April 2, 2018

How to Be a Data Viz Wizard

What’s the Magic Power You Need to be a Data Viz Wizard?

No matter who you are, we all need professional role models to look up to. Designers are notoriously infatuated with their heroes. Some may gush about Paul Rand or Paula Scher, for example. Right now my design hero is Google’s Digital Marketing Evangelist, Avinash Kaushik. He’s never created a logo (to the best of my knowledge) and I doubt he knows his way around Adobe’s Creative Suite, but he inspires me all the time.

You see, while good information design is nice to look at, great information design visualizes data in a way that helps decision-makers ask the right questions. Because while data provides insights that can inform strong marketing strategies, you can’t get to the right information if you’re asking the wrong questions. That’s where Kaushik comes in. He is the wizard of data (dare I say the Wonderful Wizard of Data?) But he doesn’t “puke data” (his term, not mine), he asks insightful questions in order to get to the information that matters.  

I’m not here to go on and on about Avinash Kaushik (although I could.) I’m here to talk about the subject of his recent email newsletter. (Go ahead and click the link, then subscribe. Thank me later.) In it he makes a simple and pointed proclamation:

“Anyone can present complexity. It is the rare person that can do so simply.”

According to Kaushik, the benefits of presenting complex information simply are:

  1. Clear understanding by those in leadership roles;
  2. leading them to ask better, non-obvious questions;
  3. sparking a constructive conversation that could lead to the best solutions

Whether you use the 2x2 matrix Kaushik suggests (think of a SWOT analysis diagram) or something else, there is power in presenting information in a visual way. It forces simplification. You may be thinking, “Before I can visualize a problem, I have to simplify it first.” But I am saying the opposite. The attempt to visualize a complex problem will help you break it down into its simplest form. It will help you see what’s vital and what’s extraneous.

The Hinge Research Institute recently conducted a comprehensive study on the impact of high-visibility experts in the professional services marketplace that uncovered a key point in the business of persuasion. “When asked which characteristics persuaded them that a professional was an expert, well over a third of respondents reported that an individual’s ability to make complex topics understandable was what sealed the deal.”

It’s no secret that people process information differently from each other. Chances are you work with someone who simply can’t wrap their heads around a problem unless the information is presented in a visual way. So what do you do if you’re not a visual thinker? Good news—there are business-minded designers (for example, the awesome team here at Fifth Letter) who possess visual communication skills and the capacity to use that skill to help solve real problems and drive successful business outcomes. Or, to put it visually:

So, how do you find the people who aren’t just page decorators but instead have the business acumen to help you solve your problems and communicate them in a visual way? Start with a complex problem that has you stumped. Ask your prospects to quickly describe how they might go about simplifying it. If they can’t, they’re a page decorator. If they can, they are a strategic partner with the art and business skills to help you tell your story and find more value in the data you already have available. These are the strategic collaborators worth investing in and building relationships with.

Fresh Market approached us to explain their sustainability efforts in simple, engaging ways to their customers. We were able to take basic data points and translate the information in ways that use everyday objects and a grocery motif. This piece was shared in each store on Earth Day.

Photo of Jan

Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget.