Journalist par excellence at The Washington Post. Thank you, Kennedy!

Q1 | What was your entry point into the field: From what education/career background did you transition into the world of data visualisation/infographics?

A1 | I specialized in Media Studies (media theory and criticism) in undergrad and coded a bit for fun while I was there. After working for a few years editing scientific publications, I decided to go to grad school full time for journalism and be a developer. I thought I’d want to work on infrastructure in newsrooms, but instead I discovered data visualization, and realized I quite liked telling stories in visual ways. After grad school, I moved to New York and worked in industry for a while as a data visualist, but then moved back to journalism, working at the Associated Press, the Guardian US and the Washington Post.

Q2 | What is the single best piece of advice you have been given, have heard or have formed yourself that you would be keen to pass on to someone getting started in a data visualisation/infographics-related discipline?

A2 | Be a great journalist. You might think that learning to code, understanding visual design, user experience or human perception would be the most important part of data visualization, but it’s not. Understanding data is the most important part. There can be so many issues with the information you’re trying to convey, like biased sources, incorrect methodology, incomplete or insufficient data collection, that are necessary to resolve before you begin visualizing. Even if your data is thorough and unbiased, it might not be the correct metric by which to evaluate your thesis. It might not tell the complete story, or even a part of the story accurately. It’s absolutely necessary to investigate the data itself, understand its flaws and report what you can within the proper context before visualizing it.

Q3 | We are all influenced by different principles, formed through our education, experience and/or exposure to others in the field – if you had to pick one guiding principle that is uppermost in your thoughts as you work on a visualisation or infographic, what would it be?

A3 | My main goal is to represent information accurately and in proper context. This spans from data reporting and number crunching to designing human-centered, intuitive and clear visualizations. This is my sole approach, although it is always a work in progress.

Q4 | Given the rich capabilities you and your colleagues possess, the bar is set quite high in terms of the ambitions of what form and what function your visualisation and infographic work can take. Innovation is important, but sometimes you see work out there that evidences people doing things just because they can, rather than because they should. How do you (individually and within the team) maintain clarity of focus and preserve the discipline of avoiding unnecessarily innovation?

A4 | I think having a consistent body of solid work is important here, because I truly feel that experimentation (even for the sake of experimentation) is important, and I wouldn’t discourage it. I think a good rule of thumb is to never allow your design or implementation to obscure the reader understanding the point of your piece. However, I’d be willing to forsake this, at a very minimal level and very infrequently, to allow for the occasional innovation or experiment. It ends up moving us all forward, in some way or another. If you have a reputation for consistent work, then you have earned your right to take risks!

Q5 | What advantages do you think working in a journalistic setting introduces to your visual work?

A5 | I think working in a journalistic setting is the perfect place for visual critique and inspiration. Everyone has varied backgrounds and therefore varied opinions, but we all want the same thing, and that is to tell a great digital story with high journalistic integrity. I think when everyone has the same goal but different experiential wisdom, constructive feedback leads you to discovering new and better things.

Q6 | The judgment of how to elegantly compose and layout a piece is possibly one of the least (publicly) discussed aspects of visualisation and infographic design thinking. Do you have any tips or tactics you can pass on to others about how you approach this?

A6 | The exciting thing about information design is that it is always evolving. It’s a discipline that borrows from sister disciplines – graphic design, product design, interface design. I’m not sure if there are many rules that will still be true in ten years, but I’ll give it a shot. Right now, we try to make things that are intuitive and thusly minimal. We rely on a reader’s previous experience with technology to inform them on how to interact with our work. We use traditional graphic design techniques, like typographical hierarchy, to direct the eye. We use color to communicate meaning when we can, so that design becomes more of a practical endeavor than an ornamental flourish (although we do save room on some projects for ornamental flourishes!). And because technology is always changing, we always have to adapt to how we know (or how we think we know) humans interact with interfaces and process information.

Seeking input for book: Have struggles with data?

As visitors know, I’m in the key stages of book writing. I won’t bore you by repeating the background of that anymore.

As you might anticipate, in a book about data visualisation, there is a chapter about data, describing the mechanics for gathering, familiarising with, preparing, analysing etc.

One of the easy assumptions to make is that anybody who is interested about visualisation – and certainly enough to buy a book about it – is going to arrive with at least a basic understanding of data and numerical literacy (inc. some stats knowledge).

That’s not always the case. Plenty of people have little knowledge of data but are keen to learn about – and do – visualisation. Indeed, for some, the ‘little’ knowledge they do have is a shortcoming that can seem hard to overcome. They might not know the difference between quantitative and qualitative or discrete and continuous data, for example. This naturally leads to a certain anxiety and perhaps, in the extreme cases, fear.

Experience from meeting delegates on my training courses and teaching modules down the years reveals as much. It is a generalisation but I would suggest this is more prevalent amongst people who have a dominant background in a creative environment but little experience in more analytical pursuits.

I’m keen to make the contents of my book as accessible as possible to as wide a group of people as possible and this is therefore a key section to cover.

To help fine tune my coverage of this particular topic, I would therefore appreciate the opportunity to hear from people who might identify with having (currently) or having had (in the past) a deficit in their abilities around working with data.

To be clear, this is not related to any anxiety over how people will use your data, how their lack of chart literacy might lead to misinterpretations, it is simply your confidence in working with data yourself.

If anyone has any insights to share I would really value you adding comments below. This input will really help me check I have something approaching the right content and tone for my book. Thank you in advance.

Creativity and science in data visualisation

When observing the trajectory and development of the data visualisation field I often contemplate the dual role of the scientific and creative communities: I believe scientists tell us what we should do and creatives tell us what we could do. Alone, the field leans towards one direction but together they take us forward in the most positive direction.

In the past few days I’ve come across nice examples of both communities in action and thought I’d summarise them in a combined post. Firstly two examples of innovation from creative thinkers and then two valuable products of research from scientific minds.

‘Draw your chart’, The Upshot

Today we have seen a terrific demonstration of the compelling nature of participatory visualisations. Amanda Cox, Kevin Quealy and Gregor Aisch from TheUpshot have launched a brilliantly engaging ‘draw your own chart‘ project that allows users to draw a line chart that you feel represents the shape of how family income affects children’s college chances. Not only that, but depending on the ‘fit’ of the line you draw (and I won’t share a screen grab of my guess and ruin the surprise) the resulting text is customised to comment on how well or poorly you did, compared to the actual and to everyone else.


‘The Fallen of World War II’, Neil Halloran

This is a fascinating looking interactive documentary by Neil that “examines the human cost of the second World War and the decline in battle deaths in the years since the war”. It exists as a 15-minute video visualisation using “cinematic storytelling techniques to provide viewers with a fresh and dramatic perspective of a pivotal moment in history”. The mix of video-based explainers and interactively explorable charts is typical of a slowly emerging recent trend to combine experiences. I’ve only had chance to watch the first minute or so but it is already clear that its an excellent piece of work.


A second interesting innovation is the use of an optional ‘ticket’ payment system presenting the possibility for viewers to contribute a small fee for the benefit of watching – “support will help us develop the project and create new episodes”. We see different approaches of revenue generating from upfront kickstarter type models, paywalls in journalism, and advertising space so why not offer an optional charge? People have to earn a living!


New Paper: ‘Impact of Visual Embellishments’

This week at EuroVis, Robert Kosara, Drew Skau, and Lane Harrison are presenting their new paperAn Evaluation of the Impact of Visual Embellishments in Bar Charts“. The title is self-explanatory so I won’t just rehash the entire abstract but this is a really valuable piece of research that offers evidence to support what we might otherwise need instinct to rely on. It also means there is a robust argument to rightly dismiss those dreadful triangle shaped bar charts.


