Killer Trait for Vis Experts #1: A Urge to Make a First Draft + Perseverance

chalk outlineThere’s no amount of thinking that can substitute the value of seeing your visualization there, in front of you, taking shape directly on your screen. I’ve experienced it too many times: you have some data, an idea in mind, all the tools in your hands, and you spend a huge amount of time thinking when the only thing to do would be to start coding your few hundreds of java code in processing (substitute this last few words with whatever tools you use) and see your data come to life.

Let me clear it right away: I am by no means suggesting visualization design should/could happen without thinking. This cannot be farther away from what I am repeatedly proposing in this blog (my take at cargo cult visualization is a clear example of what I am saying). Nonetheless, too often I see people discussing vis ideas. Discussing? Yes, discussing … like if visualization could happen in your mind. No, there’s no amount of words or thoughts that can make a great visualization without actually seeing it. If it is called visualization there must be a reason.

And don’t underestimate what I am saying! I work in a group of almost 20 (smart) people (plus tens of students coming and going), and we all repeatedly fall into this trap. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it in yours. Often the excitement is the trigger: you think about something new and you want to communicate it to your fellows to see what they have to say, so you go there and start talking, gesturing … talking, gesturing … talking, gesturing … But three bad things can happen (I mean all of them at the same time in some cases!):

  1. They don’t understand you
  2. They think they understand you but they don’t
  3. They understand you but you all miss the point

Pretty insidious! Right?

You cannot hold a visualization in your head

You might think this is just my opinion but no, this is actually supported by scientific thinking. Our (working) memory has limited capacity and we just cannot hold many things in it. Ever heard of the the magical number seven, plus or minus two (btw, be aware this is prone to several misinterpretations, don’t stretch it too much)? Plus, when this things are visual and detailed we are totally lost. We just cannot hold all the details we would need to give accurate judgement.

Another useful related concept is “external cognition“. External cognition is a cornerstone of visualization and it simply stems from the observation that our memory is not only in our head but also in the world around us. That is, the objects (real or virtual) that surround us, the information they hold, the way we can manipulate them, the constant interplay between what we have in our head and what is offloaded in the environment.

The very reason why visualization works is because it is a terrific instrument to hold pieces of information in the external world (your screen) and can be retrieved easily and quickly through interaction.

But if this is true, how can you expect to “design” visualizations in your mind? Don’t do it.

How to approach a new vis design

I will be very careful in not suggesting a single all encompassing rule for everyone, this is not my goal here. But this rule of making things visible I’ve noticed it so many times that I am sure you cannot do harm with it.

Normally you start from some data and a goal in mind. At this point you will want to spend some time thinking. Ok, thinking is good to some extent and in small focused doses but do not overdo it. Again. there’s no optimal design you can conceive in your mind. At this point you might want to draw sketches on paper or on a white board. A white board is preferable if you are collaborating with someone, but make it sure to give enough space to everyone. But as soon as you agreed on a first idea. A rough one! Go there, turn your PC on, grab your keyboard, and start coding until an image appears on the screen.

I’ll tell you, the first result is normally very disappointing and very exciting at the same time. It is disappointing because all the limits you couldn’t anticipate are be there in front of you in the most honest form you can imagine. But the excitement you get from getting closer to you idea is invaluable. The colored dots taking shape will speak at you loudly and ask to be fixed.

At this point there is another obstacle to overcome: having the perseverance to make it better and better, little by little, with enormous patience and with a clear intent to make it the best you can. In my experience it is not the great idea you have at the beginning under your shower that makes a design great, but it’s more the patience and perseverance you put to take the best out of it.

Have an idea? Stop reading … sketch a first draft on paper for a few minutes and start coding! You can always go back to thinking … but with a whole bag of new knowledge.

I wish you happy coding! Have fun … take some time to rest and breathe and let me know how it goes. If you make a great one I’d like to see it.

Do you have any similar experience? Maybe one that contradicts what I said? Cool! Let me know.

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4 thoughts on “Killer Trait for Vis Experts #1: A Urge to Make a First Draft + Perseverance

  1. Jan Willem Tulp

    Hi Enrico,

    I just wat to say that I agree with you so much! Right now I am mainly using Protovis for creating visualizations, and it’s an easy tool to make data visible. And numerous times I’ve run into a situation where I decided to change the visualization, or the original ideas I had, based on just what I saw right in front of me. When you see the visualization, the outliers, the colors, the shapes, it just gives you feedback on your thinking process, and it gives you inspiration on how to continue the process. Creating good visualizations is truly an iterative process (and a very enjoyable one!). And a valuable quote by Martin Wattenberg he once said in an interview comes to mind very often during the process: “you know you’re going in the right direction if you start playing with your visualization”. And of course that’s even more true with an interactive visualization.

  2. Enrico Post author

    Sure, it’s great to hear you noticed the same effect yourself. It took me some time to realize how important this issue is. By the way, nice citation by Wattemberg! I totally agree.

  3. Chris Atherton

    There’s definite value to be had in what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft”. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Merlin Mann (he of 43 folders fame) … he talks a pretty good game about just writing, just seeing what comes out, and not trying to produce the perfect thing the second you sit down. Simon Bostock is a big evangelist of Wabi Sabi and I think that’s pretty closely related. Make messy stuff, and see where it takes you (and of course sometimes your colleagues will take the incomplete mess and go off in a completely different direction. And that’s totally okay, so long as you’ve stored your own thoughts somewhere too).

    (Loving your blog, btw :)

    1. Enrico Post author

      Shitty first draft! I cannot agree more with that. Yes, I know Merlin Mann’s work he is great. I’ll check the rest thanks for your ideas and links, I love to have you here then ;-)


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