Monday, March 21, 2011

GMN conference

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of presenting at the annual Grants Managers Network Conference that is underway in Seattle. The topic: data visualization (the 90-minute session was an abbreviated version of the course I teach internally at Google, plus a section with makeovers of visuals submitted by participants that show the main learnings in practice). The audience: 100+ grants managers from philanthropic organizations across the country, an engaged bunch full of questions and evident interest in learning more about storytelling with data.

I get energized when I speak on this topic. A quick related anecdote: last week, I was attending an internal manager training on inspiring one's team. As part of one exercise, I had to compose 'my sentence' - a sentence that motivates and inspires me. The sentence I wrote down was as follows: To help rid Google and the world of ineffective graphs, one exploding, 3D pie chart at a time. The session today was a step along this path.

So often, the visual communication of information is an afterthought - the work and energy goes into jumping over hurdles just to get to the data and make sense of it - too little time is devoted to the visual part that other people see. If attendees take one thing from today's session, I hope it is to spend time on this piece. Use affordances (pre-attentive attributes, like color and size) to help the audience understand where to devote their attention; strip out the clutter that doesn't need to be there.

One of the reasons I enjoy data visualization is because it sits at the intersection of art and science. As a designer of infographics (which, if you ever find yourself making a graph, you are), you just want to make sure you use your artistic licence to make information easier for your audience to get at, not more difficult. On the science side, there are a few never-to-be-broken rules I covered today that I'll recap here:
  • Color should always be an explicit choice (don't let Excel make this important decision for you!)
  • Never use 3D (unless you are actually depicting something that is 3-dimensional!)
  • Every graph needs a title; every axis needs a label (no exceptions!)

A quick note to anyone who attended the session this afternoon: Thanks for stopping by! Please leave me a comment if there's anything in particular you found useful, or if you have any feedback that I should take into account for future sessions. The books and tools I referred to in the session can be found by following the 'recommended reading' and 'additional resources' links on the left, respectively (in particular, I'd recommend Stephen Few's book, Show Me the Numbers; tool-wise, Tableau was the one we spent a little time talking about). If you're interested in contacting me to talk more, follow the 'email me' link at the top left of this page. Thank you for a great session, and I appreciate your help in reducing ineffective visual displays of information - I hope you find yourself putting what we discussed today into practice!


  1. Cole, thank you for a great session. We, the audience, really learned a lot and walked out with some great advice. Keep up the great work.


  2. Thanks for a great presentation, Cole! Your talk was informative, practical and engaging.

    I'm currently a grad student studying information management at University of Washginton. Not surprisingly, information design and data visualization are near and dear to my heart.

    Are you on Twitter? Here are some things that recently came through my tweet stream that you may be interested in:!/emahlee/status/47901992701530112!/emahlee/status/47906921193283584!/timoreilly/status/42242902767833089

    You may have already seen this, but I found "How the New York Times Creates its Infographics" (via Information Aesthetics) absolutely fascinating:

    Oh, and I love your reading list, tools and additional resources recommendations. Great compilation. In case you're interested, Hans Rosling actually has a number of TED talks - one in which he swallows a sword!

    I did a review of Rosling's Gapminder for ReadWriteWeb last summer that might also be of interest (it's very link heavy):

    Data Journalism is obviously something very related to "storytelling with data" and something I'm also very interested in. I come across posts on data journalism somewhat frequently. Here's one link that leads to others:!/emahlee/status/26157709851

    Another great resource to check out is the New York Times Graphics Department on Twitter @nytgraphics!/nytgraphics

    I'm sure I'll think of some other things to send your way, but that's what I have for now.

    Thanks again for a great session at #GMN11.


  3. I'm very interested in your work and wanted to attend your session but was scheduled to present the "Art of Effective Communication" during the same time block on Monday. We work storytelling into our curriculum at TLC (in Everett, WA) and are launching a new Visual Communications major in the fall. I would love the chance to talk more about your work and thoughts as we develop our curriculum.

  4. This was the best session that I attended. Thanks for sharing your info- and in such an engaging manner!

  5. Thanks for the great presentation, Cole. I attended your session with a colleague from ZeroDivide, with whom I'm writing a series of reports. You'll be happy to know that we'll be killing some pie-charts in your honor today. =)

  6. Thank you Cole. This session was so great and your presentation of the content was engaging and hilarious! I have already shared some of the ideas you shared with my colleagues at work and hope to integrate them into the information I share with senior leadership and staff regularly. Thank you!

  7. I found it very helpful, particularly the ideas about what your brain can actually process and how unhelpful a lot of the data we present is. I may never use a pie chart again!

  8. "The only pie I like is an Appla pie." ME

  9. Great presentation, Cole! Thanks so much for creating so much good buzz at the conference. In case it's not on, here's a link that shows we have truly entered the Visual Age: