The formula for doing Dataviz

by Dec 5, 2017

Last October, the South African M&E Association (SAMEA) invited me to deliver my first keynote, and it was a beautiful experience and a great conference, and I had a lot of fun.

I’ve always thought about how important Visual Thinking (exploring or understanding things visually in your mind) is, and how it is necessary to do Data Visualization. And while I was facilitating a pre-conference workshop on “Purposeful Dataviz for M&E” I thought that for producing visuals, you need two “muscles”: one is the one of seeing things visually (Visual Thinking), and another is the action of translating what you see in your brain (sometimes it may be blurry in your head) into something the others can see (Visual Making).

Therefore, this could be the formula for how to do Data Visualization:

In my opinion, once you have the Visual Thinking muscle trained, the other will easily come along. What I mean is that, if you see it (in your head), you will find a way of putting it writting and sharing it, either scribbled in a napkin or in your notebook, or in Powerpoint or other program – even if it is aesthetically more rudimentary than what you see inside your head.

Now for awakening the Visual Thinking: I often witness how infectious it is – for those visual people out there, who still haven’t realized about how they relate to this visual language, once they become aware of it, there is no way back. Once you discover it, your way of learning and communicating will slowly but definitely change, to more visual-based… Or at least that is what happened to me in 2011, and what I have witnessed in my Evaluation practice and real life too, sharing this passion with others.

While there are loads of literature talking about Data Visualization and Neuroscience, there is no much literature about Visual Thinking per se. For me, Visual Thinking is the practice of wondering how something could be presented in a visual way, instead of explained with plain text. It is the creative and amazing journey driven by that question.

As for the Visual Making, this part normally requires software technical skills, though I eventually even take pictures from my handwritten notes that I include in my reports without digitalizing them.

In the future, I hope to progress and learn how to use new tools (like D3) any year soon, but for now, these are the programs I usually go to for translating what I have in my head into something shareable:

Because what I tend to visualize is usually qualitative information (because that is what I find more fascinating), I do not use Excel extensively. And though I really like Adobe Illustrator for the outstanding possibilities it offers (notably, being able to place elements in different layers that you can punctually hide or block is one of the more convenient features for me), but I am finding myself using more and more Powerpoint these days – just because sometimes is easier and there are few things that couldn’t be done in Powerpoint (and many probably in Excel or even Word? too). After all, most infographics are predominantly done out of boxes, circles, backgrounds, lines and some text, of course.

Now, making visuals you actually like and feel proud of may take some time to practice and try things out that many times don’t end up nailing it… Welcome to the club. But eventually, the more you practice, good internal (and external) validation feelings happen more and more often. The process is iterative, not linear, and possibly never the same for new visual challenges you ask yourself.

I would describe this creative process like this:

So this is how I see the process of learning how to do Dataviz.

Does this resonate? What is yours?

And to finalize, in case anybody is wondering how to move forward with the muscle training, here is a matrix with potential scenarios and some very simple tips on how to go to the Visual Gym! Cheers! 🙂

New posts coming up:

(published every two weeks 🙂 )

  • Ideas for more visual Tables of contents
  • How to present Realistic Evaluation Findings
  • Mapping Evaluation Criteria along Project Cycle
  • Mapping Evaluation Phases
  • Unintended Outcomes parameters
  • My rubric of Good Dataviz
  • Visualizing the Efficiency criterion
  • Other ways of visualizing Regressions

And more!

Stay tuned! 🙂

You want to see more Visuals?