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Data Viz Lessons I Learned in Art School

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

The following blog by Jacqui Moore was originally published on Do Mo(o)re With Data August 11, 2022 and is cross-posted here with permission. Jacqui Tableau Social Ambassador and a Senior Data Analytics and Viz Consultant for Cleartelligence.

Before I was a data visualization consultant or an analyst, I was an art student. I want to share some of the lessons that, whether I knew it or not, have shaped how I approach my work.

I didn’t have my start in analytics. Honestly, when I was a college student, analytics, data science, and data visualization majors weren’t a thing, and analyst was not one of the jobs that were introduced as a possible career path (maybe I’m aging myself). I don’t know if 20-year-old me would have picked the major, anyway.

No, I started my undergrad time as an art major. For a long time, I thought my way to my data viz career was a bit roundabout and happenstance. As I reflect on it, though, so many of the things I learned in art school have helped me be a better data visualization designer, and, believe it or not, a better analytics professional in general. This is not to say I’m the best artist (I’m not) or the best data viz designer (not that either), but I think anyone can use these lessons to help their creative process and improve their designs.

I want to share some of the most important lessons that have stayed with me. These lessons aren’t learned in a book or in lectures. These are learned through hours of studio time, sketching, critiques, and discussions. And, they are lessons that I use (or at least try to remind myself of) regularly. Without further ado…

Constraints help you to be MORE creative, not less

I clearly remember this day in class, and I don’t even have a great memory — we were, for the first time, given very specific requirements for the size, medium, and topic of the piece that we were to deliver at the end of 2 weeks. We could do anything we wanted as long as it met these requirements and it could be done on time. Everyone grumbled, and there were many questions.

At this point, our professor gave a wonderful speech. I’ll badly summarize it here:

“Now that you don’t have to think about these things, you are free to do anything. We waste a lot of our creativity and brain power on these small decisions. If you can get that out of the way, your time and energy can be directed toward making the piece more meaningful and effective. Plus, if you want to do this for a living, you’re going to need to get used to constraints.”

You don’t have to take my word for it. As I’m getting ready to publish this post, I listened to the episode of Data Viz Today where the amazing information designer Stephanie Posavec discusses the same thing. If you haven’t listened to the episode, you should!

If you don’t have the constraints provided to you in the form of requirements and style guides, you can create it for yourself before you start design or development. It will be time well spent.

Sketch. Make a lot of bad stuff.

It takes making ugly stuff to improve your skills. You improve by practicing and experimenting. Some of that stuff will be bad, and that’s ok. Necessary, even.

You discover your own style, and voice by doing the work. As you do, you will also find more confidence and creativity.

It also takes making a lot of stuff to get to the good ideas. So build bad stuff. And sketch, so that you can make more bad stuff faster. That’s how you’ll get to the good one.

“When we say we need to teach kids how to “fail,” we aren’t really telling the full truth. What we mean when we say that is simply that creation is iteration and that we need to give ourselves the room to try things that might not work in the pursuit of something that will.” Adam Savage, Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life Is What You Make It

Find your inspirations

Look everywhere, and if you can, capture it. I used to keep a sketchbook full of magazine clippings, quotes, sketches, ideas, and pieces by my favorite artists.

Just the act of paying attention for these things will feed your creativity. And, most importantly, collecting things that you want to emulate or that inspire you will come together in unique ways because nobody else has the exact same set of inspirations as you. Think of it like finding the stars in the sky so you can make a constellation — something completely different from the source.

Plus, it’s interesting to have something of a time capsule of things that piqued your interest at a moment in the past. And you may just re-discover something that you weren’t ready to run with at the time, but now inspiration strikes.

“Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

Thinking and planning are part of the work

This is one of my biggest challenges to remember. These things don’t feel as productive as just doing the thing. But, it is. In fact, it’s like super-powering productivity later.

Will the observer know what went into the piece? No, ideally, they will have no idea. They may not know why, but they will see that thought and preparation went into the work.

Thinking about the outcome, possibilities, and potential issues. Using reference materials, sketching, iterating, prototyping, and planning. Exploring the data and the topic to understand the source data and the way that Tableau uses that data. These will all show in the final product. You will be better prepared to build a well-functioning, performant, and meaningful dashboard. But know when to stop preparing and start building… at some point, it can become a tool for procrastination.

Understand the principles

Having an understanding of the principles of data visualization and of design, and the study of work from those that came before you will make your work better.

Not because you will follow all of the “rules”. There is no one gold-standard design. It will always depend on the data, context, and audience, among other things.

You learn the rules so you can break them — consciously and artfully. The principles exist for a reason, and if you understand why a “rule” exists, you can decide when breaking it may be appropriate, and can defend that decision.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Pablo Picasso

The only way to really learn is to get your hands dirty

You have to do the work to get better. You can’t study your way to a deep comprehension of the lessons you are learning. You won’t really know the discipline or the tools you use unless you are out there working with the real deal.

Practice with different subjects, formats, materials, and techniques. See what’s out there, what you enjoy, and what you’re good at (they aren’t always the same). Learn about the challenges and the gotchas of your craft.

And then hone your craft in one or two to get better. (Don’t worry — You can still do the other ones later if you feel like it, they are still there.) This part may be controversial to some folks, but I believe using the same toolbox over and over allows you to discover your style and strengths.

If you aren’t busy trying to figure out how to do it, then you can figure out what works best. You can take your knowledge to any other set of tools you like, but you will grow more by pushing the limits of one toolset.

Less is definitely more

Give enough information to convey the story to the audience, not so much to distract or overwhelm. Does this element make the story more clear? Is it important for making another element work? No? Get rid of it.

If the viewer has a lot to take in visually, you have lost the ability to guide them to the story. It can make the viewer feel overwhelmed or confused, and people don’t like to feel this way — Especially if they aren’t an “art person” or, in our case, a “data person”.

Take away visual noise. Take away extraneous information. Take away until it makes it less effective. Put that one back, and then leave it alone.

Share your work. Get and give feedback.

Critiques are an integral part of the formal study of art. When you regularly have to hang your work on the wall for a whole class of peers and professionals to look at and give feedback on, it’s scary and humbling. But, everyone in the room is feeling the same way. It’s very vulnerable, sharing your work with others and being prepared to hear what they don’t like about something you’ve stayed up for days working on.

Then show it to your mom or your friends, just to build your ego back up enough to go back But seriously, the input of “laypeople” can give you a peek at what your viewers may struggle with.

You also have to give feedback. You feel like an imposter a lot of the time, but this peer-to-peer feedback is just as important as getting feedback from professors and professionals.

Learning to both give and receive feedback with the pure intent of helping someone to stretch themselves, learn, and improve… This was one of the most helpful aspects of formal study of art (Even if I didn’t feel like it at the time). It’s still something I struggle with but it is always valuable.


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