21 Lessons from David McCandless

On April 21 I spent a half-day at a hotel in Soho listening to David McCandless, the London-based data journalist, designer, and author of Knowledge is Beautiful and Information is Beautiful. The workshop was a bit pricey, but tax-deductible for self-employed folks like me, and when I listened to David and talked to the creative directors and data geeks around me it was clear that I had found my tribe.

David’s manner is open, low key and thoughtful. This is a guy comfortable in his own skin, nothing to prove, no need to hear the sound of his own voice, plenty to show and say, doing his best to be of service to the audience.

I took notes. Not very good notes, but from them came this list of 21 tips from David:

Rules for visualizations

1. The word media comes from mediate. That’s what a good visualization does: mediate between facts and audience.

2. A good visualization has four hooks: trust (which comes from data), interest (from the story), a goal or purpose (which cuts extraneous detail and makes the visualization efficient) and impact (which comes from the design).

3. Four more elements: the what (the data or information), the “exactly what” (the concept), the why (goal or purpose) and the how (the design).

Finding your story

4. Start building your visualization with a question. (Here’s one: Do horoscopes all say the same thing? It led to scraping text from horoscopes and doing a 12-sign word cloud in the shape of wheel, with the shade and size of the text indicating amount and frequency of the advice.)

5. The biggest story is always fear. (It’s that fast thinking again.)

How to

6. The sequence: First an idea or question, then a concept (idea rounded out and made explainable), then an iterative circle of sketching, researching and designing.

7. Start the design with a sketch, the rougher the better. Keeping it rough allows you to iterate without fear.

8. Stay in sketch mode as long as you can.

9. Even if the type of chart seems obvious, sketch your data in different ones. The star chart. The bar chart. The bubble chart. The cycle diagram. Keep on going.

10. To make the data more interesting, ask more questions. Add more layers. Repeat as necessary.

The data

11. Once you understand the data, the rest is easy. 80% of the work is the data work. (It’s 90% in the suffering-statistics-storytelling breakdown I wrote about here.)

12. When you have data left over, consider how it could be encoded and added to what you’ve already got.

13. Amounts may be interesting. But comparisons among amounts is where the story lies.

14. Six dimensions, often conflated, of what people call “big data”: gathering, handling, structuring, examining, discovering and delivering.

The qualitative data

15. Use concept maps for qualitative data. (Concept maps have the advantage of being able to hold contradictory ideas.)

16. Visualizing quantitative data is all about finding a structure. Once you’ve found a structure, you can visualize it.

The image

17. Consider which variables map to which elements of visual language (color, shape, position, pattern, frequency, proximity, opacity, etc.).

18. Anything that requires a legend to explain is unnatural. No legend, natural. Unnatural isn’t bad, but take it too far and the visual becomes distracting decoration.

19. Think about where you’ll want to zoom in (for detail) or zoom out (for context and comparisons).


20. Learning is all about playing. Playing is all about trying things out.

21. Play. Play. And play some more.

It’s fun to be a talking dog

I found myself in divorce court down at 80 Centre Street this morning. An Asian woman was sitting in one of the two chairs outside the hearing room. I sat down to wait for my lawyer, introduced her to my future ex-wife, and upon hearing her accent realized that I had a chance to practice my Japanese.

It was fun. She was attractive, pleasant and appropriately astonished to discover a barely competent Japanese speaker in the bowels of New York’s court system. I asked her where she was from, told her where I used to live, and we talked about New York for a bit. Later I went across the room and brian_griffinspoke to her future ex-husband too.

Japanese people make you feel so good about speaking their language. They are sincerely surprised and delighted, like they’ve found a talking dog, until eventually they have to remind you that even though you can speak you’re still a dog. Luckily I broke it off at the surprise and delight stage and it set the tone for a not-too-painful session with the judge.

The promise of D3

I’ve used Tableau to create visualizations for years. It’s a great tool, but there are problems with it. It takes a long time to render in the browser. The learning curve is steep for some of the mapping and network visualization things that I want to do. As with many menu-driven point-and-click programs, an interface designed to make things easy actually makes it hard to see what’s happening beneath the hood.

Enter D3:

D3 ia a JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data. D3 helps you bring data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. D3’s emphasis on web standards gives you the full capabilities of modern browsers without tying yourself to a proprietary framework, combining powerful visualization components and a data-driven approach to DOM manipulation.

D3 renders in the browser almost instantly, at least for simple charts, and it has given rise to a burst of creativity the developer community. Here’s my first attempt: a chart showing the frequency of use for each letter in the alphabet, based on the WordPress-d3 For Dummies  tutorial for the WPD3 WordPress plugin.

Catfish tempura

A few months ago I saw the Jon Favreau movie Chef. The parts that stood out were the food truck mashups. As Favreau drives from Miami to LA, he incorporates local ingredients to make new dishes. He starts out Cuban – mojo-marinated pork shoulder – and gets more Mexican as he passes through Texas. Yucca fries with banana ketchup. Tostones with chile vinegar.

