What happens when two data visualization podcast hosts get together? They just keep talking and talking and talking. When Alli Torban, host of the Data Viz Today podcast, agreed to come on the show, I just knew it would be a great conversation. We cover a ton of ground here and if you want to get more Alli’s take, download her episode of this same podcast episode!

Just in case you don’t know, Alli Torban is an Information Design Consultant in Washington, D.C. where she specializes in helping researchers increase engagement with their work. Alli’s the host of the popular podcast Data Viz Today, and she’s especially known for her science-inspired patterns (although her favorite hobby is reading endlessly to her two young daughters).

Episode Notes

Alli on the web: Twitter | Website | DataVizToday Podcast

Michael J. Fox Foundation

ProCreate (ipad app)






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Episode #27: Dear Data

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, I have the one and only Alli Torbin joining me on the show. If you listen to DataViz podcasts which you must because you’re listening to this podcast, you probably know Alli from her podcast Data Viz Today. And so, I invited Alli over to talk about her own work, talk about her background. We talk about her data art, her data patterns, her illustrations; and we sort of have this plan to talk a little bit more about what DataViz will look like going into the future, but we ended up talking about a whole slew of things. We talked about tools, we talked about DataViz generally, we talked about our approach, we talked about our processes, we talked about our day to day lives, and what it means to sort of do all this DataViz work. So really interesting conversation, this same episode is being posted over on the Data Viz Today podcast, so you can listen to it here, you can listen to it over there to get a different opening, different introduction from Alli. It’s a really interesting conversation, I hope you’ll enjoy it, so I’m just going to get right to it. So here’s my conversation with Alli Torben, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Jon Schwabish: Hey Alli, very excited for this Data Viz Today PolicyViz podcast joint production. How are you? 

Alli Torben: Good Jon. 

JS: We put this off for a long time, so I’m glad we’re able to do this. So we have a kind of unique plan, I think, so we’re going to ask each other a question, relatively same question, and then we have a plan for a longer discussion. 

AT: Yes. 

JS: Okay. So let’s talk, I want to go first, ask you about your day to day as a DataViz freelancer, blogger, podcaster, illustrator, like, all these, you’ve got all these different things, so what does your day to day look like, I mean, maybe pick like your busiest day, what does that look like? 

AT: Okay. So I’m a freelance information designer, DC area, just like you, which means I work on contracts that last anywhere between a couple of days to a few weeks to a few months, small businesses, big businesses, and I just help them communicate visually. I feel like that’s the best way to describe it, since, like you said, there’s a wide variety of things. So depending on what kind of client I’m working for, like, recently, I did a infographic for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and that was visually showing an idea, a process, and I illustrated that, so when I do illustration type things, I’m using my iPad and Procreate, and then I go back and forth between my computer and my iPad. And then I do traditional data visualizations also, so another project that I worked on was for a large company, a big retailer visually showing, with Tableau, interactive dashboard about all their inventory. So it’s a very similar but different skill set. And then I’m also working for Ben and Becky Jones at dataliteracy.com, and helping them communicate data literacy concepts to a wider audience; so I’m blogging, I’m writing, I’m illustrating a comic for them to show data literacy concepts. So that’s kind of my day to day, it’s all over the place using different tools, but the underlying thing is that I’m helping people communicate visually with data and information. 

JS: Do you have one of those that you prefer over the other, like, you had your series on the wallpaper which I love, and I just like, that’s sort of like the huge spectrum of possibilities, like, from data comics illustration to infographics, like a Tableau dashboard. There’s something like, what makes your heart happy. 

AT: Yeah, that’s a great question, because there’s things that I can do for money like good money, and then there are things that I can do that is more, I guess, meditative is the right word, because I picked up the illustration stuff because I’ve always been kind of interested in it. But during when the pandemic first started, I was getting a lot of anxiety, and I discovered illustrating was – on my phone, I downloaded the Procreate app on my phone, and creating these little illustrations, the DataViz inspired wallpapers was a really great way for me to not be sucked in by doomscrolling on Twitter, having panic attacks watching CNN. So it really became a meditative practice for me creating illustrations, and that’s when I really get lost and I lose track of time, and I really feel fulfilled after I create an illustration or some sort of data art piece. And I think I’ve been trying to find a way to bridge the gap between meditation and communication, like, communicating visually in those two ways, how do you kind of bridge that gap where someone would pay me to create an illustration. Right? So you got to find a way to use illustration as a way of communication. So if I had to choose a favorite, I think this kind of data comic thing I’m doing for data literacy is really a beautiful marriage between the two; it’s me illustrating which I love to do, storytelling, but also communicating important information to people that can have an impact. So that’s what I’m really loving doing right now. 