New Paper: ‘Deceptive Embellishments’

This one goes back to late February, but I wanted to bring balance to this piece. Enrico Bertini, Anshul Vikram Pandey, Katharina Rall, Meg Satterthwaite and Oded Nov published a paper “How Deceptive Are Deceptive Visualizations?“. This study explored a range of classic deceptive visual distortions and tested out the impact they had on readers. Once again as you might imagine, the results show the deceptive devices we have always warned against genuinely do have the distorting influence we suspected. Like the paper above, this is another valuable and practical piece of empirical evidence to support good visualisation practices.


Determining the use of language: User? Reader?

As I am in the process of writing my book I find certain challenges in the use of language crop up time and time again. The main one I have difficulty with is maintaining consistency in how I term the person who reads, uses or consumes a visualisation or infographic work. It is particularly problematic when I am constructing a sentence that really needs a singular catch-all label and not a multi-comma-separated list attempting to cover all nuances. That makes it both clumsy to write and to read.

Yesterday, I asked my esteemed twitterati to suggest the language terms they use or feel most comfortable with in order to arrive at a consensus viewpoint or at least accept there are too many variations to be able to settle on one single term.

Rather than leave it buried on Twitter, I have storified a collection of the contributions people made (thank you to all again) so that others can join the debate.

However, in summary and unless I am presenting with an alternative compelling argument, my decision is to go with VIEWER. Regardless of the type and format of visualisation we are working with, we are always ‘viewing’ a visual portrayal of the subject’s data.

USER is an appropriately active term for describing those who engage with an interactive project – but even when we have the ability to interact we are not doing so constantly, we do stop to look.

READER feels more associated (in my definition) with specific acts of reading text, values and point-reading from a chart. It is clearly a key component of engaging with a visualisation but not a universal act – when we’re taking an initial ‘at a glance’ perspective, that’s not in my view a specific act of reading.

AUDIENCE would be something I would maybe use in a different written context but is problematic when referring to an individual.

CONSUMER, CUSTOMER, RECIPIENT, RECEIVER and (even) VICTIM are either too passive, too context specific or feel too harrowing.

The two winners and two losers of the UK Elections

With the dust settling after the UK elections, a brief reflection on the winners and losers from a data and visualisation perspective:

Two Winners


As I stated a couple of weeks ago, these things are everywhere right now…

…and they have never been deployed to such good effect and in such an across-the-board sense. During the build up to and night of the election, cartograms emerged as the real star.

The tracking of the predicted and actual outcome of the election is so well suited to the cartogram approach, sacrificing geographical precision for a more equitable visual weighting for each individual constituency, the voting outcomes of which are so critical to the ebb and flow of the overall election results. This first example comes from the Guardian:


The hexagon, with its reasonably flexible tessellating qualities, provides a great geometric option to build up the election picture, as shown by this in the Telegraph:


Kenneth Field, of CartoNerd acclaim, is working on an interesting looking experiment to take the election hexagon bin map results into a 3D landscape, breaking down the votes of each constituency in stacked hexagon bars, creating the look of the Giant’s Causeway.


Not everything was digital. We had the BBC’s excellent and huge outdoor cartogram (that I cleverly, I’m sure you’ll agree, coined the ‘elecxagon’ map)… It’s excellence was enhanced further by confusing those cretins at the Daily Mail.

…and then there was Tom Katsumi’s almost-live cross-stitched cartograms


High quality UK visualisation work

There was some very high calibre visualisation coverage across many different news and media outlets but the standout work (in the UK at least) emerged, perhaps unsurprisingly. from the Guardian, the BBC and the Financial Times. These three organisations are at the top of their game right now and leading the UK data journalism and visualisation landscape.

*There is a nice round-up of some of the election visualisations on BuzzFeed*

Two losers

Liberal Democrats’ Visualisation Integrity

Whilst there were surprisingly few examples of corrupt visualisation work, the Liberal Democrats – the big losers in the election itself – offered up the dodgiest data visualisation work, a theme that has continued on from their efforts back in 2010. I’m not saying that their political performance is linked to their visualisation output but…



There have been many recent examples of twitter users taking other peoples’ work and ideas and passing it off as their own on tweets that then generate traffic and attention, blatantly failing to attribute the original author.

