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We Got Two Ds, but We Scored an A: More on the Mix of Data and Design

A nice audience joined us for our recent webinar “Data and Design: Learning the D’s of Visualization.” For those who could join, welcome back for a second take and some additional resources. If you weren’t able to make it, we’re almost as good as a rerun so you aren’t too late to catch up with the key points. Feel free to go straight to the presentation recording. It will take not even an hour of your time and will be a good investment. If you want the high-points first, though, read on.
  At the core, data is like any other type of content: you must have a purpose for making it part of what you are doing. This means starting from your goals and understanding what you want to achieve to see if a data element can help. Your goals for data, like with all content, will imply reaching particular audiences. You need to know them and understand them. None of the core principles of communications strategy and user experience change, and, given the potential complexities of creating data products, they arguably become even more important. In concert with serving organizational goals, data visualizations and like data products must also serve and enhance your organization’s brand. First and foremost this means ensuring your data products and elements convey your key messaging, in their unique way, and do so in a fitting tone. If your organization is focused on four messages and has a serious tone, use data to illustrate or complement those messages and design the data visualizations to be attractive but also serious. Use of brand colors, typography, and other styling will play into these efforts. With these foundational principles underlying your work, you can think about the specific data visualizations and related products you need to develop.  This is where the essence of creative + data sits. You need to honor your data by displaying it fairly, honestly, and clearly; but to get audiences to engage with it, absorb it, and take action based on it, you need the right amount of creative energy and ideas to bring the data alive. Balance is critical, but some of both creative and data will lead to maximum success. Remember that there are conventions and frameworks to help you and provide structures to support your creativity. In addition to understanding your goals, look at the data itself, making sure it is clean, credible, valid, and honestly supports your messages. Decide if a static visualization will support your needs or if a dynamic/interactive one would be better. Also, decide if you will explain the data to your audiences or if you will provide ways for them to explore the stories themselves. Last, for the actual charts, remember that humans have been using a number of common charts for a long time and they have conventional meaning (example chart of chart types #1 and example of chart of chart types #2). You can start with with one of a number, depending on your purpose, and get creative within that structure, or use one as a starting point for new directions. There are paths to follow and you should build on known success. During the webinar, we received a good question about what free- or low-cost tools are available to develop data visualizations. We don’t have direct experience with all of these, but pulled some that get multiple mentions or have come up in conversations. Here are some thoughts:
  • Excel is not free, but you may already have it anyway; if not Google Sheets works to a point. These will create boring, cluttered, and, possibly, problematic charts by default, but if you collect data, UX, and creative voices at the table and dig into settings and options,  you can do good work with these tools.
  • Tableau is a major dataviz tool, but there is a free Tableau Public version that provides some capability in a cloud environment.
  • Raw is a free web-based tool that allows you to create a wider variety of visualizations than the spreadsheets. You can then embed in your site. There is limited flexibility to get creative, but it might fit for some cases.
  • is another simple visualization builder on which you can graduate to deeper pro features.
  • Highcharts Cloud is a software-as-a-service version of the popular HighCharts chart builder library. The free service includes the usual limitations, but paid versions are not too expensive. The downloaded Highcharts software is free for non-profits.
  • Datawrapper is another simple tool that creates nice charts and maps.
  • Piktochart is an easy to use infographic creator.
The above are geared for the non-developer. For developers, there are many open-source tools out there. D3.js is our go-to. With this intro, now you have nothing left to do but watch to the webinar and learn more! For those of you in the Washington DC area, join us on September 27th from 6:00-8:00pm, for a free in-person follow-up workshop.  

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