JS: That’s great. Are you a comic book reader? 

AT: No, I’m not. 

JS: Why not? 

AT: No, not at all, not at all, which is very funny. I think other than XKCD, I don’t really read comics, but it is an amazing field. I went to the library and just took out all the books they have all the comics, and they have – I mean, I’m sure you know that it’s a very rich field that I can learn from, but yeah, I wasn’t really a big comic reader beforehand. 

JS: Yeah. Well, I’ll just say to wrap this session up, so I remember seeing Scott McCloud at the first Tapestry Conference give the closing keynote, and you remind me of it because Ben Jones was also there, and I think we sat next to each other. And Scott McCloud’s closing keynote was one of the most amazing talks I’ve seen live, and his book is just, for me, it was eye opening to see, oh, there’s like a science behind this, the way you do it. And the way he presented was both, like, his slides sort of ran horizontally, and then they ran vertically, because he’s sort of telling these stories through the comics, and the comics don’t always run in the panel, like, left to right, A-B-C-D, and they can run in different dimensions, and he did that within the presentation. Okay, so before I flip that, let me then ask this, so when you think about these comics, are you thinking like a linear storytelling, or, are you really – because that’s, I think how we think about DataViz is like this line goes up, but you have more freedom with the comics, so like, do you change your thought process with stories? 

AT: Yeah, it’s Scott McCloud has many books, and I skimmed through many of them from the library, and one of the things that he – one of the techniques he suggested was, you write out, you know, you have your main plot storyline, the intro, and then you have the conflict and the resolution. So you have to think in those terms, like, general storytelling terms. But then you also have to think about what you’re going to show visually, what you’re going to show with words, and then what you’re going to show as a combination of the two, and then what view you’re going to show within each frame, how much time you’re going to skip within each frame. So it is very complex, and, in my mind, I don’t have that much experience doing it, but the way that I find myself thinking about it is almost like in snapshots of time. So here’s the quick view, here’s what I’m trying to communicate visually and through words in this snapshot of time. Then what am I going to show in this snapshot of time? And how am I going to do it very efficiently? So it’s within a page. So what I like to do is write out all the information I need to convey in this, and then what the story is going to be like, the character’s doing things to convey that information. And then, I go back and I circle the things that I’m going to show visually, and then the things I’m going to show with words and with both. So you do have to think quite differently than you do when you’re creating a data [inaudible 00:08:57]. 

JS: That sounds like a lot of planning. 

AT: Yes, it is, it’s very front loaded with planning. And, just like a podcast, right? 

JS: Yeah. We don’t even need to get into all that, yeah. 

AT: We do a lot of planning and scripting and editing and everything, and then you get the 20 minutes’ beautiful package at the end. 

JS: I mean, you don’t just like flip on the microphone and do a podcast and you’re done. 

AT: Yeah, so that’s my day, if I may. Now, hear about your day, because I think you are in our super unique situation where you are doing your own research, creating your own data visualizations for your research, but then also, like, a whole another side career of helping other people get better at their data visualizations. So what does your day even look like? 

JS: Yeah, it’s a little crazy, so I’ve got an almost full time job, so I’m not quite 100% at the Urban Institute. And at Urban, I split my time, so half of my time is doing research, and half of my time is in the communications department. So it’s an interesting split, a lot of people ask me, like, why don’t I just do PolicyViz consulting stuff full time. But I really still identify as a researcher, as an economist, and I really like working not only with the people that I work with at Urban, but also just like on those topics that are really important. Right? A lot of the work I’ve done during the pandemic was on nutrition issues. So like, how do we feed kids from low income households who, when they’re in school, they participate in the school breakfast program, or the school lunch program, and they get – that’s how they’re getting meals. What do you do when there is no school, like, how do you get food to these kids, and how do we do so efficiently and within budget, and lots of different questions. And then I’ve been doing a lot more research over the last six months or so on disability issues. So it’s an issue, a topic here that I worked on a lot a few years ago, and it’s sort of gotten a little quiet on the policy front, and now it’s sort of come back. There’s a lot of questions, obviously, on sort of the social security side of things, which is where I spent my early career working on. And now where I’m finding is this discussion of the intersection between people with disabilities and food insecurity – so how do we look at those two topics together? But then there’s the whole DataViz side of things, and I would say there’s a lot of overlap between the stuff I do at Urban and the stuff I do at PolicyViz. So it’s a lot of same sort of thing that you mentioned, a lot of consulting, I’d say that more recently, I’d say, especially during the pandemic, it’s been a lot of like critical reviews for people in organizations, which I really have come to enjoy. So they’ll say, look, we have this internal report, or we have this series of web pages, or we have this Tableau dashboard, can you give us feedback. And so I’ll go through and sort of basically write up a report, and I have a kind of a system set up for that. So like, I have a kickoff call, so I can understand, I think you and I probably see eye to eye a lot of this, like, it’s one thing to be like, can you critique our dashboard or our visualization or our infographic or our comic, right? But like, if I don’t know, what you’re trying to get across, or who your audience is, or what the most important data points are, it’s like critiquing a visualization just for the sake of critiquing it isn’t particularly useful. I say that even though I’ve been doing these DataViz critiques on my YouTube channel. It’s more important to get that audience piece, I think, is the most important part. 

AT: I had no idea that that this whole critique thing was a, I don’t know, a business. 

JS: Yeah, and it’s great, because what I really like about it is it empowers the organization and the people in the organization to be better at their visualizations in going forward. So they could hand something to me and say, here’s a bunch of data, can you make something for us. And yeah, I could do that, my basic toolkits, I think as most people know, is like Excel, R and Tableau, and I’m by no means an expert in Tableau. So usually, I’ll call up another Tableau person to help me with the Tableau stuff. But I actually like the critique part, because I can say, look, let’s examine this particular visualization, and here’s what I would do differently, here’s where you’re not telling the right story. And once we have, like, I’ll deliver the report, and then we’ll have a long call, and what it does is empower them to say, oh yeah, okay, I can see why this one thing that Jon mentioned is a better way to do it; and then they can carry that forward into all their other work. So I find it really rewarding, because – what is that saying, it’s like, teach a person to fish, give a person, whatever it is… 

AT: Yeah.

JS: Yeah, you know that saying, give a person a fish, and I read something a couple of weeks ago that it’s not just about teaching someone to fish, but it’s also teaching them to fish and giving them the fishing rod. So you need to give them the tool, so, as an example, I’m working with a client that does – they’re private sector, they do reviews on pension programs. And so, I can discuss their visualizations and what I think is good and bad about these visualizations. But we had long discussions early on about the way that they were presenting them in these long PDF decks was cumbersome, it was difficult to move the data from one thing to another. And so, we talked about lots of different toolkits, and they ended up, through a long conversation we had, they ended up going to Flourish, they’re using the Flourish tool. And so, what they can do with Flourish is they can basically create kind of a stepper. So it’s kind of like a [inaudible 00:14:45] stepper or a slide deck, but it’s in Flourish, it’s interactive. So they get sort of these additional components, and so they have this new toolkit. So it’s not just about saying this bar chart would be better off as some other chart, but it’s also saying, this bar chart would be the better off as a line chart; and it would be better if you didn’t, you know, weren’t doing, I don’t know, the small multiples in Excel, because you’re doing 40 of them and you’re updating it every week, that’s not an efficient use of your time, let me show you how to do this in R or do it in Tableau, or let’s figure out how to do it in Flourish. 

AT: Yeah, that’s a really interesting combination, if it’s like strategy, training, and delivering a product.

JS: Yeah, and at the end of the day, it’s like, they’re still going to create it, I’m not going to, you know, I can help them create it, but they’re going to do it. And so, once our relationship ends, I hope that they’re sort of off on their own and ready to go. 

AT: How do people find you to do that work, or like what, if somebody wanted to get that work done, what kind of words are they searching for, you think? 

JS: That’s a really good question, and like, I bet if we had like Cole Knaflic on chatting with us, she would know the best marketing, I’m really terrible at that. But I think, as you’ve probably experienced too, as you put out content, and you say, I mean, I think I’ve been trying to focus on this word critique a little bit and redesign and empowering, and I think there’s just, like, there’s keywords around data and DataViz and data communication, I mean, I find a lot of my work comes through word of mouth. And I have, especially through my work at Urban, where I do similar sorts of things, but Urban has, because it’s a nonprofit and nonpartisan nonprofit, has some specific funding principles so like – so this is sort of the weird split – firms that don’t fall under those funding principles that’s where I’ll do the PolicyViz work, so that’s sort of the split. But I’ll do work for research programs, where they’ll have a cohort of research teams that they’re guiding through, and a lot of these programs through different funders and different universities, they’re teaching, especially young scholars, DataViz and presentations, and how to write, and how to communicate, and how to talk to the media. So there’s all these different pieces, and how to do research, how to do better your statistics and your progressions and your mapping and whatever it is. And so, I’m often just a component of these programs that are being put together, and so I’ll do one for a university of such and such, and then university of so and so will email me and say, oh I heard that you’re doing this program. So I mean, that’s the best, right? I mean, I’m sure you’ve had this experience, like, that’s the best feeling, when someone emails you and say, oh I heard from so and so that you do a great thing, we’d like to bring you on. I feel like that’s better than like, I saw your website or I saw this thing, do you do this. It’s like… 

AT: Yeah, they’re a little bit more committed to the relationship rather than, hey, are you going to be cheap. 

JS: Right, exactly. Yeah. And so the days are a bit hectic, I would say – I would say the one thing about the pandemic that has been a little bit advantageous workwise, not like work balance wise, work life balance wise for sure, but like not having my hour commute into DC, I can jump on the email at 7:00 a.m., and bang out 30 minutes of email, and then go and work out or get the kids to wherever they have to go, and then sort of come back. So there’s that like early morning part where my workflow is just like, I like to kind of bang some easy, like the low hanging fruit stuff, bang that out real quick, and then get into the rest of the day. So I don’t know how things will change for me once the world opens back up and I’m back in the office, and kids are back in school, hopefully, crossing fingers, let’s see. 

AT: Do have another book planned, because it seems like writing a book is so much work – I don’t know why anybody does it actually, I mean… 

JS: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s like owning a house, like, you just bought a house, like, it’s the same thing, like, why does anybody ever buy a house, it’s just like, yeah… 

AT: More headaches, but I do love your book, it’s kind of like the, I don’t want to say dictionary, but almost like a dictionary for DataViz where you can just go in and get some inspiration, understand better data visualizations is what we’re talking about. And it’s really great that you can get inspiration, but also learn about the chart type and see examples. So I can tell that it took so much work to put together. 

JS: Yeah, and funny that before we got on this call I was emailing with my editor, because we’re like fixing some typos, and have to go through back through some images and like renumber them. Yeah, thanks, the book I think turnout longer than I thought it was going to be, but yeah, it is that sort of encyclopedia of graphics. I have a couple of ideas for my next book, but I don’t have the energy. You know how it [inaudible 00:19:50] but actually I’m going to turn this back to you. So do you see a book in your future, and specifically, I’m wondering, do you see like a DataViz comic book in your future? 

AT: Maybe, yeah. I have to talk to Ben about that. 

JS: Yeah, I mean, I just like – I can’t think, like, XKCD seems like the only one that will be even close. 

AT: Yeah, there are actually… 

JS: I mean, there are drawing ones.

AT: Yeah, more like funny.

JS: Yeah.

AT: Like puns, DataViz with puns. 

JS: Right. 

AT: Ryal-Real.

JS: Yeah, right, that one… 

AT: [inaudible 00:20:27] but yeah, I think that if I were to do something, I think I should, I think maybe you can give me some advice on this. But if I’m going to make a book, it should be one of the topics where I feel very motivated, and I enjoy doing it. And I think from your earlier question, what’s the kind of work that kind of gives me the most joy, that kind of thing is the thing. So I think if I were to do a book, it probably would be around something where I could do a lot of illustrations. 

JS: Yeah. I mean, I think the key is to, for me, at least, it’s something that gives you joy, because you’re going to spend a year or two writing it, and like, you don’t want it to be like something that you hate; and something where you have, you know, I think it’s like where you have something to say, and where you can add value to people, especially in our line of work, you add value [inaudible 00:21:18] how they’re going to do their DataViz work. And I think your comic stuff and your illustration is just more generally like, I think those have those elements to it. Right? First off, it gives, well, I will just speak for myself, it does give me joy to see those wallpapers. It’s just great. But I think you have things to say about DataViz and the process and how people do their work, and so, there’s value there. And I think to help people do their own DataViz, I think there’s a niche there that I think you can fit into. But I would say, for anybody thinking about writing a book, be prepared. 

AT: You have to really love the topic. 

JS: Really love… And be organized, that’s the other thing is like, and I have on my little index card, here’s like my day to day index card of list, it’s like organize all the images from my book. Because I have the full list, and then some were edited, and then there were typos fixed, and they’re just, they’re all over the place, and they’re not in one directory. I try to be organized, and stay organized. 

