“The skills required for most effectively displaying information are not intuitive and rely largely on principles that must be learned,” says Stephen Few in his excellent book “Show Me the Numbers.”
But there is a problem: Some of the skills can only be learned by practice. Knowing what makes a purely functional chart doesn’t teach you about human psychology and the need to engage as well as inform. Experience of failure and success, learned early on, teaches you as much as books.
Unfortunately, I see many people intimidated by other experts and fearful of getting involved. They feel like they need to reach a high bar before they get going (see the comments on this post as an example).
I’d rather people get going the moment they know the bare minimum, then learn by doing as they go.
In 2012, Simon Rogers, now data editor at Google, advocated a punk ethic to data journalism: “Anyone can do it.” Knowing just three preattentive attributes doesn’t mean you’ll make great pieces of work, but it gets you started and brings about more benefits than problems.
I started making charts as an analyst at the University of Oxford. My first charts were pretty poor. They didn’t change the world as I expected they would. However, being able to see something for the first time was enough for my colleagues to say, “Well, that’s OK, but instead of the data shown like that, I’d rather see it like this.”
Together, we then iterated and worked together to build dashboards which worked for everyone. The punk approach enabled prototyping. I learned at the same time as the academics.
Sharing your early work creates virtuous feedback loops. #MakeoverMonday, the community-led data-visualization project running throughout 2016, proves this. In the project, we share a new chart and its data each week and ask people to remake the original chart. There have been over 3,000 makeovers from nearly 500 people.
The punk side of the project lets people grow.