InfoVis Course Diary: Developing Visualization Design Workshops

During the last four/five weeks of the course I have been assigning visualization design exercises in class. The main idea is to assign practical design problems to students to solve in class during a workshop of about 2.5 hours. Here is a description of how I am organizing the workshops and what I have learned so far.


The reason why I decided to create and assign design exercise in class is because in past years I have always been frustrated with how little students learned by listening to my lectures and by observing how quickly they learned once we worked together on the design problems they had to solve for their group project. The philosophy behind the workshops is therefore to bring more of this experience in class, together with the advantage of having the whole class working on the same problem in a much more structured way (in group projects each team solves a different problem independently). Another advantage of workshops is that when I give feedback to one group of students all the other students can listen and relate what I am saying to their own solution.

Preparation (Reverse Engineering Vis Projects)

To prepare these exercises I decided to use the following strategy: reverse engineer existing visualization project I like. I start from an existing project and I effectively go from solution back to the original problem. Inspiration can come from many sources: papers published at IEEE VIS or ACM CHI; projects developed by some established visualization designer or newspaper; class projects developed during past editions of the course.

(Note: I recently discovered Shiqing He and Eytan Adar use the same strategy in their beautiful and admittedly much more advanced VizItCards method)

How do I do that? I focus on the following elements:

  • Problem Statement: What is the original problem they wanted to solve? Who has this problem? Why is it interesting and important?
  • Data Set: What data set did they use? Is the data set available? If not, can I use a similar one?
  • Questions: What are the driving questions they want to answer by looking at the visualization?


Once I get in class, I typically follow this sequence:

  1. I ask my students to form groups (basically the same every week).
  2. I read the whole text of the exercise and make sure everything is clear to everyone.
  3. I ask students to read everything on their own.
  4. I ask students to create individual solutions first.
  5. I ask students to discuss their solutions and create a group solution.
  6. Student put their solutions in a shared google doc, one for each team (I don’t care about possible cheating).
  7. I create a set of slides (on the fly) with students’ solutions and comment on them in front of the class.

What I noticed during these last few weeks is that the are many implementation details one needs and should work on to tune the execution of the workshop.

  • Group and individual work. I still have to find the right balance between individual and group work. But after some experimentation I believe both are highly needed.
  • Material and techniques for creating mockups. I am not particularly happy with the unstructured way I let students create their mock-ups. Some are very good, some are very bad. In the future I want to give more precise instructions and unify the way mockup are developed.
  • Using whiteboard and markers to create mockups. I discovered, almost by chance,  that using whiteboards is a much better way for groups to generate and discuss mockups. If you can afford having multiple whiteboards or, even better, you have the luxury of having “whiteboard walls” in your classroom you should try this out. The biggest difference is that with whiteboards everyone can see what is happening and participation and feedback happen much more naturally.
  • Deriving patterns and principles from the solutions. Ideally, at the end of each workshop we should be able to derive general principles students can apply to other cases, beyond the specifics of the exercise. I truly believe this is an important pedagogical step. I started collecting some of these ideas and patterns at the end of each workshop but I’d like to find a better and more systematic way to do it in the future. Ideally, these patterns and principles may be reused in future workshops as the material develops further.

Sharing workshop material

I plan to share all of the exercises I created for my course later on in 2017 and make it available for everyone to use. I just need to give it a more decent shape. I’d be more than happy to develop these exercises further together. Just stay tuned!

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