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Where to Start for Data Viz Novices

At the request of my mom, a school board member and budding data visualization enthusiast, I penned a long message of background and recommendations for those new to visualization design. This post includes a round up of my favorite things (books, blogs, and tools) and recommended reading. I'm sharing here in case others find it useful as well!

Data visualization is powerful, potent, mind-changing stuff: by visually presenting information (in well-designed ways) you can help people see your messages and data-centered stories.

Our brains (or more specifically, our amygdalas or "lizard brains") are tuned to start to recognize patterns visually and craft hierarchies in our minds based on how information is presented before we even realize we're interpreting information. Because of this, color, position, size, enclosure and other "preattentive attributes" are wonderful for communicating information clearly.

That said, data visualizations can also be either deliberately designed to mislead (unethical) or poorly designed and as a result mislead (unintentional but bad). Which is why anyone who does visual presentation of information, from finance to education to health researchers, should develop a basic understanding of data visualization design.

Starting from scratch? Read this first to see why data viz matters:

Data Storytelling: The essential data science skill everyone needs

Visualizations that Really Work (Harvard Business Review)

On pie charts & alternatives (once you started reading more on visualization, you'll find that most subject matter experts have disdain for pie charts, for good reason - best to understand that up front)

Want to develop your skills through a choose-your-own-adventure series of exercises on a specific topic? Chris Lysy's DIYDataDesign workshops have great packages that include suites of exercises, tools, and resources on specific topics, curated to facilitate self paced learning.

Looking to dig deeper? Explore these blogs (favorites are starred):


General data viz learning & tips:

Learning from redesign & critiques:

More technical:

And these books for learning the basics of good visualization design (personal recommendations - there are many others out there, but these make learning most accessible from my experience):

  • Good Charts: The Harvard Business Review Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations (Scott Berinato)
  • Storytelling with Data (Cole Naussbaumer Knaflic)
  • The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: the Do's and Don'ts of Presentation Data, Facts, and Figures (Dona M. Wong)

And if you're just looking for a nice coffeetable book, to be inspired by the great visualizations in the world, check out Knowledge is Beautiful (David McCandless) and The Visual Miscellaneum (McCandless) - or Information is Beautiful on the web for much of the same content. The Best American Infographics 2015 (Mara Popova) is also nice for visual inspiration and its explanations of why the examples included in the book work well.

Diving Deeper

Once you've been inspired and mastered the basics, you may want to dive deeper on specific aspects (color, position, infographic design) or explore more tools for developing visualizations. 

You can create beautiful things in Powerpoint and Excel (many of the viz experts I've cited above work primarily in those tools, with a heavy editing hand), but it can be useful to explore other options. Tableau for dashboard design, Piktochart for infographics, and Canva for social share graphics are three of my favorites. And if you can't afford the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) but are ready to go beyond templates, download Inkscape.

Data viz style guides are becoming more common to ensure a consistent look and feel for visualizations coming out of a given organization or publication. PolicyViz has a great list you could use as inspiration if you want to start holding everyone in your organization to a higher visualization standard. 

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