Basic bars, intentional design

“Good design takes planning and thought”. Cole Knaflic, Storytelling With Data, p139

The tweet

Naomi tweeted me yesterday with a question about my Makeover Monday viz on policymaker estimates of gender equality measures:

Naomi tweet

You can see the viz – and judge for yourself – here, but I wanted to blog about four intentional design choices I made creating a much simpler viz: a basic bar chart for this month’s #SWDChallenge.

Choice 1: Labels within bars

Screenprint 1

Now Tableau is definitely my Data Visualisation tool of choice, but it does have its quirks. One example is labels on bars, where the default options are as follows:

Label options

Personally, I like to have labels right aligned to provide an additional positional comparison, but with them tucked just inside the bars (don’t ask me why – it just seems…neater).

This is possible within Tableau, but involves a workaround. I created a second bar chart using a calculated field SUM([Total])-[Label offset], where [Label offset] is a parameter control I could adjust until the labels fell just inside the bars when the axes are synchronised.

I would have been better off googling how to do it, as Andy Kriebel had already detailed two superior methods in this blog post, including one which keeps your secondary axis free.

Choice 2: Colour

Screenprint 2

I knew I wanted separate colours for swimmers and gymnasts, with other athletes a neutral colour (I had some qualms about using grey in case this was misinterpreted as denoting silver medals, but I considered the risk of this to be small in the context of the overall design).

Often I will chose my own colours by eye, but this time I decide to use Coolors, an application which generates custom colour palettes. One of the first colours suggested was Aquamarine, which seemed perfect for the swimmers. By locking this colour and trying more combinations I found a complementary yellow for the gymnasts.

Using the colours in the takeaway title helps to strengthen the association, and removes the need for a separate key.

Choice 3: Removing duplication

Screenprint 3

In my first draft I had labels for every bar, but this resulted in a significant amount of duplication (there are 3 athletes with 13 medals, 8 with 12 medals, and 5 with 11). I felt the viz would look cleaner by just showing a label for the first instance of each total.

If you are looking for a particular athlete then this may not be optimal, as you may need to move up a few rows to see the value. Having the repeated labels in light grey to de-emphasize, rather than remove, these values is another option.

Choice 4: Additional data layer

Olympic Medal Count

Interactive viz

Now here is where Tableau really comes into its own. Viz in Tooltip was recently introduced as a new feature in the 10.5 release, and I am a huge fan of how it allows you to keep a viz super clean, with details available on demand.

I decided to use Viz in Tooltip to show an additional data layer containing each athlete’s country, sport (information not shown for the grey bars) and gold, silver and bronze medal count by Olympic year.

Final thoughts

People will make different design choices when creating vizzes, but every element of your design should be intentional, even (in fact, especially) if your choice is to retain elements of the default view.

Your chart type may be basic, but your design choices should always be thoughtful.

Ladies and Gentlemen…Album Covers as Data Viz

This week’s Makeover Monday was another one of those I tend to struggle with – just one measure (export value in USD for drugs and medicine) and two dimensions (country and year, with full data for only four years).

As usual I started with a quick exploration of the data, looking at total exports by year then trends by country. Yet it felt like I only had half the picture (exports but not imports). I was surprised to see Germany as the largest exporter, expecting it to be the U.S.  Perhaps U.S. production is mostly for the domestic market?

There seemed like two options: to do what Mike Cisneros describes as looking for the missing dogs (a sankey showing exports and imports?) or to embrace the limitations and think creatively…

Album Covers as Data Viz

Creative up to a point, that is. My idea was to create a homage to Neil Richards’ series of albums as Data Viz, themselves homages to iconic album designs. (You can see examples by Neil here and here, or at the twitter hashtag #AlbumsCoversAsDataViz).

Given the subject matter, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized seemed like a perfect choice (as well as being one of my favourite albums). The artwork for the album was designed by Mark Farrow to resemble prescription medicine, with the CD contained in a foil blister pack and credits resembling medical information.