AT: You do a lot of managing of files.

JS: Yes. 

AT: Well, I really loved hearing about your day, because I was always wondering kind of how you balanced all your stuff. But I also have a second burning question I really, really want to talk to you about. So I was listening a little backstory, listening to a podcast called the Business of Authority, and they were talking about one of the hosts is a web developer, and he was talking about how some careers have expiration dates, because you get your career so wrapped up in a particular tool that eventually tools go out – what is it that Jeff Bezos I think, quotes where he said, someone asked him, what do you think is going to be different in 10 years, and he was like what’s not going to be different in 10 years. 

JS: Right. 

AT: And so, as a DataViz designer, everybody wants to talk about tools. Right? And everybody thinks it’s kind of about the tool. And I was thinking, well, how am I going to most efficiently future-proof my career, and kind of what are the other skills that are super important for me to be focusing on honing, not like getting secondary, but focus on honing, so when Tableau – sorry, I don’t want to name any names, but like, any tool really, any tool goes… 

JS: Any of them, yeah… 

AT: Goes out or people move to the next tool. Right? 

JS: Right. 

AT: What are the skills that are going to make me be a successful DataViz designer right now on Earth or 10 years from now on Mars? 

JS: It’s a great question because, like, if we think about our current toolkits from Tableau to Excel to JavaScript to Flourish, whatever the tools are, eventually, augmented reality, virtual reality are going to be a thing. Right? I mean, I think to date you sort of like, it hasn’t quite worked, I mean, may be some of the augmented reality like the weather channel where they have the water flowing up, but that’s going to be a thing, and I have no idea, I’m not going to go learn virtual reality tools, I just don’t see that. But I think the core of communicating data will still be similar, like, the central tenets of like, how do you communicate your message, how do you explain to people how to use different graphs. And so, I guess, my question to you would be like, in terms of a lot of the stuff that you’re doing, because it’s illustration, I feel like the illustration will always have a place, and I feel like we have this real run up on like digital tools, and then there was this big pullback or, I guess, pushback really, from a lot of different parts of the field to say, why can’t we just do more drawing. Right? And it’s like, you and XKCD is an example, and Stephanie and Georgia doing your data and data sketches, and there’s just like a lot of projects. So do you think even 10 years from now, when you’re on Mars, that illustration and sketching will be such a central part of the field? 

AT: Yeah, I do. I think that people drew in caves. 

JS: Yeah. 

AT: You want to be able to write things down and show people things visually, and where I think, no matter what your tool set is, like, if you’re holding a pen in your hand, or you are neck deep in JavaScript, the skill of being a partner with the person with information is kind of the big skill.

JS: Yeah.

AT: Like, my first job out of college was a business analyst, and I was helping gather requirements for software development. And at first I was like, I cannot believe this is a job. I didn’t know this was a job. But there has to be someone who’s talking to the client, figuring out what they want to do, writing down the requirements, and then talking to someone who knows the tool and translating that into a solution. So there’s the tool part, which is we were talking about, but I think as the tools change, the person who is coding things up, they lose a little bit of value, if somebody changes the tool, randomly, like they have no control…

JS: No control of that, right. 

AT: But the skill of knowing how to draw that information out of a client and translate it for a technical person, I feel like that’s the skill. What do you think? 

JS: Yeah. I think so. So I’ve said for a while, I think we agree on this, that there’s not like a person that can do all of this, that can do the data work and the design, and the, I guess, computer science or building the visualization, there’s all these different pieces of it. And I’ve sort of said for a while, like, the goal for us as individuals is not to be able to do all of that, like, the unicorn – that we need these teams, and my instinct is that that will become even more the case as the technology and the tools become more complicated, become more intricate, when we think about different platforms. Like, we went from a world where it was printing on the newspaper to printing newspaper and on a computer, to printing a newspaper, desktop computer, phone, tablet. Now we’re going to start adding virtual reality, augmented reality, whatever the other communication devices are, so that platforms change and are going to evolve. And I just – my instinct is that teams are going to be just so much more important in the future, which we could discuss, I think, for a long time, like, how is that going to work in a post pandemic world of a mixed hybrid, in-person, virtual world. That’s like a different discussion. But to your point about the key is how to draw those insights, and then how to communicate them. I still think teams are going to be so crucial to that. 

AT: What about – I guess we’re just talking about being generally a good consultant. Right? 

JS: Yeah. 

