Ever Dreamed of Becoming a Data Visualization Freelancer? Ask to Moritz How.

by Enrico on July 15, 2011

in Guides,Interviews

freelancingOne of the most exciting and silent phenomenon I have seen developing during the last years/months in data visualization is the growing number of people who are transitioning or already succeeded to make a living by being a data visualization freelancer.

Who is a data visualization freelancer? Basically a self-employed person who sells data visualization services to companies and institutions. What kind of services? I don’t know … the sky is the limits.

There are people like Jan Willem Tulp, who designs pleasurable and accurate visualizations and is just turning into a full-time information visualizer. There is Andy Kirk, who writes the notable blog visualisingdata.com and teaches visualization in 1-day workshops. There is of course a veteran like Stephen Few who consults big BI companies like Tableau Software and writes among the best books in the field. And people like David McCandless who designs insanely popular (and discussed) beautiful visualizations.

Finally, there is Moritz Stefaner who works from home and seems to have the pretty rare ability to conjugate aesthetics with function and make everyone happy; as with the lately acclaimed OECD Better Life Index.

The brief story of me and Moritz at the airport.

And it’s exactly by discussing with Moritz that I came up with the idea of digging deeper into this fantastic world. The thing went more or less like that: I met Moritz at the airport, when we were both invited for a panel at Visualizing Europe, and during a casual chat he told me something along these lines: “You know Enrico … academia and research are cool but at some point I wanted to make real stuff for real people“. Yeah sure I understand. “… I always had small consultancy jobs during my studies so I had some experience … at some point I decided to become a data visualization freelancer“. Cool! “… so you know what? I work from home, I can plan the time myself  and make sure I play with my kids and talk with my wife” Uh!? “… and of course I am being successful and I am invited here and there so I am travelling a bit around the world and meeting interesting people“.

Ok, are you salivating already or what? I must admit it, despite I really love my academic job, I felt a bit jealous.

Send your questions! I will interview Moritz next week.

Ok so … I will be interviewing Moritz next week about data visualization freelancing. I started collecting a number of questions for him but I need your help! What would you like to ask to Moritz? What are you curious about? Is there a nasty question no one has the courage to ask? I think it would be much much better if you guys tell me what *you* want to know. So, don’t miss this opportunity. You could realize that being a data visualization freelancer is not a dream. It’s definitely possible! And Moritz can tell you how or at least provide some indications.

(On a side note, I will be experimenting with skype-based video interviews for the first time. I am totally excited by this new format and I’d love to have your feedback once it is done. The only video I currently host here is my interview with JD Fekete on Jacques Bertin, but the quality is really bad. I did some initial tests and the results look amazing. I really hope you will like it.)

Few additional reflections.

1st – Freelancing and working from home is not exclusive to data visualization, it is part of a bigger trend and it’s in my opinion absolutely awesome. The web is full of bloggers and small entrepreneurs that make a living by writing their blogs and giving their services by working from home. If you want to know more give a read to the super-successful 4-hour workweek. Note: some people love it and some people absolutely detest it, but no one can deny it captures a strong trend in our society. You can decide to ignore it or to read it and take the risk to have your life changed. You decide.

2nd – Being a professor used to be one of the best jobs in the world for the amount of freedom professors have (and still has a large degree of benefits in my opinion) but being a freelancer and working from home is a good competitor. Academia has its glow of knowledge and a little bit of mystery on its side but this whole segmentation of professions is going to disappear anyway. I see academia and freelancing somewhat similar as they both feature really special amounts of freedom. Academia maybe gives more opportunities to really do whatever comes to your mind but freelancing, as far as I can understand, has a considerable reduction in the amount of bureaucracy you have to bear with.

3rd – Most importantly, I believe freelancing is just a perfect fit for data visualization. I am not a big fan of generalist visualization because I think people get the best out of it when it meets the specific needs of a project. And this happens when you have a competent person able to listen, understand, and offer a tailored solution. For this reason I am a strong proponent of data visualization freelancing. It pisses me off that nobody is talking about it because it’s really a great trend. Plus, the more competent visualization designers we will have around, the more we will be able to show people great examples to take inspiration from.

Again: send  your questions!

Ok, let me repeat it again. I will be interviewing Moritz some time next week. This means the interview will appear here no sooner than about 10 days. I will be able to take your questions into account only if they come during the next few days. Don’t miss this opportunity, send your questions or ideas to me and Moritz. The easiest way is to add a comment here below. Otherwise you can contact us on twitter @FILWD and @moritz_stefaner or send me a private message.

Take care, have fun. We are waiting for your input!

  • http://twitter.com/carnby Eduardo Graells

    Hi, Enrico, thanks for this opportunity.

    My question(s) for Moritz:

    Your visualizations are not only beautiful but they also invite the user to interact and discover what is behind what is visible. Interaction and adaptation to the viewing user seems to be an important part of your visualizations. How do you approach the design of such interactions? Do you think that meaningful interaction inside visualizations will be a trend in the future?

    Thanks!

    Eduardo

  • http://www.visualisingdata.com Andy Kirk

    This is a super idea for a post, Enrico, and Moritz is the perfect candidate for an interview as one of the most exciting visualisation designers out there.

    I’ve already had a brief exchange with him about this but perhaps would be good to integrate with this piece –

    How does he manage those projects where the client is seeking (and pushing for) a design solution that may go against his own design principles somewhat? Of course you can educate and influence them so far, but there are occasions when they want you to do exactly what they want?

    I would imagine he has reached a stage where he is able to select projects that appeal rather than necessarily recruit them, but in the initial stages of his freelancing, what were the most effective methods he deployed for marketing himself?

    Finally, (assuming he does!) how does he achieve a work-life balance and prevent visualisation consuming his every hour?

    Thanks!