The circle design lent itself to showing total drugs and medicine export value by year (there is one fewer circle, but it does mean the most recent year to the right of the chart is more prominent). The chart itself is just a circle for each year with a white border and 0% opacity, sized by total export value.


I found an article online that suggested the font used was Helvetica, used HTML Color Codes to get the right shade of blue, and chose text inspired by the original artwork which related to the subject. By importing the original album as an image to use as a template, I was able to make the final design pleasingly close to the original:

The finished image is lacking in insight, of course. However the beauty of viz in tooltips is that I could add detail to the interactive Tableau public version while keeping the design as minimal and clean as the original. So ladies and gentlemen, here is the final version, complete with tooltip for each year showing the total export value and top 10 countries:

Viz in tooltip


Makeover Monday: a different approach

There have been a few changes with Makeover Monday this year, most notably with the move from posting visualisations on rather than Twitter. In terms of tracking submissions this makes perfect sense, although I do think that interactions with other participants would be encouraged by enabling thread view in the discussions.

I have also changed my own approach slightly, and it seems to be working, with both visualisations I have submitted this year being included as a favourite in the weekly round-ups. So what am I doing differently?

It comes back to one of my Q1 aims: to find new angles in data.

Week 4 – Turkey Vultures

Tableau Public viz: How Far Do Turkey Vultures Fly?Turkey VulturesFor a real lesson on the benefits of finding an angle in your data, and using storytelling techniques to share your findings, check out this wonderful viz by Matt Francis.

My own angle was to try and create something for children. I am not sure why this came to mind as the original data is from a fairly dry academic paper. The fact that each vulture in the study was given a name was definitely a factor, and having a primary school teacher for a partner was definitely another.

(I also wasn’t the only person with this idea, I really liked Staticum’s engaging viz They Call Me Domingo).

When I found the delightful Turkey Vulture icons from Birdorable (and was given permission to use them), I knew the idea had potential. It also gave me the opportunity to experiment with mapbox, which I highly recommend as an easy way of adding to the Tableau default maps.

I even created a gamified version to share at my local Code Club, where I volunteer helping 8-12 year olds learn to code (you can play the game at Morongo the Turkey Vulture).

Week 5 – What the Most Profitable Countries Make per Second

What Apple makes in one minute

Week 5’s dataset was one of those I normally struggle with (limited data points, and a subject I am not particularly interested in). I had two main thoughts after my first look at the data: just how far ahead of the other companies Apple where, and just how enormous the company profits are.

A simple bar chart showing all 25 companies in the dataset would have worked well, but just seemed a bit…easy. I also wanted to highlight the sheer size of the profits, which comparing each value against the other doesn’t really do.

My angle was to focus on the time element. By converting the data to profit per minute, and showing a minute pass in the visualisation, the enormity of the profit is underlined. Including selected other companies (concentrating on the most relevant comparisons) allows the viewer to see how far ahead Apple are, as well as adding some visual variety.

Now I love Tableau but I know that the pages function doesn’t work in Public, so for animated visualisations it is not my tool of choice. I don’t currently know D3 (I decided learning Python would be more useful at the moment), although I would love to recreate using D3 at some point.

So I went old school, using PowerPoint to create the initial image then creating 60 new frames, and coverting them to a gif using ScreenToGif (I also created an mp4 version for linkedin using Wondershare Filmora). If you are wondering about the second hand, the trick is to create a line (half black fill, half transparent), then rotate 6° at a time.

And if you are wondering how I found my angle, I divided 360° by 60.


A short note about annotation

One of my aims for this year is to think more like a Data Journalist: to source my own data, find new angles on existing stories, and use annotation to provide context.

So I was delighted to get the following feedback from Mike Cisneros for my most recent visualisation: When Did Happy Days Really Jump the Shark?

