new team members and a new program

Back in 2010, when I started storytelling with data while working at Google, I would happily travel and talk to any group that was open to learning how to communicate more effectively with data. Doing that over and over (and over and over) helped me hone my presentation skills, presence and style. It also demonstrated to me that the audience for this content is wide, diverse, and located in many different types of organizations all around the globe.

Over the years, as the SWD side project became my sole (perhaps soul?) project and an actual business, demand outpaced supply and budget size became—fortunately and unfortunately—a means to keep pace. While this helped us build a sustainable business, it didn’t necessarily allow us to serve the widest audience. Much of SWD content is free but our in-person workshops are where incredible progress is made.

I want what we teach at SWD to be within reach for all types of organizations. As you may have heard in podcast Episode 16, we recently conducted a search to expand our team. The response was amazing and we conducted a thorough hiring process through which we met a fantastic group of people. At the end of it, the SWD team was positively unanimous in the decision to offer roles to two outstanding and passionate data storytellers: Mike Cisneros and Alex Velez. I couldn’t be happier to welcome both to the team!


Mike Cisneros joins us from the federal contracting world, where he spent the better part of two decades analyzing and communicating complex data for public and private sector clients. In looking for other ways to express his interests, he discovered—and become deeply involved in—the worldwide community of public data visualization practitioners, gaining a reputation for combining unique design aesthetic with insightful, thought-provoking analysis. The quality of his creations and commitment to the greater data visualization community led to his selection for the Zen program at Tableau. Mike, believes everyone has the ability to communicate more clearly and we are incredibly excited for him to join the team and help others hone their data storytelling skills.


Alex Velez has a background in statistics, which she has put to use in a number of data engineering and analysis roles across the finance, insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Her broad exposure to various stages of the analytical world led over time to a profound realization: many everyday challenges can be overcome through better communication. Alex has developed this important skill through a lot of practice—both on the job in her analytical work and through motivating people by teaching energizing Zumba classes! While she no longer spends her time in a gym studio, we’re ecstatic that she’ll continue helping others in her new role with storytelling with data, sharing her learnings and passion for data visualization and effective, thoughtful communication.

With this welcome addition of two new talented data storytellers, we are now in a position to serve a greater audience, including those who may not have been able to access workshops due to limited budgets. Today, I’m pleased to announce a new program aimed at non-profits, educational institutions and other organizations where learning and development budget may be limited: SWD reach.

SWD reach is an application-based program that brings the in-person half-day workshop to organizations for a fraction of the cost. The application process for SWD reach is open now and we will accept applications through the end of July: learn more and complete the online application form.

Mike and Alex are joining a small but mighty team. Elizabeth has been busy in recent months delivering short presentations and custom workshops to organizations around the US (and soon the world!). Behind the scenes, Jody plays point with clients, keeps us on schedule, plans events like the upcoming Chicago public workshop, and manages our (growing) programs, including SWD reach. Randy wears many hats—in addition to being my incredible and supportive husband—he makes sure we have the right technology, systems, and processes; he pushes us to innovate and try new things; you may recognize his voice from the SWD podcast or his face and friendly banter from the recent live stream event. We also have a number of partners who play critical roles to support our growth.

Honestly, I couldn’t be more pleased that today, we have the right team in place to truly inspire positive change through the stories we tell with data. With more people and new programs, I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to spread effective data storytelling more broadly.

Please join me in welcoming Mike and Alex to the SWD team!

SWD team at our Milwaukee offsite this week. From left: Randy, Alex, Elizabeth, Mike, Jody, and Cole.

SWD team at our Milwaukee offsite this week. From left: Randy, Alex, Elizabeth, Mike, Jody, and Cole.


#SWDchallenge: rebrand it!

Branding applied to data storytelling is much more than a specific font, logo or template color. Instead, thoughtfully incorporating aspects of an organization’s brand into the design of a graph can evoke a feeling or perhaps an emotional connection to the message the graph conveys. This month, readers were challenged to re-brand an example graph in a brand style of their choosing.

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more ways to learn

One of my goals with storytelling with data is that we continue to be accessible. The beauty of what can happen when we improve the way we communicate with data is positively endless. You’ll notice we continue to experiment with things like real-time captioning, embedded website transcription, podcast formats and this week, we’ll be trying something really new with a 1-hour (free!) live stream event that viewers can enjoy from anywhere in the world.

I also mentioned at the end of our latest podcast that we have (once again) expanded the SWD team (more on that to come) and I will travel to Europe in a few weeks to offer workshops in new cities. There is a lot going on and we will have even more exciting things to share with you soon.

And so, I want to do two things with this post. First, make you aware of the opportunities that are available and coming soon. Second, to thank you for coming on this journey with us. We’re going to try things—some will be successful, others perhaps not so much, but we will learn and iterate. None of this works without your support, feedback and desire to continue your own growth and development.

To that end, be sure to check out these upcoming events:

  • The first ever SWD live event will take place this Thursday, May 30th at 10am EST and will be broadcast around the world. This will be an interactive event where together, we’ll learn data visualization through critique. The event is free but you must register to attend.