Many you will have seen the pattern formed by the predicted GB (not UK, as Northern Ireland missed off) political map compared to Maggie Simpson. I first saw this in a tweet dated 29th April.

This might not be the original, but it was certainly shared enough and predates the endless copycat tweets that went viral after the results came in, with @serialsockthief and @suffragentleman just two of many others who failed to acknowledge where they’d seen the original. Maybe they are unfortunate exhibits to pick on and perhaps they independently came up with the very same idea…

Whilst the Maggie Simpson thing is more comedic than visualisation, there was another example that really caught my attention. This astute piece of analysis by Vaughan Roderick, looks at the patterns of voting matching some of the traditional coal mining areas of the country.

Once again, this has been blatantly ripped off by others without the slightest hint of acknowledgement. @Amazingmaps and @Bowgroup should hang their heads in shame. Particularly as both were told who did the analysis and who should be attributed. Amazing Maps even faved the tweet telling them who the author was!

I appreciate there are character restrictions on a tweet but a follow up tweet with details of where the original came from is surely the least that can be done.

Data is your raw material, not your ideas

Back in January I claimed that I would be hitting the new year with plans for more frequent, smaller blog posts to offer ‘some practical tidbits most probably relating to quite narrow design considerations’. That lasted for about a week, so its certainly long overdue that I pick this back up.

The small nugget of advice I want to share today is about the relationship between your data and your vision.

Whenever we start a visualisation task there will inevitably be ideas that form in your mind about what this thing might look like. It will be a mental slideshow of different imagery comprising keywords, colours and forms, metaphors, maybe cliches, things that you’ve seen before, things that have inspired you and things that you’ve maybe worked on before.

There is no ‘perfect’ in visualisation: there are better and worse solutions but no absolute path to perfection. It is therefore important to embrace these instinctive reactions we have to the subject and task we’re working on. These mental manifestations inject imagination and creativity into our work and this is important, without question.

However, our ideas only act as initial possible signposts and they should only play the role of background inspiration. They cannot be the leader. We can’t afford to commit ourself to such a narrow aperture in our thinking.

Our ideas are not the raw material, the data is.

Take the example below. This is a piece I’m working on as a demonstration project to accompany the central workflow discussed in my upcoming book. The focus of the project is about the differing career stories of various movie stars. The tentative title is ‘Filmographics’ (that’s a clever wordplay combining films and infographics, in case you were wondering) and looks at the relationship between an actor’s career and the relative success of their movies in terms of critical reception and box office.

When I first had the idea, the very first image that formed was something like the sketch below, captured in my notebook on a particularly bouncy train journey back from London one evening. I had this vision of a forest of trees, with the height being the critical review, the size of the bubbles being the takings and the colours maybe representing the genre.


The reality, when using real data, was that a movie career is not organised in perfect intervals, with consistent reviews and takings: it is up and down, big and small, densely packed and then sparse. There are so many genres, and derivatives, that there aren’t enough colours to suitably distinguish each one. There are things from my initial idea that I can preserve going forward – and that in itself can be quite rare – but the initial idea of that neat forest was quickly shown up by the data to be redundant.


An important discipline you have to show as a data visualisation designer is NOT to be servant to just pursuing your initial idea (or even more starkly important, those of your client/customer). Early ideas and sparks of creativity are really valuable and, particularly as we become more experienced, our instincts are worth tapping in to. Just don’t be precious or stubborn, always maintain an open mind. Ultimately you need to be respectful to the shape, size and conversation emerging from your data. That is the true raw material.

“Good ideas are in abundance. We all have them. Implementations on the other hand, are not. I admire implementations far more than great ideas”, Julian Oliver

Talk slides from Tableau 2015 Webinar

It is always a privilege to be asked to give talks and this last week I’ve given two more at the National Audit Office as well as a webinar for Tableau. As many people like to have access to the slide content after each talk I don’t mind at all sharing them.

