How to Become a Data Visualization Freelancer | Interview with Moritz Stefaner

by Enrico on July 27, 2011

in Interviews

I kept my promise: the interview with Moritz Stefaner on data visualization freelancing is finally here! And I am really excited.

As I said in my introductory post, I think data visualization freelancing is one of the most exciting trends in visualization; even though it’s a little bit hidden. After recording the interview, I must say I am really satisfied. I learned something out of it and I am sure the same will be totally true for you.

The video is a bit long (see the content breakdown below) but it’s really worth it: we covered a very large number of questions and they all came directly from the readers (thanks to all of you guys)!

Any comment, question, or suggestion for me and Moritz is more than welcome. You can write a comment here below or contact us directly on twitter (@FILWD, @moritz_stefaner). Have fun!

Video content breakdown with timing:

  • [01:00] Starting Out (building a portfolio)
  • [08:30] Design Practice (iterative approach, designing 20 prototypes!)
  • [16:18] Skill Building and References (books, tools and libraries, doing without programming?)
  • [27:47] Dealing with Clients (what clients want vs. what is right, freelancer vs. agency)
  • [34:08] Pricing (billable time, tracking yourself, strategic prices, the “pain coefficient”)
  • [39:44] Time Management (avoid working 24/7, have kids!, having a rhythm)
  • [41:55] The Freelancing Market (gaps in the market)
  • [44:05] The Role of Research (searching and reading papers)
  • [47:24] Summary of Tips for Wannabe Freelancers

Additional versions of the interview

  • Download mp3 file to listen on your own player.
  • Interview transcription (if you want to read it) – coming soon.

Do you want more? Let us know.

As you can see in the interview, me and Moritz are thinking of recording additional videos. Who knows … this might even become a regular meeting. We would love to have your opinion on that. Especially we would love to know: what else would you would like to hear? Is there anything we missed? How can we help you further? For sure, we would like to record a new one with a more extensive discussion of design practices and the overall data visualization process. Stay tuned and let us know!

Notes

  •  First of all thank you guys for sending all your questions for Moritz! This was very useful and I am sure the interview is much much better than what it would be without your help.
  • A big big thank to Moritz. I really enjoyed talking with him (as usual) and I think the end-result is really helpful for people who want to know more about freelancing.
  • The quality of the video is not perfect, I apologize. There is so much to learn! My phone started ringing at some point, the line dropped because I forgot to plug the power plug, and there’s no video editing apart from very basic stuff. Nonetheless, I think that content is king and what matters is that you are going to learn something. This is work in progress and it will get better.
As usual, I’d love if you could help me spreading the word. Please retweet the post if you like it and add comments below. There’s more to come.

Enjoy it and take care,
Enrico.
  • http://www.visualisingdata.com Andy Kirk

    Can’t wait to watch this, well done guys.
    One immediate off-subject observation relates to this quote “have kids!, having a rhythm” – if my earliest school memories of Biology are correct, the latter prevents the former…

  • Nick

    Thanks guys. Great video! Thinking about doing more videos? Please do! A data viz podcast would be stellar!

  • http://driven-by-data.net Gregor

    Thanks for the interview, guys! Just thought it might be a good chance to advertise the University of Magdeburg (Germany) where I studied Computational Visualistics. We have quite a few courses around the topic of visualization, like medical visualization, flow and tensor visualization and one especially about information visualization. Indeed, I agree that this is might not be the usual case.

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

    Hey guys, loved the interview.

    One thing I’d like to know is what are the typical goals of the projects you work on? i.e. What is the purpose of the visualisation?

    • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

      Interesting question. There are all kinds of motivations, really. Starting from “basically, we would like to have a visualization. something interactive.” over “can you help us show we are better than the other companies” to “we have this huge database, can you help us make sense of it”. In the end, it often boils down to either making digital resources better findable or discoverable, or communicating the core stories inside a data set in a compelling way. Personally, I try to hit the sweet spot between pure exploratory tools and explanatory graphics, but there are plenty of requests also for just one of these.

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

        Thanks Moritz,

        Personally, I always challenge a client who comes saying they want a visualisation or an infographic. I first ask them what they want it to do for them.

        Love the idea of hitting the balance between exploration and explanation. Nicely put. And ‘making sense’ of data seems to, em, make sense : /

  • http://www.twitter.com/fabriciotav Fabrício

    Very good interview! Congratulations to you, Enrico, for the iniciative, and, of course, to Mortiz, for taking the time to contribute sharing those information.

