My Data Family House Rules

Updated: Mar 9, 2019

There I was; blinded by the pulsating red and black darkness one can only see when their eyes roll all the way back into their heads. Looking back at my capsized irises was handmade pillow at a local consignment store with a crudely screen-printed list of “House Rules” in at least 7 different font types and somehow, 9 different colors. The text was misaligned and overlapped with such irregularity that I was sure the person crafting it was being chased at the time.


The seven rules proclaimed by this pillow were phrases of such grandiloquence, I immediately googled “synonym for an empty statement so obnoxious it triggers a gag reflex,” and grandiloquence was my favorite result.


“Laugh Every Day”

“Make Memories”

“Do what you love”


…I cannot go on, but you get the idea. My sardonic soul just could not take it. It was clearly a rip off from a million or so decorative signs, t-shirts, placemats, and whatever other junk people browse Etsy for on Mothers’ Day.


I reached down to turn it over so no other unsuspecting cynic would suffer so needlessly, hands trembling from restraining the urge to fling it out the nearest window. Thick chunks of the caked on multi-colored screen-printing paint cracked and scattered on the chair below like clown dandruff. I carefully turned over the pillow, only to find one final phrase. A collection of words that haunts me to this day;


“From Eric, To Grammy for my 6th birthday.”


A boy decided to make a present for his grandmother for HIS birthday. I held it out with both hands, blinking furiously to try make the words disappear.


“Sorry Sweetie, that one is not for sale,” a warm voice said from behind me. “My grandson made me that last year after my husband died; makes me smile every time I see it. There are a few other pillows over here that…” her voice was drowned out by the steady crescendo of dark voices in my head, “YOU MONSTER!”


Here I was internally roasting the work of perhaps the most altruistic child who has ever lived because he used cross-colors and was most likely too small to properly align the machine to print the words straight. Drenched from my shame shower, I gently placed the pillow back down and turned to face Grammy to offer my sincerest apology for the litany of offences she had not heard.


“It is beautiful” I mumbled sheepishly.


“Thank you Sweetie! I think he used too many colors, but the stitching is perfect.”


Completely forgetting that my wife and two children were somewhere else in the shop, I bolted for the door, hand firmly placed over my mouth to prevent the escape of a single syllable, knocking over stack of handmade baskets and almost trampling and elderly couple admiring a display of doylies.


About 7 minutes later my wife opened the passenger side door.


“What happened, Daddy?” my three-year-old daughter asked with her angelic voice.

Unable to control myself any longer, I burst into tears and exclaimed, “HE SEWED IT; ERIC SEWED THAT DAMN PILLOW WITH HIS TINY LITTLE HANDS AND SHE DOESN’T EVEN LIKE THE COLORS! WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS KIND OF TORTURE? WHAT DID I DO!?”


Raised brows and mouths agape, my family stood outside the open car door in silent shock. Deciding it was best I not drive in such a frenzied state, my wife took the keys from me. Not a word was said on the journey home. Did Grammy’s critique validate my maniacal internal monologue or were we both just the worst kind of people one could imagine being?

That night, I retreated to my office to find some solace on Tableau Public. Nothing is more calming to me than browsing through the portfolios of my favorite data artists. I was starting to relax as I scrolled down my Twitter feed when a ghost appeared. It was the very first viz I created for Tableau Public.



It is grotesque. Mix-match color schemes, uncited images, and no attention to formatting detail, yet this atrocity is still one of my favorite visualizations. I learned that more than 60% of all the threatened and endangered species in my home state are plants, and I wanted to share that revelation with everyone I knew.

I did not even notice the meticulous stitching on that pillow. None of the 30 or so people who saw my viz understood that the base of the food chain in my home state was under siege. By all accounts, Eric and I had failed.


But Grammy smiles every time she sees that pillow, and I still love my first viz.


As I reflected on that wild day, I decided to create a list of 5 rules that could guide me through future interactions not only with strangers in craft stores, but with my Data Family as well. Hopefully this list helps at least one other person avoid running out of a TUG meeting or live training session screaming like a banshee.


My Data Family House Rules


1. Our Community is like a Democracy; participation and value are directly correlated. Tableau Public, #MakeoverMonday, #WorkoutWednesday, Tableau Forum, #IronQuest, Tableau User Groups, #SportsVizSunday, #DataPlusWomen, and many more groups exist for you to share your work and to receive or offer feedback. However, please keep in mind that our leaders can only do so much, so pitch in and help carry the load!


2. Be kind but be direct. A million empty pats on the back can leave more bruises than one sincere kick in the butt. There are countless resources for giving and receiving feedback that can help. One of my favorite data artists, Josh Smith @data_poetry shared this great article that provides wonderful insight on the subject, https://medium.theuxblog.com/art-of-design-critique-e08a4e1ef13.


3. Civility is about respect, not love. You are bound to come across a visualization or another author that expresses a point of view on a sensitive topic that is completely diametric to your own. From my experience, there are few experiences more fulfilling than engaging with and ultimately helping your counterpart make the best viz they can.


4. Just Keep Vizzing. I have republished a viz on Tableau Public more than 200 times with various revisions, corrections, and even a couple complete redesigns over the past two years. The surest way to stop getting useful feedback is to ignore it. Failure only becomes defeat when you stop trying!


5. Cite your sources! Data, images, icons, and other works used for inspiration deserve recognition. This rule is not very fun but on the day you see your viz copied and pasted onto another profile or website without giving due credit, you will understand just how vital this is to maintaining a healthy community.


My sincerest thanks to all the amazing people of the Tableau Community that have guided and inspired me over the years. If I can leave you with one final lesson from my experiences, it is this; don’t miss the opportunity to appreciate the stitching just because you cannot see past the ugly paint.


And of course, thank you very much Eric and Grammy.

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