  • The upcoming European workshops in Dublin (June 18), Copenhagen (June 25) and Zurich (June 27) offer in-person opportunities to learn, practice, and network with others interested in enhancing their data storytelling skills. Space is limited and you can register here.

Thanks for your continued support for all we do here at SWD!

declutter! (and question default settings)

Decluttering is having a major moment.

Fans of Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo have been inspired by guru Kondo’s Japanese-based method of clearing out the clutter in their homes. The benefits are huge. Devotees report living more peacefully and co-existing better with their partners. The key element? Actively working to identify and eliminate anything that doesn’t “spark joy.”

We can apply this same thought process to our data visualizations.

When it comes to clutter in our visuals, we challenge you to regularly examine what specific elements aren’t adding information. What’s making it harder for our audience to get at the data? When we identify and remove clutter from our visuals, the data stands out more.  

We’ve discussed this topic frequently. In this video, Cole provides five tips for how to avoid clutter in visuals; SWD book and workshops each have an entire section focused on decluttering. We don’t intend to create cluttered visuals—rather they often materialize when we don’t take a step back and question our tools’ default settings. Today’s post illustrates one such example and the benefit we can reap from decluttering.

I recently encountered a visualization similar to the following graph. This shows the percentage of babies born within a 24-hour period, broken down by day of the week (having welcomed a baby several months ago, all things maternity still linger in my various news feeds). I recognize this graph: it’s what happens when I put data into Excel and create a stacked bar chart with default settings.


This caught my eye not because of the topic but because of how much time it took me to figure out what information it was trying to convey. What should I do with this? There’s a lot competing for my attention in this chart and distracting me from the data.

Spend a moment examining this graph and take note of which specific elements are challenging. Make a list: what might we eliminate or change to reduce cognitive burden?

I came up with eight specific design changes I would make. How does my list compare with yours?

  1. Remove the chart border as it isn’t adding informative value. Often, we use a border to differentiate parts of our slide/visual. In most cases, we can better set them apart with white space.

  2. Delete the gridlines. Will the audience be physically dragging their fingers across the y-axis to identify an exact value? If that level of specificity is important, label the data point(s) directly.

  3. Be sparing in use of data labels. Use them in cases where the exact values are important to the audience. Otherwise, remove and use the axis instead.

  4. Thicken the bars. While there are no hard and fast rules, the bars should be wider than the white space between them so we can more easily compare. In this case, the superfluous white space can be reduced.

  5. Title the axes appropriately. Exceptions are rare for omitting an axis or chart title. Don’t make the audience do work to figure out what they’re looking at, and instead make a habit of titling appropriately to enable the audience’s understanding before they get to the data. Let’s take two related steps here:

    1. Use a more descriptive y-axis title: Instead of the vague %, we can eliminate the guesswork and be more specific: % of total births. While we’re at it, let’s drop the unnecessary trailing zeroes from our y-axis labels.

    2. Clean up x-axis: Diagonally rotated text is slower to read. We can abbreviate the days of the week so they render horizontally. A super-category (such as Weekday or Weekend) could also simplify the process of taking in the information.

  6. Move the legend directly next to the data it describes. This alleviates the work of referring back and forth between the legend and the data.

  7. Use color sparingly. There are so many colors in this graph that our attention is scattered and it’s hard to focus on any one thing. Depending on what we want our audience to take from the graph, we can use color more effectively to focus attention on those pieces only.

  8. Add a takeaway title. Don’t assume that two different people looking at this same graph will walk away with the same conclusion. If there is a conclusion the audience should reach, we should state it in words with an effective takeaway title.

Each step seems relatively minor on its own, but check out the impact when I apply all eight steps simultaneously:


Now we can more easily see that babies delivered on a weekend are more likely to arrive during the early hours of the day (midnight - 6am), compared to weekday deliveries. Related note: this dataset didn’t include the absolute number of babies born each day. Ideally, we’d want that information for context, but for the purposes of this illustrative example, we’ll assume the numbers are large enough to accurately compare across days of the week.

By reducing clutter, the audience can use their precious brainpower to decide what potential actions might be warranted, rather than trying to figure out how to read the graph. Taking time to modify the default settings means we can focus on the data and the message.

In my case, I might have wanted to get some extra rest on the weekends as my due date approached! As it turned out, baby Henry arrived safe and sound among the 17% of Thursday babies born in the 12am-5:59am window.

UPDATE: You can download the file for a further look at how I tackled this in Excel.

For more on the power of decluttering, check out these prior posts:
Declutter this graph: an example of eliminating unnecessary elements
Minor changes, major impact
How to declutter in Excel (with tactical step-by-steps)

Elizabeth Ricks is a Data Visualization Designer on the Storytelling with Data team. She has a passion for helping her audience understand the ’so-what?’ as concisely as possible. Connect with Elizabeth on LinkedIn or Twitter.

#SWDchallenge: artisanal data

If you collected the data, you cleaned the data, you made the choices, you know every reason behind every decision—you are perfectly positioned to analyze that dataset. May brings a guest challenge by Mike Cisneros: visualize data that you’ve curated yourself. Read the post for more details and an example.

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