How We’ve Learned Data Viz, and Why You May Want To Do It Differently

What did you find was effective and what wasn’t?”Many responded that they hadn’t spent much time learning in a structured environment, but when they did, it was usually an online course (free & paid), one-off workshops, or part of a course in another degree program.

Here’s a short summary of the discussion:What was the MOST effective part of these classes?Learning about gestalt principles.

Studying fundamentals and then putting them into practice by creating visualizations.

Working through projects that can be added to a portfolio.

What was the LEAST effective part of these classes?Short, online courses that don’t have depth (no statistics or analysis).

Working on a visualization before figuring out the story or message.

Learning to build very custom visualizations since they tend to be expensive and inefficient.

What’s worked well when teaching data viz?Focus on teaching a design process (e.


, understand your audience, prototype ideas, and test).

Use sample data that is relevant to students to make the lessons more engaging and real — better yet, let students choose their own topic and data.

Teach critique and give a lot of feedback.

Try to follow-up with students after the fact to coach through real-life problems.

A Better Way to LearnI realized that we often try to learn data viz by fast-forwarding to the “fun” part of visualizing data (i.


practicing and examples), but that can feel like stumbling through a dark room.

By hearing from data viz practitioners as they look back on their journey, perhaps better advice for learning data viz would be to:1.

Learn the fundamentals.


Define your design process.


Put it into practice with real-life data.


Get lots of feedback.

A great way to do this is by collaborating with a more skilled professional.

For you eagle-eyed readers, you probably noticed that this was the second most popular choice in the survey about the best method to teach data viz.

It’s easy advice to look over — I honestly didn’t notice it right away— but it makes sense.

Learning is so much more efficient when you see everything in action.

The TakeawayWhile practicing was an essential part of my learning, I wonder how much time I could have saved if I had sought out a mentor first, rather than poking around by myself.

I could have found out sooner that data visualization is a process rather than the single act of making a chart.

By working with someone more experienced as you learn data visualization, you have the benefit of seeing the full process in action.

It also shines a light on what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can further focus on your studies.

If you’re not sure how to connect with a more skilled professional, join the Data Visualization Society, which has a very active Slack group — including channels specifically for newbies and teaming up.

They’re also working on implementing a mentorship program.

Join us! :)Thank you to the Data Visualization Society members for sharing your expertise, Martin Telefont for your original illustrations, and editors Alyssa Bell and Jason Forrest for your thoughtful polishing.

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