The focus of this talk is to give people a sense of the different aspects of data visualisation thinking. Separating thinking attributes from raw talent (design savvy, technical skills) I argue that these are fresh ways of thinking about data visualisation that can make such an enormous difference to your capabilities and output.

For people who have read through or attended some of my other recent talks (such as at the ACEhp conference or USF meetup) on the theme of ‘thinking’ about data visualisation, this slide deck has a similar structure but has been further refined and updated.

When 3D works

Earlier this week TheUpshot published a new interactive project visualising the ‘Yield Curve‘. Created by Gregor Aisch and Amanda Cox the work provides a “3-D view of a chart that predicts the economic future”.

It is a terrific piece of work because, as with any good visualisation, it makes understanding accessible, providing a visual explanation of a potentially (at least for me) complicated subject matter.

The most striking immediate feature is the initial 3D display. Whilst the project received lots of deserved praise online I am conscious that being positive about a 3D work might strike some as going against the grain: as we know, 3D is one of the reliable punching bags for visualisation angst. However, I thought it was important to explain why 3D doesn’t just work but is essential in this case.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 09.05.53

The first matter is that we have three dimensions of data. When we are lambasting 3D displays, the ire is usually focused on the use of 3D as purely decoration. This introduces an artificial axonometric or isometric projection creating unnecessary and unhelpful distortions to the task of interpreting, for example, the relative heights of bars or angles of pie chart segments. In the Yield Curve project we do have three dimensions of data: we have Year on the x-axis, the % Yield on the y-axis and the Yield Term on the z-axis.

The second reason why 3D makes sense here is not just that we HAVE three dimensions of data but that their relationship is critical to the analysis. How the % Yield alters across the different short- and long-term periods by year is the essence of the analysis. Whilst we could (and the interactive eventually does) decouple these variables to show a range of reduced, two-dimensioned displays, initially we want to get a sense of the overall undulations and contours of the connected dynamics of this relationship. And ‘getting a sense’ is key because you can’t easily or confidently read of the heights of the waves from the 3 axes, that is not the intention, but you do at least get an initial gist of the substance of the situation.

The third reason in support of this approach is perhaps the most important, and it comes down to this little guy:


Having this navigation sequence enables us to look around and beyond the 3D display. Having opened up with the big-picture 3D view next we will want to take different perspectives to observe the different slices of interest from each angle and have a better chance of reading the chart, not just feeling it.

This series of alternative displays is perhaps the crucial reason why something like the below still deserves the criticism for its use of 3D. Without the ability to move around it front on and side on we have to consume a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space.


As we click through the series of additional displays, we have seamless transitions pointing the camera at the sides of the chart and from above, looking at the 3 relationships individually. We also have further scenarios and comparisons to consider.




It is a very well considered, brilliantly executed demonstration of explanatory visualisation at its best and an example of when 3D really works.

Poll results: Let’s have a think about blue-pink

During the week I posted an article about some of the issues and options around using colour to represent gender (that is, the binary of Male or Female). I included a one-question poll to gather some insights about the attitudes out there towards the use of colour with gender:

Where do you stand on the blue-pink issue? If you were a designer about to assign colours to the gender values in your chart, what choice would you make?

Here are the results, after 126 responses (50 female, 76 male):


As you can see in the table and chart below, the real difference in thinking concerns the use of pink to represent females. Only 14% of women responded in favour of using pink to represent females, whereas 41% of men would use the blue and pink combination. 50% of women would use a completely different pair of colours.


I guess the main conclusion for me is: if you use pink to represent any female-related data in your visualisation work, almost 7 out of 8 female readers of your work might not be particularly appreciative of that colour association. We spend so much time discussing the issue of adjusting colour choices for the 1 in 10 (ish) colour blind readers, this use of pink finding would seem even more stark.