MIke Cisneros tweet

If you are not aware of Mike’s work (or blog) you are really missing out – aside from his technical wizardry he is a master of editorial thinking. Check out his recent #MakeoverMonday viz Deconstructing the SCMI for example:


If you are still not convinced of the importance of annotation, here is the same visualisation stripped of the written context. As the title says, Mike is deconstructing the SCMI. But it is the annotation, not the visualisation, that is doing the heavy lifting.


My own visualisation tries to do something similar: the text at the top explain the phrase in the title, argues why this did not occur in the episode in question, and proposes an alternative.

Mark labels highlight the two key episodes, and further detail in the tooltips is signposted using a direct label  Hover

All this is done as concisely as possible in line with Jorge Camoes’ advice that annotation should be “useful and accurate and should not compete for attention…a discreet and helpful whisper.”1

When Did Happy Days Really Jump the Shark?

Happy Days

Yet the importance of annotation in Data Visualisation is often overlooked. Andy Kirk describes it as “the most neglected layer of the visualisation anatomy”and with the exception of his own book it is barely covered in the literature.

Nevertheless neglecting it does the viewer a disservice – annotation acts as a bridge between them and your work (“the interface between data and communication”3), and a failure to consider it may leave the viewer stranded.



Jorge Camoes, Data At Work p339

Andy Kirk, Data Visualisation p247

Elijah Meeks, Making Annotations First-Class Citizens in Data Visualization


My #VizGoals for Q1 2018

I have been thinking about my #VizGoals for 2018 in the last few days and decided to write a short blog about them, partly to hold myself to account and partly to make a start on number 3 🙂

So here they are…I have limited myself to five goals I feel I can achieve in the first three months of the year:

  • Don’t look for a job

That’s right, don’t look for a job.  I have been on a career break since last November and have found the additional development time to be incredibly rewarding.  It also allows more time for volunteer work with Code Club and The Cinnamon Trust.

I feel privileged to be able to do this, and want to use the opportunity more wisely than my last career break in 2007 (when I spent two weeks trying – and failing – to get to the Solovetsky Islands, then took an identical job at a different organisation).

  • Think like a Data Journalist

What do I mean by this?  Every now and again I see a visualisation on Twitter that I immediately want to open on my desktop and explore, or one that gives me a completely fresh angle on something I thought I knew.

This time last year I asked Andy Kirk for advice on developing a portfolio, and his advice was to think like a Data Journalist.  By doing this – searching for data, finding new angles, researching and adding context – I aim to create some of these myself.

  • Blog frequently

I plan to blog more frequently, and not get hung up on whether I feel I have anything to add to other blogs that are out there.  Hopefully the discipline of blogging will be its own reward, and developing my voice will mean some worthwhile insights emerge.

  • Broaden my learning

I would like to broaden my learning as well as deepen my Tableau knowledge, so possibly D3, maybe R, but most likely Python (which may also help with Code Club).  I bought a discounted annual subscription to DataCamp in December, so it is time to start using it.

  • Become a Tableau Desktop Certified Professional

In December I became a Qualified Associate, so my next step is Certified Professional.  If anyone has any advice on how to successfully prepare, please let me know in the comments!

My 2017 #DataMemories

I have enjoyed reading everyone’s #DataMemories in the last few days, so here is my tuppenceworth – five data highlights from 2017, and one lowlight!

The highlights

  • Promoting Data Visualisation within Lloyds Banking Group

One of my two main achievements in my most recent role was the Data Visualisation page I established on the Group’s internal collaboration site (Jive), which brought together all the expertise across the organisation into one place.

As well as creating engaging content including monthly Data Viz digests, a series on unusual graphs, and webinars on how to create effective infographics, I helped to establish the annual Viz of the Year competition and enable best practices to be shared across the Group.

When I left in November (more of which later), the page was in the top 50 most followed sites out of almost 7,000 and in the right hands to make it even more successful.

  • Embedding Tableau within my team, and creating new advocates

My other big achievement was to finally secure access to Tableau Desktop for my team (three years after my first attempt, albeit in a different role).