AT: Like, knowing which questions to ask, which you don’t need to have expertise, which maybe you got by having a tool, by knowing a tool and having experience with it. So you have expertise which means that you know which questions to ask when you’re talking to somebody. So that means if you hone your skill on translating your expertise into questions, then it doesn’t matter what tool you use.

JS: Well, again, it sort of depends, but I would say the tool itself matters less than the crucial thing that you just mentioned, which is this translation. Right? And how do you know what are the right questions to ask, and how do you find that insight? Because at the end of the day, for example, if I had a client that said, we want you to critique this, and I give them all this feedback, and they say, okay, you’ve convinced us that we should go to a Tableau solution or we should go to a comic book solution, can you do that for us. And I would say, well, no, but I can call my friend Alli, and she and I can work together, and we can work amongst the two of us, and Alli can draw the comics for you, and then we can deliver that back to you. And so, again, I don’t think it’s the tool specific, I always try to be tool agnostic; and hopefully people have seen that in the Better DataViz book that like, my goal in all those images, I used so many different tools in that book, like, I did my like real first stuff in JavaScript, I did a lot of R, I did a lot of Tableau, I did a bunch of Illustrator, I did raw graphs, I did data wrapper, I did a lot in Excel, like, I used all those tools. And hopefully, when you read the book, you can’t really tell which tool was used to make this, except I will admit that the matrix does look very Tableau, like, that’s the one.

AT: It’s hard not to. 

JS: And I ran out of energy by the time I got to like, you know, it’s like a 15 by 15 grid, and I didn’t feel like just doing all the hard work, like, it was so easy in Tableau. So like [inaudible 00:30:54] the Illustrator and just kind of be done with it. Because it doesn’t really, and I know lots of people disagree with us on this, because there is the Tableau camp and the R camp and the Python camp, [inaudible 00:31:05] but I just think a tool is a tool, and if you’re a shop that uses Microsoft, and you have Excel is already in your budget, because you’re spending, you need Word and PowerPoint, there’s nothing wrong with Excel – are you going to use Excel to build interactive dashboards online? No, but that’s not what it’s built for. And are you going to use, I don’t know, I’ll take another example, Power BI to build some sort of beautiful looking custom thing that would show up on the New York Times website? No, probably not, like, that’s not what it’s built for. And to your point about the evolution of new tools, we’re going to have to be flexible with that. We’re going to have to be able to say, this tool is great for this, but not for this other thing. I think the new tool that I’ve seen a lot more of is the observable notebooks that Mike Bostock has started and popularized, and I think, where I see that is, it’s taking JavaScript and also these other programming languages, but primarily, I think, not my area, but primarily JavaScript, and making it more collaborative. And that’s where the teamwork comes in, where you are creating these observable notebooks where people can go in and they can see your code and they can add on to the code, and they can edit the code, and I think that embodies this whole idea of teams and organizations working together. Back to your point, Alli, I think the key questions and finding insight, like that’s not going to change. How the tools change and how we interact with people, that is going to continue to evolve. 

AT: Yeah, that’s a great point, because I think that if specializing in a tool, and being really good at a tool is really important in there, it can be very lucrative and very helpful. And if you are part of the team, you do need to have a specialization, if you’re part of a team, so you will need probably to be using a tool. But personally, and I hope other people kind of also keep in the back of their mind that they need to be honing a skill beyond the tool and be thinking about putting their expertise into questions, and also honing their ability to communicate with another team, which I guess is a skill across any, great skill across any field. 

JS: Yeah. But I think you make a great point, because you could be a JavaScript programmer, like a D3 programmer, and you could love to code, and you could love to be neck deep in code all day. But you need to be able to say to the rest of your team, the way we’ve thought about this, as I work with the code, and as I build the visualization, we’re not quite telling the story that I think we want to tell. So yeah, I agree that there’s a specialization that’s needed, I think that’s – I mean, that’s how you build the unicorn. Right? You have different people specialize, but you have to be able to respect and understand all these different skill sets. Like, in my experience, a lot of researchers that I’ve worked with, particularly economists, because we economists tend to look down on everybody, so like, that’s just a whole another problem, but like, it was, especially early on, in my experience, particularly at Urban where people would say, oh we wrote this 200-page report, can you help put this onto a webpage by the end of the week. It’s like, no, like, building those web pages, and building data visualizations, and doing the design, these are all skills, and they take time and they take expertise, and it’s not just like pressing a button to get this stuff done. And I think if whatever of these different areas that you’re doing, whether it’s the coding or the statistics or the illustration or the writing, to be able to understand and respect that all these skills are skills and they take time and expertise to build together, I think that’s where we end up with really successful projects. 