  • http://www.eavi.com.au Keith Suckling

    Thanx for this.
    I am already starting down this path so will watch with keen interest.
    One of the things I most wonder about in terms of how my experiment will play out is balancing doing work that will be loved and make an impact versus doing work that seems doomed even at briefing stage.
    I have some rather idealistic notions about what I want to accomplish being the best of breed. Stuff where impact is something you see, not something you ask about. What do you both think about refusing work where the outcomes won’t likely reach a standard, particularly while you are trying to build a specific reputation.
    If we can afford to of course :-)

  • http://www.janwillemtulp.com Jan Willem Tulp

    This is a great initiative Enrico and Moritz! I’m really looking forward to the interview! A few questions to get things started:

    - I can imagine that organizations see freelancers different than companies. So, what made you chose to promote yourself as a freelancer instead of the founder and owner of a small dataviz company? What do you consider the advantages / disadvantages of that? And now that you’re all famous, is it different now than from when you started out?

    - you use an exploratory, iterative prototyping approach when creating data visualizations. You’ve already told me before that the iterative approach is something that you always have to convince clients of. So, how hard is that for clients to accept? Do they understand easily? And does that influence the type of contract you have for a project (fixed price? hourly rate? etc.)

    - Though you do collaborate with web developers for instance, I assume that you always create the data visualizations just by yourself, right? Could you imagine working with more people on a data visualization itself? Would that work for you, and why, or why not?

    - Could you elaborate a little on how you evaluate your own designs during the iterative creation process? What kind of questions go through your mind? How much feedback from other persons is involved in the process?

    - Which skills would you say one needs to become a data visualization freelancer? And would you recommend to be a specialist with certain tools or programming languages, or would you recommend to be a generalist?

    - Could you say something how you see the market for data visualization freelancers? Where are the opportunities?

    - What do you consider risks, pitfalls and challenges?

    That’s it for now ;-)

  • Enrico

    Thanks guys, that’s already an impressive list! Can you please help me to spread the word? If you know someone who would be interested, can you please send him/her a brief message? Thanks.

  • http://www.thewhyaxis.info Bryan Connor

    Questions for Moritz:

    Enrico and some others have already chipped away at a version of question on twitter but today, does the amount you charge compensate you for the value you provide and the time you put in with the current market and your experience level? How does today compare to some of your first freelance clients?

    Similarly, how do you give estimates to clients or budget your own time in a process that can be rife with unforeseen roadblocks, technical difficulties and the general unpredictability of an iterative approach to design?

    How do you recommend either finding solid developers interested in data / visualization to work with on freelance projects or, I suppose, how do you get to a place where you’re comfortable working with data in the same iterative approach you do with design.

    Although I imagine you work almost exclusively through referrals now, how much did you seek out visualization opportunities starting out?

    Is there any piece of software you use most to wrap your head around numbers or perhaps a favorite coding language?

    There are some other really good questions already so I won’t repeat, can’t wait to hear as many as possible answered!

  • http://www.epicgraphic.com/ Mark from Epic Graphic

    Great idea. My question is… what techniques or processes do you use to come up with the initial concept/story for your visualisations?

  • http://www.publicsignals.com John W Rodat

    On the average, what proportion of your time is spent:
    - Marketing and new business development;
    - Other administration such as billing;
    - Eliciting client requirements;
    - Actually creating, testing, and refining visualizations?

    Thanks very much

  • http://twitter.com/#!/datatelling Jen Lowe

    Hi Enrico, thanks for doing this. All the questions above are great; I’m looking forward to the skype Q&A.

    More! questions for Moritz:

    - I know (from eyeo) that you spend a lot of time generating and iterating ideas to create novel visualizations that suit particular data. How do you fit in _everything_ else? To what extent do you outsource marketing, billing, accounting, coding, etc.?

    - Are there any research journals that you find particularly useful?

    - For someone coming from a data analysis background, do you have any killer recommendations for design references? Books, articles, magazines, other unlikely sources of inspiration?

    - Classic for a reason: Is there anything you wish you had done differently when you were starting out? What advice you would give to the younger you?

    Thanks Enrico & Moritz!

  • http://Www.FlyingBinary.com Jacqui Taylor

    Great idea, looking forward to reading the interview.

    I would like to know how his work fits in with other initiatives that the client has ie does he need to integrate his work?

    Is it likely that there will be a book published soon, to share his experiences with those who have and haven’t yet seen the emergence of a whole new industry?

    Who inspires him and what books would he recommend?

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

    Jacqui

  • Enrico

    For a number of reasons me and Moritz decided to cancel the interview I am sorry guys … ok … it’s a joke! :-) I was just thinking how crazy it would be to cancel it once we received all these interesting questions. Thanks guys! I am more scared than ever now that you have all these expectations. Me and Moritz will try to do our best. It is really great to see how much interest there is in this topic. It will take some time. Stay tuned!

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  • http://www.linkfluence.net Rene

    Hi Enrico, hi Moritz,
    Hope you haven`t chatted yet, although I guess this will be a long, long interview with all these questions.

    My questions would be:
    - most of the visualizations out there focus on quantitative data. Do you see any chance that visualizing qualitative data will become more relevant soon? (e.g. visualizing interview content or photo and video data portraying people’s lifestyle)
    - And: if so, which tools do you think will be suitable to start a new field beyond pure “big data” and maybe work as a qual-quant data visualization freelancer?

    All the best, keep up your great work!
    René

    • Enrico

      Hi Rene’, it’s not too late but I am not sure whether we will be able to answer all the questions in one session. I just finished talking with Moritz and we agreed on having at least another issue where we go deeper into design practices and other questions. I have file with all the questions organized in categories. I will include yours to make sure it doesn’t get lost ok? Thanks a lot for your last minute comment!

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