    I, with a couple friends, have open up a small company in Brazil to work with Data Visualization, and we are struggling with the pricing model. I think that a second interview with this topic would be really great.

  • Ben

    Firstly, Enrico and Moritz thanks so much for pulling together this interview and for being so open about various topics. I’m sure it will be very much appreciated by anyone interested in freelancing.

    The most sobering point I found was Moritz’s comment on having had 18 billable hours per week over the last year. I’m assuming this is averaged over the entire 52 weeks rather than 48 or 50 work weeks (hopefully). This is equiv. to 2.25 days per week or 117 days per year.

    The great takeaway from this is that if we argue/assume that Moritz is at the top of the data viz tree and thus is likely to be more billable than other viz freelancers and especially more so than people starting out in the field, then you can get a very good estimate as to what you need to charge for an “average” project.

    If you take the salary you wish to earn for a year for example $100,000. And I would argue that anyone having the skills to be capable of doing data viz as a freelancer e.g. sales, communication, proj mngt, coding, design, data analysis etc. is a very rare breed and would command a much greater salary within a larger organisation so I think this is exceptionally low for what most would earn elsewhere doing similar work. You can then determine the overheads of the freelancing such as lawyers, accountants, internet access, computers, phone, professional insurance, stationery, health care etc. which very very easily get to 10% of your salary and if you have an office to lease could get to 20% quite quickly.

    By combining these you have a base (low-end) break-even of $110,000 for the year. This equates to a daily rate of $940 (110k/117 days a year working). At $120k – $1,130. At $130k – $1,200

    You can argue how long an “average” project would take but let’s say 4 or 6 weeks for a project from start to complete delivery including initial meetings, data analysis, designs, communication, coding etc.

    For a 4 week projects (2.25 days * 4 weeks) the charge comes out around $8,500 and a 6 week project at $12,700.

    As you start to change the salary and overheads to say $120,000 salary + 10% overheads you get around $10,000 for a 4 week project and $15,000 for a 6 week project.

    I won’t comment on whether these are expensive or cheap for a visualisation project, but based in experience I would say there are projects for much more (with more time required though) and some for less (but probably not less time).

    The interesting point is that it gives a really good reality check that at a low salary level what small projects at least need to charge. And for freelancers starting out the billable hours figure will be much lower driving either lower salary expectations or higher daily rates.

    In my experience one of the biggest challenges a freelancer faces starting out is to accept that they need to charge a certain amount and that they are worth it.

    Thanks again. – B

    • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

      Exactly, the 18 hours were in fact calculated over the full 52 weeks. I don’t really calculate the way you approached it (how much do I want to make a year etc.) but in the end, your numbers come out quite realistic.

  • Ben

    Thanks for the response Moritz. Likewise the money is not the a starting point and nor should it but I do think it is worth making sure that people do realize that the figures mentioned are reasonable fees. One cannot live on 4k monthly jobs.

  • http://boyandi.net Ilya Boyandin

    Thanks, Enrico and Moritz for this amazing interview! It’s very very useful.

    Enrico, as you think of doing more interviews and more regular meetings, what about making a podcast? You could publish and syndicate the media (e.g. on libsyn.com) and we could subscribe and listen to it on our way to work. That would be the first real podcast on visualization! :)

  • http://www.wangenrot.at Evelyn Münster

    I liked this pleasant interview. Some great tipps and interesting point of views. Thank you Moritz and Enrico!
    Indeed, decent infoviz freelancer are very hard to find, but there is so much demand for them. I can only encourage everybody with interest to enter the field. And if you need a job, feel free to drop me a line. ;-)

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

    Fantastic interview. You’ve collected some high quality questions here on your blog, Enrico! And with all the experience of Moritz, this has turned into an extremely valuable resource. Thanks a lot, and also thanks to Ben for elaborating on the pricing model!

    A question I have with regards to the interview: Moritz, you say you track time in order to better understand how fast you’re working. Do you track other variables as well that may influence your progress (complexity of the project, team size, etc.)? If so, which other variables do you track?

    • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

      No, not really. It is more to test and train my own intuitions, based on what I know about the project beforehand and afterwards. Secondly, it can help with discussions with clients if you know at all points how much time you have invested, and when. (I believe anyways it would be almost impossible to measure and analyse everything that influences project efforts. So many factors…)

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

    Excellent video interview guys, can’t wait to see more. Aside from the incredible informative and helpful content it was nice to put personalities to names! Starting Monday I’ll officially be a user experience / data visualization freelancer so I’ll be putting the advice to good use. Hope we can all meet up at the next viz conference! Keep up the great work Moritz and Enrico.

    • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

      Good to hear and good luck!

  • http://dataincolour.com/ Lisa Zhang

    Thanks Enrico and Moritz for this interview! There were many helpful tips — especially the one about tracking hours spent on all projects to get better intuition about how long things take.

    Mortiz, what type of clients are typically looking for data visualization freelancers? (e.g. governments, non-profits, news agencies, businesses…) Also, how did you get your first ever project, and your first paid project?

    • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

      My first infovis project was this one:
      http://www.visualcomplexity.com/vc/project.cfm?id=349
      (Though it was about 2003, if I recall correctly, contrary to the description)

      First paid project is hard to tell, as I have been freelancing as a Flash coder/designer all along.

      No big differences between the client groups you asked for, except governments. They don’t tend to approach me :)

  • Ulrik

    Thank you guys for an excellent interview! It is a huge and fascinating topic and you really covered a lot of ground and questions in a good and interesting way. I would love to see more.

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

    Finally, finally, finally got an hour of free time, space and quiet to watch and listen to this interview and I thought it was absolutely sensational. Marvellous harnessing and organising of the issues and subject questions by Enrico, as well as the concept of the interview in the first place, and wonderfully articulated and transparent responses from Moritz. I know its only July (when this was published) but I think this will definitely be in my top 10 significant developments round up post at the end of the second half of 2011. Well done both of you.

    ps. love the pain coefficient idea and the discussion about wives/family understanding what you/I do. For those of you who watch Friends, I refer you to Chandler Bing’s perennial struggles!

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  • http://iannn.com ian

    This is one of the most enlightening document I’ve watched on this topic. As an interaction design student, this is really inspiring and I definitely look forward to watching your next interviews. :)

    Thanks a lot.

  • gangadhar

    Thanks for the wonderful interview. It provided various insights into the facets of data visualization and what one needs to focus on to start in this field. As a beginner in this field, I’d also like to see sessions where others can take a problem and explain what would be a right tool / visualization paradigm and technology to use to represent the visualization. That can provide the implementation details for the 4 facets of data visualization.

  • http://www.mostlymaths.net Ruben Berenguel

    I came here as a (very!) recent reader of Flowing Data, and I must say I enjoyed this interview a lot. Congratulations!

    Ruben

  • Enrico

    Hi all, sorry for the late reply both me and Moritz are on holiday right now and I am trying to stay away from my PC as much as I can.

    @Ulrik: Thanks a lot! We do have some plans to do more. Stay tuned!

    @Andy: Great to hear you made it. Frankly, I am surprised so many people watched it entirely! Yeah … I think it’s great that the interview is also somewhat funny and candid. We didn’t plan for it, that’s the shape it took.

    @Ian: Great to hear to is useful for your studies! As far as I know there are many students following FILWD and I am totally excited to be at least a tiny part of your journey.

    @gangadhar: I have indeed in the pipeline the idea of making a series specifically on data visualization problems. I would like to call it: “Visualization Dilemmas”. We have so much stuff in the plan that I don’t know what will survive. This one if for sure a good candidate.

    @Ruben: Great to hear you are on the infovis wagon! It’s full of fun stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/@aysyanne Aysy Anne

    Thanks guys!! It was amazing, I felt like I wanted more….

    I watched the same day it was published, but just now I remember a question that made me come back here and ask: About the resources, I mean, hardware. What kind of hardware is need to do a good job?

    Thanks again!
    Aysy Anne.

    • Enrico

      Hi, great to know you wanted more … we are planning for it. We just need some time, resources are quite scarce. By the way, regarding hardware I am not sure what Moritz suggests. My experience is that in principle you can do everything with standard hardware. I mostly use my laptop for every project I have. But … but … I can see two areas where special hardware is needed: (1) processing large quantities of data; (2) needing large screens. When you have big data you need special hardware and the best is to use some parallel processing facility. We have one here at the University of Konstanz and I am sure there are several on the web you can get if you need it (I think this is what you can do with Amazon S3 http://aws.amazon.com/s3/). Regarding the monitors, I have a huge monitor in my office and I totally love it. But then you have to make sure you design visualizations that work for the target environment.

      • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

        Right, there are no huge requirements from this end. Mac Book Pro, Cinema Display, headphones, and you are good to go :)

        One thing I would recommend though: make sure you have 1000% secure backups. For instance, a RAID system at home and additional backups in the cloud for the most important stuff. You can lose real money – big time, potentially – if you lose your work.

  • http://charuzu.wordpress.com Charles

    Thank you for a very interesting interview – I listened to it all as I am very interested in working in this field.

    • Enrico

      Thanks to you for dropping by!

  • http://vallandingham.me Jim V

    I’ll add my thanks as well for this great resource. Hope to see more.
    The discussion brought up a couple of immediate questions I was hoping to get your responses to:

    * First is on the topic of domain-specific knowledge. When you begin working with a new client, how much effort is put into learning the ins and outs of the particular domain you will be working in? To put it another way, how much insight into the world the company/dataset lives in to do need to acquire before you can provide useful and meaningful insights to your clients with your visualizations?

    Getting started in the bioinformatic world, it seems that much of the value of a data analyst comes from their insights into how the biological processes we are analyzing actually work – which requires a significant amount of time to learn. Perhaps this is less of an issue in other, more business-related fields? Or perhaps you are focused in on specific domains where this knowledge is somewhat transferrable between clients?

    * Secondly, Moritz mentioned that one of the first deliverables he produces for his clients is a 100 page rough analysis of the data. Just for my own benefit, I was wondering if that document is somehow generated in an automatic or semi-automatic fashion? Do you have a set of tools that allow you to get this rough look at the data fairly quickly, or is this something that must be hand generated each time? If you do produce it in an automatic form, it could be quite insightful to hear an outline of how this is done, and what kind of graphs / data you put in this document…

    This is already too long – so I’ll stop now. As an aside, I think Enrico’s mention of Amazon services above is a great idea for individuals need to work with large datasets. You can have your data being analyzed in the cloud and pay for only the processing you need – instead of having to try to scrape together some sort of cluster on your own for big data.

    Thanks again

    • http://moritz.stefaner.eu Moritz Stefaner

      Thanks, good questions!

      About the domain-specific knowledge, this is the part I like the most about my job – everytime you learn something new, be it about economics, physics, biology, etc. The good thing is that the data structures do not change across these domains, just their meaning. So usually, it is fine just to acquire the the basic vocabulary and basic concepts in a domain, and then argue and explore from a data point of view with the domain experts, and learn more and more while discussing and exploring together. It is important to keep the experts on board and involved until the very end, they simply see more oddities and opportunities due to their domain expertise.

      Second, about the preliminary analysis, it is not always 100 pages, but I want to make sure to explore all angles on the data with standard tools first, before I even start coding my own visualizations. First of all, this serves to get a feel of the “texture” of the data and helps in understanding where the interesting information might lie. Second, it will almost always show errors or gaps in the data that were not known before. (These are good to know early in the project.) Third, this establishes a baseline for your own work. It should at least be as informative and interesting as a plain bar chart from a standard tool, right?

      Personally, I am very happy with Tableau for these first analyses, but have also heard good things about Spotfire, or you can also use Excel, Google charts, manyeyes, etc. etc.

  • http://www.locusinsight.com tom hobson

    Great interview! I did watch ’til the end.
    So difficult to get advice on how to make a business in this field – your insights and openness were very helpful.
    Thanks

  • http://ComplexDiagrams.com Noah Iliinsky

    Such a great interview! Thanks again both of you for putting this out there. It’s invaluable advice, and very much aligned with my own experiences (except the kids part; haven’t tried that as a time-management tactic yet).

    I wanted to add a note that I hope my book Designing Data Visualizations fills that missing book niche you mention, as a resource for helping people figure out the process of design.
    http://complexdiagrams.com/2011/09/new-book-designing-data-visualizations/

    Thanks again! Hope to see you both this year.
    Best, Noah

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  • štef emrich

    thanx a lot for this great interview!
    actually i was looking for any talk of moritz stefaner, but this interview really hit the nail on the head in terms of what’s interresting to me! great!!
    i really appreciate the honestly shared insights :)
    … and the financial considerations and consequences pointed out by “Ben” (below).

  • liujiyang

    Hi Enrico,

    Thanks for the effort. The download link is broken, could you please fix it?

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