My contribution? Japan meets the Mississippi Delta: catfish tempura.

Catfish tempura



Conversations with cyborgs

You can optimize a sales script just like the Democratic National Committee optimizes the subject lines on its fund-raising e-mails. A-B testing on a mass scale. If everything goes according to plan, that optimized script works great. But sometimes a script is useless or even harmful.

I was delivering a talk in a workshop. There was pushback from the audience. I had to change direction. If I had stuck with the script, I would have lost them. It wasn’t comfortable for the audience to watch me scrambling for a new direction. It was even less comfortable for me. But once I found a new angle, we were able to continue and salvage a useful discussion.

That’s the idea behind new call center software that lets you play a script that you’ve prerecorded, then switch to the real-time you when the person on the other end asks an unexpected question, raises an objection, or simply won’t follow your script. If you’ve pre-recorded scripts for the most common questions or objections, you don’t even need to switch to the real you. You can just tap a key and pull up hugh grantanother script from your playlist.

The real-you part is how you normally talk – stumbling and inarticulate but flexible and authentic and ideally even charming. The Hugh Grant thing. It’s for the transitions between the pre-recorded pieces, which are optimized for maximum persuasive and emotional impact.

In other words, your call-center rep isn’t quite human anymore. She’s part human, part machine – a cyborg carefully evolved to take care of your problem, get you off the phone quickly, and possibly charm you in the process.

The game before the game

For a lifelong east-coast guy, a big draw of Friday Night Lights is the anthropology – West Texas city modeled on Odessa, Texas, oil is almost gone, everyone wants out, football is God, lots of emotional hardship and pathos.

The Buzz Bissinger book was a dark,  anti-sports book – and the TV show, while not as dark, still subverts the sports genre. Every episode starts on Saturday morning and progresses through eight acts: seven days of the week and the game on Friday night.

But Episode One is different. It doesn’t show the game. The first seven acts show the preparation through the week. The final act is 30 seconds: a kickoff, the ball suspended in the floodlights, and then the credits. We don’t know who won.

The writers are telling us that the game doesn’t matter. It’s the process leading up to the game. It’s the systems-vs-goals discussion from the Scott Adams book How to Fail at Everything quoted on Eugene Wei’s Remains of the Day. Put one foot in front of the other. Do the work. Follow the steps. Leave the outcome to God.


Don’t put your people into an idiosyncratic niche

Instead, give them what they need to grow and succeed in the larger world.

Of course your organization is unique. But for individual employees, learning unique skills and tools carries a price. That price is overspecialization, cognitive overload, and the inability to join larger communities of users. A few examples:

  • Your organization has its own stylebook. All stylebooks are somewhat arbitrary, but yours is both arbitrary and unique. Follow the AP Stylebook. Or the Chicago Manual of Style. Or the New York Times. Don’t force your people to follow rules that aren’t used anywhere else.
  • You bought a little software package that fits your own personal style of working. That’s fine. Don’t force everyone to use it. SPSS is dying? Adopt SAS or R. Accounting uses homegrown Excel forms built with VBA? Replace them with a QuickBooks add-on.

Choose platforms that are widely used. Follow rules that are widely held. Your employees will thank you.

How we outsource suffering

We send our garbage overseas. It can be real garbage or it can be shitty experiences, like call centers where foreigners listen to us complain, and read a rote script in response. Or manually parsing data – tedious, endless, Sisyphian. That’s one kind of outsourcing.

Another kind is getting angry at others. Talking down to them. Feeling good by making them feel bad. Outsourcing our feelings of inadequacy by pushing them onto other people.

The “out” in outsourcing is closer than we think. Abusive parents produce children who abuse their own kids. Bullying bosses lead to subordinates who bully. Abuse leads to more abuse. Shit rolls…and keeps rolling. When you try to outsource feelings, they sometimes come back to slice you like a boomerang.

Simple words: a straight shot into the minds of others

Like the words in the headline, which passed the test of the Upgoer Five Text Editor. It tells you when you’ve used a word that isn’t in the ten hundred most frequently used words of English. (The word “thousand” isn’t in the top thousand.)  I’m addicted to this editor, which I heard about from my niece. (Here’s a description of her PhD thesis.)

Simple words cut the cognitive distance between ideas and audience. People shouldn’t read something and say, “Wow, that’s good writing.” Instead, they should say, “Wow, those are great ideas,” or “Wow, I want to try that. ” Simple words help you mainline your ideas into the brain of the reader. I like elegant usage as much as the next guy. But what I like more is racing through a post and coming away energized and inspired. Simple language is one key to doing that.

The other key? Compelling ideas expressed passionately. I’ve got a formula for that too. Maybe in another post.

Scary names

Scary Names

These jokey, conceptual scatterplots never get old. I notice there is now one in The New York Times Magazine every week:

To me, they’re so overly clever that they aren’t funny. It’s the Times trying to pretend that it has readers under the age of 50.  Or that the readers actually know what’s on TV other than Mad Men and PBS.