The Beginner’s Data Visualization Foundations

Episode 20: The Beginner’s Data Visualization Foundations

Here’s my take on what a beginner’s data visualization curriculum looks like. This is for data practitioners or aspiring ones who want to solidify their data visualization foundations and don’t know what they should be learning at this stage.

You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

What You’ll Learn in this Episode

  • Why we have so many bad charts
  • How I got interested in data visualization
  • My recommendations for data viz essentials
  • Which data viz tool to start with

Resources I Recommend on the Episode

The Essentials

  • Data Viz Like a Boss course
  • The Big Picture by Steve Wexler
  • Storytelling with Data by Cole Knaflic

How to Make Accessible Data Viz

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Episode Transcript

In this episode I’ll be sharing my take on what a beginner’s data visualization curriculum looks like. This is for data practitioners or aspiring data practitioners who want to get a solid foundation in data visualization and don’t know what they should be learning at this stage. 

If you think you already have the foundations, I still encourage you to listen to this episode so you can give me feedback on what you would change in this curriculum. Or perhaps you may find a gap in your data viz foundation and can fill that in before you listen to my next episode on how to build on this.

Most of us started our data careers at a time where we have one or more data visualization software at our disposal.

I still remember making my first charts on Excel and they honestly looked really horrible. This was before I was even a data practitioner, and it was thanks to Excel’s ability to make default charts with a couple clicks of a button that allowed me to put out horrendous looking charts into the world. 

You’ve probably had a similar experience or work with someone who has. I do believe that the root cause of why we still see too many carelessly made 3D charts today is because of how easily anyone, I mean ANYONE, with access to a data viz tool can quickly spit out these charts.

As a self-taught data practitioner, I didn’t focus on getting well-trained in data visualization. I learned how to make data vizzes in Python, R and Tableau, and then moved on to focus on the technical skills without putting much deliberate thought into how and why I create data vizzes.

It wasn’t until I was already a mid-level data analyst that I delved into the world of data visualization. I mentioned in my previous interview with Paulina that what got me to deep-dive into data visualizations was a workshop I attended led by Edward Tufte.

He came into town for a weekend and I got my boss to pay for my ticket and miss work to attend the workshop. 

I left the workshop with a whole new outlook on data visualizations. And I started to research more resources and books to dive into this world as much as I could. So in addition to reading Edward Tufte’s books, I also learned from Alberto Cairo (I recommend all his books), Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s famous book Storytelling with Data, and also learned from other experts in the field.

Learning from these experts, I found out that my competency in using a data viz tool had not been sufficient enough for me to create effective charts. Sure, I knew how to make all sorts of charts, but were the charts I was creating helping my audience answer important questions, were they the most effective way to communicate my message to them, and were they unintentionally misleading all of us?

These kinds of questions can haunt us but I was somewhat fortunate to be in a position at that time where my daily roles and responsibilities didn’t require me to create data visualizations often. It was actually a rare occurrence. Not because it wasn’t needed. I actually believed we were underutilizing data visualizations so my main focus at this time in my career was to prove to myself and those around me that data visualizations can help us understand patterns and insights from the data better. 

For some of you listening, maybe you are or were in this situation as well. Or perhaps you work in a team where you or others create data visualizations often, but maybe not the most effective ones and you want to know how you can fill this gap in your skill.

So for the remaining part of this episode, I’ll share ways you can do that.

The Data Visualization Foundations

  1. First, learn data viz essentials.
    1. The topics you want to make sure you cover are:
      1. How and why data visualizations can help understand data better
      2. How and why you should get to know your audience
      3. Understanding when and why to use common chart types
      4. How to choose the right colors
      5. Practices to avoid in order. This includes how to not mislead with your charts or the way you designed it
      6. How to get your audience to use data visualizations to make better decisions and take action
    2. I have a free course on my website called Data Viz Like a Boss that will teach you these essentials. I’ll link it in the show notes. It’s tool agnostic so you don’t need to know a particular data viz tool to take this course. But if you’re taking a data visualization course or reading a book about it already, you can make sure that it covers the topics I just listed. 
    3. The Big Picture by Steve Wexler is a short and straightforward book that recently came out. I highly recommend this for both data and non-data professionals. If you have peers or a manager that you think needs to know these data viz essentials, this is a good book for them as well. 
    4. The Data Viz Catalog is a free website that you can bookmark and reference to learn about different chart types and when to use which one.
  2. Then you want to learn how to tell a story with data visualizations. I recommend reading Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. There’s also a workbook version you can get after you read this book to implement what you learn.
  3. How to make your charts accessible to your audience members. I have a blog about this and will have an episode on it as well in the future. It’s really not that much extra work for a beginner or anyone for that matter to do, and I firmly believe that when you make your data visualization accessible, you actually improve the experience for everyone. 
  4. By now you’re wondering, “what about the tool itself?” And I usually get asked which data viz tool is the best one to use. I understand where this question is coming from because now we have a lot of data viz tools. When I was first learning data visualizations, I didn’t have that many options as we do now. It seems like every month a new competitor comes out.
    1. The honest answer is: it doesn’t really matter. Choose the tool that you have easy access to. Each person will have different constraints. You may not be working or a student right now so you have to work with whatever is the most affordable or accessible to you. If you do work, you may be restricted to use whatever tool your employer has invested in getting licenses for. Same thing if you’re a student. But don’t let that make you believe you can’t make effective charts. As long as these tools can still allow you to make the basic charts, you’ll figure out a way to make it work with the data viz essentials you learned. 
    2. The other thing I noticed several of my students and followers worry about is what if a new employer or client works with a different data viz tool. Once you know one tool, it’s easier to pick up another tool. It’s not that hard and you’re probably overthinking it, so cross that bridge when you get to it. 
    3. Once you select this tool, take a beginner-level course or read a beginner-friendly book on it. Btw, some of these tool-specific courses may cover data viz essentials I mentioned at the beginning. If they do, please let me know which one you took because that, to me, is a sign of a thoughtfully designed and comprehensive data viz course.  But just because a data viz tool course doesn’t cover the essentials doesn’t mean it’s a bad course necessarily. Keep in mind instructors have constraints and there’s only so much you can fit into one course. I do training for Tableau for Pearson on O’Reilly but because of the time limitations and depending on the course topic, I often don’t have time to cover everything.  This is why my Data Viz Like a Boss course doesn’t teach you a specific data viz tool. Otherwise my course would be focusing a lot on how to do things on a tool vs. focusing on teaching you  the concepts and essentials for data viz that you can apply with any tool you use. 

Everything I’ve mentioned today will be listed in the show notes, so you can go to my website and go to this episode’s shownotes to grab all the resources I recommended.

I know that many of you don’t have a ton of time on your hands, so I tried to include what I thought were absolutely necessary for a beginner data vizzer to cover. There’s a lot more to explore and dive into, once you have covered the basics I’ve outlined in this episode. And I’ll be talking about that in the next episode, so be sure to tune in again!