What to do with all your data; talking visualization with Sarah Nahm and Ian Johnson

June 14, 2013 Nina Mehta

“Google search results are data viz,” said designer and coder Sarah Nahm who came to visit the Pivotal Labs design team for lunch in San Francisco. Sarah visited us with her colleague and friend Ian Johnson, creator of visualization environment, Tributary. Sarah and Ian work closely with all kinds of data visualizations projects and visited to help us learn more.

Before getting visual or even making reductive design decisions, Sarah and Ian ask, “what do we want to do with this data?” They’re always asking themselves and their users, ‘what should the data do?’ before getting to its form or structure. You have to look for constraints, they said, and a data visualization is not about putting an interactive chart on a page somewhere. You have to think about what it should do and with what it’s competing with on the page.

Data is information that is available, sometimes ambiently so. A visualization of it “should be a portal to what you’re trying to do.” You want to have the kind of information people need, when they need it, and that’s when they’re happy.

Visualized data is active content, unlike a static site. Buttons need to do things, other than go to other pages. Ian has a hard line about prototyping with fake data. He doesn’t do it.

Clients are not always good at coming up with real data, he said, but you have to try to get it. Without it, the prototypes don’t make sense and people find them confusing because there’s no context. “They need to see themselves in the data,” he said. If he doesn’t have it, he makes very rough prototypes in D3 or relies on paper sketches.

Now more than ever changes with transitions and animations are more important. They make a difference on how it feels when the data changes. “Data is beautiful,” Sarah said, you just have to think about where there’s competition.

Want to learn more? Get in touch with Sarah @srhnhm or Ian @enjalot. They also shared a mountain of wonderful resources linked below. Thanks so much for coming by, you’re welcome back any time!


1500 D3 Examples
D3 + Data Vis with Ian Johnson
Numbers rule your world
Junk charts
Andrew gelman’s blog
Five thirty eight
The why axis
Gregor aische’s blog
New York Times’ documentation of work


Semiology of Graphics (1967) by Jacques Bertin – french data visualization master from the 30s through 90s
Show me the Numbers (2004) by Stephen Few – a guy who’s really into good tables.
Information Visualization (2004) by Colin Ware – goes into the science-y side of perception
Cartoon Guide to Statistics (1993) by Larry Gonick and Woollcott Smith


About the Author


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