AT: Yeah, that’s a great point. You have a lot of these questions, this expertise built up. During these consulting projects, do you have maybe a list of questions or a template that you work off of, as you’re consulting with people? 

JS: That’s a great question. I do and I don’t. So I have a couple of like templates that I use for things. I will say I’m more formal about presentations than I am really about DataViz. I have sort of like four or five questions about DataViz that I tend to ask, but it’s not like, I have it written down, it’s sort of like always in the back of my mind. It’s like, who is your audience, like, especially if like, actually, yesterday, a colleague sent me a few briefs to look through, and they were like, it was a series of stacked bar charts. It was like, we really like to change things up, maybe show some different things. So like, first question is always like, who is the audience, what do you want them to know, are they policymakers, are they researchers, like who is it. And then, to me, it’s always like, is it important for the reader to see the exact values. Right? Is it like 2% and 1.9%, or is it like this thing’s bigger than this other thing. And then like, it’s helpful when it’s specific, because I can say, it’s important to see this part to whole relationship, or is it a level question. So like a little more into the weeds. With presentations, it’s, I have like a worksheet that I send, it’s a two-page worksheet that I send people. I’m like, here are the 10 questions you need to answer and fill this out, and then we’ll have a call about it, but I need to know these answers. And it comes right out of my first book, I mean, they’re not, I mean, I’m sure you’ve had this experience, but they’re not like groundbreaking questions. They’re just like prompting people to think hard about these things, where they’re just like taking it for granted. So do you have like a specific script? 

AT: I wouldn’t call it a script, but since I can’t lean on as many years as you have of expertise, I realize that I can’t remember everything – it’ll become second nature at some point, but I can’t remember everything. So I did, every time I’m in a meeting, and I somehow ask a question that made a really good answer come back, I write it down. For example, I was working with a client, we were trying to figure out which metrics to show on this dashboard, and I was like, what would you see on a dashboard that would make you pick up the phone and call your boss, because that’s what we need to be showing on this dashboard. And so, I wrote that question down, so I think that’s a great skill for anybody that’s listening is to notice when you’re asking good questions, and then write them down, and then over time, you’re going to have this amazing questionnaire that you can pull from and be that person who can be a great DataViz designer without specific tool. 

JS: So have you gotten to the point where you’ll send them that questionnaire as you get started, or is it more an informal, you have your list next to you, as you’re on the phone, or, do you send them like, here’s a Word document, fill these out, and then we can have a call to talk more about it? 

AT: So far, it’s been better for me to be on a call, and then I walk through it, because there’s just too many questions that don’t apply, and I don’t want them to be confused by it. And so, then I get to pick, and then also, some just, some need a little bit more pulling. So I have a whole section on art direction, because I feel like that’s very important, depending on what you’re doing, of course, but if it’s applicable, it’s very important. But a lot of people don’t really understand what I’m asking, like, how do you want people to feel when they see this graphic, and a lot of people are just like, I don’t know…

JS: Choose the happy face or the sad face, like, where do you [inaudible 00:38:37] right. 

AT: So I have to feed some words and some adjectives so we can talk about it. So I have found that it works better for me so far to have a call about it, whether it’s sending it to them and answering it. But like you said, if you do have the three basic questions that you always ask, I can definitely see how that would work where you send that to them ahead of time. 

JS: Right. So to the tools part of our discussion, so when you’re having this, more or less, towards the beginning of the engagement, do you talk about tools – I guess, there’s kind of two questions here – so do you talk about tools, and what their toolkit solution is, and maybe what they would want to evolve to? And do you also bring in, I mean, presumably, a lot of people are finding it because of a lot of your illustration work, and I just wonder, it’s so pervasive now to be like, let’s make a dashboard, and let’s make a JavaScript thing, but like, do you talk to people about like, yeah, maybe a comic or an illustration would actually be a solution to this particular project that you have? 

AT: Yeah, I’m definitely asking about tools, because, first of all, I have to know if I can help them with what they need, because you know sometimes people are, oh we only use Power BI and like, well, I don’t know Power BI. So like there’s really only so… 

JS: Right, I’m not the right person for you, yeah.

AT: Maybe I can do like a strategy piece at the beginning or a discovery piece, but I can’t actually follow through for you. So I’m definitely talking about tools beforehand, and suggesting things that I know, because I am talking to a lot of DataViz people, so I do know that there’s a lot of options out there, and I know a lot of options that other people don’t know. So I am definitely talking about tools and helping people figure out what they need, from a selfish perspective to see if I can help them, but also so they can benefit from my expertise as well, because a tool expertise is actually a subset, maybe that’s the thing that we’re talking about, just making sure that you know that the tool expertise is a subset of your DataViz expertise. 

JS: Yeah, I mean, I think to your point, like it is knowing it, being an expert, or being really good, I’m not being an expert, whatever that means, but being really good at a tool is certainly helpful, because, like you said, if someone wants a Power BI solution, and you know how to do Power BI, then you’re the person. But I also think, again, to your point, if someone wants a Power BI solution, you don’t do Power BI, but you could set them up to be successful. And then to say, hey, I can link you, you know, I have a list of people that do Power BI that I know, that I can put you in touch with. I think as freelancers, and just as people, that’s just like a good strategy to just help them find that solution. We got a little bit away from our core question of like, what’s the future, but I think these are all really interesting strategies and techniques. I want to ask you one last question, like, coming out of the pandemic, as we sort of move towards whatever world we’re going to be in, which I think my instinct is, it’ll be some sort of hybrid world where there’s going to be more Zoom meetings and in person and this and that, like, do you think that’s going to change how we, I’ll say we as like consultants or data creators, do you think that’s going to change how we do our work? 

AT: I’m hoping that DataViz designers see more of a future for themselves outside of the one job that they have or the one tool set that they use. I guess, that’s why I’m very interested in talking about this topic right now, because the pandemic, it just made me feel want to think a little bit more holistically about, because you can see how quickly things can change. So it’s just like, how, maybe that’s where this discussion came from is just how am I going to make sure that I can continue to be a DataViz designer, no matter what happens, because so many different things can happen and companies can go under and tools can crop up out of nowhere. So I just want to make sure that I’m staying ahead of it, so I do feel like I’m hoping that after the pandemic people will think outside of their tool expertise, and think more holistically about their careers. 

JS: I think that’s a great point. I’ll also say that I – and I wrote about this a while ago, I was really worried about the economy sort of turning and moving into recession, because the sort of, I would say, the peak of professional DataViz development hadn’t really experienced a recession. Right? So coming out of like the Great Recession of 2007-2008, you have this prolonged period of economic growth, and I was really worried that the first thing companies and organizations would cut would be their creative departments or the DataViz departments, because maybe that’s not central to their mission of selling widgets or services, whatever. But I don’t think that happened, I mean… 

AT: I think because of the popularity of these COVID charts.

JS: Right. Yeah, that’s right. 

AT: [inaudible 00:43:47] gotten bigger the DataViz field.

JS: Yeah. And so, I think there’s more appreciation, there’s more value there. And so, yeah, I think broadening and just, I think for all of us, recognizing that DataViz is not a single effect. Right? I think you and I have had the same experience with doing our podcasts, that every guest comes to this field from a totally different place. And so, because people are coming from a different place, and because there’s so many skills sort of intertwined in there, that it’s not to be successful, I think it’s not just about doing one thing, it’s about – and it can be that one tool, be the expert in that thing, whatever that one tool is, but also these other pieces that are around it, and being able to ask these questions, being able to look at the data and being able to tell stories, I think and all these are part of this rather complex field. And it’s not just like painting pretty pictures, there’s more to it than that. 

AT: Yeah, it’s all about communication. 

JS: All about communication. This has been so much fun, this Data Viz Today PolicyViz joint podcast. So thanks so much.

AT: No. Thank you for being on my show. 

JS: Thank you for being on my show. This is great. All right, I will talk to you soon. Thanks so much, Alli. 

AT: Bye. 

JS: Bye. 

Thanks for tuning into this week’s episode of the podcast. I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Alli, I really recommend you check out her web page, allitorben.com. Also check out her podcast, Data Viz Today. You can download it from all the major podcast providers just like you can with this show, and check out her episodes when they come out. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening. 

A number of people help bring you the PolicyViz podcast. Music is provided by the NRIs, audio editing is provided by Ken Skaggs, design and promotion is created with assistance from Sharon Sotsky Remirez, and each episode is transcribed by Jenny Transcription Services. If you’d to help support the podcast, please share it and review it on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. The PolicyViz podcast is ad free and supported by listeners. If you’d like to help support the show financially, please visit our PayPal page or our Patreon page at patreon.com/policyviz.