Through a mix of one-to-one coaching, team self-learning and regular Show and Tells (with Tableau swag as prizes) I was able to upskill a team of 7 analysts and develop a core of Tableau enthusiasts within the department.

It wasn’t a total success – I was still battling for Server access when I left – but it was the first big step in the transformation from providing old school, semi-manual MI to self-serve reporting and meaningful insight.

  • Becoming more involved in the Tableau community

I made more of an effort to attend Tableau User Groups and engage on Twitter in 2017 and I continue to be inspired and educated by the wider community.

Of those I met in person at either the Midlands or London User Groups I would like to thank and give a big shout out to Elena Hristozova, Ali Motion, Neil Richards, Chris Love, Neil Davidson, Sarah Bartlett and Simon Beaumont, with apologies for those I may have missed.

I even left my comfort zone to present my National Student Survey dashboard at Leicester (fuzzy photographic evidence courtesy of Neil Richards) – for more of the dashboards shown see Elena’s post NSS 2017: One data set, many approaches.


Of those I have only engaged with on Twitter, I would particularly like to thank Andy Kriebel and Eva Murray for all their hard work sourcing datasets and providing critiques for Makeover Monday, which formed the basis of over half the vizzes (25/46) I added to my portfolio this year.

  • Putting more time aside for learning, and seeing the results

At the start of the year I reduced my hours so I could spend more time developing my Tableau skills and creating a portfolio.  Then in May my manager offered to pay me for the development time as there was a clear benefit to the business – big mistake!

My good intentions to ring fence my Fridays soon went out the window and the demands of the day job muscled out my development time.

In November I left my job to take a career break, and learnt more in the last two months of the year than in the rest put together – I personally feel that there is a clear increase in quality from the start to the end of the year, with more to come in 2018.

2017 – first 5 vizzes:

Made using TurboCollage from

2017 – last 7 vizzes:

Made using TurboCollage from

I even made Viz of the Day in November for this effort, which made the Tableau Public team’s top 40 Team Picks: Notable Vizzes of 2017:

30 Sustainable Public Transport

  • Becoming a Tableau Desktop Qualified Associate

In December I took – and passed – the Tableau Desktop Qualified Associate exam, luckily submitting my answers just minutes before my internet connection went down!

As someone who is self-taught I found it very useful to learn in a more structured way and fill in some gaps in my knowledge – I found Mark Edwards’ blog post on the exam experience (and the embedded Tiny Tableau Talk by Joanna Hemingway) an excellent resource to help me prepare.

The lowlight

  • When is 74.6% higher than 75%?

The lowlight was a lost afternoon justifying to a senior colleague why my team was reporting her department as Red on a KPI which came in at 74.6%, below the target of 75%.

Her argument was that if you rounded the number up it was the same as the target (and yes, we reported it to 1 decimal place, or with greater precision if just under target).

The silver lining was that this crystallized my perception of elements of the wider culture, and how numbers were used within the area I worked in.  I had been considering – and planning financially for – a career break for over a year, and this helped give me the little nudge required to change paths.

So an exciting 2018 is in store!  Keep an eye on the blog for my New Year #VizGoals (one of which – spoiler alert – is to start blogging again more often).

Why I haven’t blogged or done Makeover Monday recently

This could be the least asked question since “How can I hire Lynton Crosby?” but the stats show this blog still gets a few views each day.  So why the radio silence?

The short answer is that after a lot of lobbying I finally secured Tableau for my team at work, and my development time since has been spent putting together a training plan and creating dashboards for real-life work scenarios, none of which I can share.

Which got me thinking: how much of what people do in Tableau is hidden behind company firewalls?

I did get a peek behind the curtain at the Midlands Tableau User Group last Tuesday with a demo on how Parexel use Tableau (as a portal for multiple external users: an interesting contrast with how we use it as an inward-facing tool to answer business questions using data).

I also created one viz I can share, inspired by an example in the excellent Big Book of Dashboards.  There is a screenprint below, and the interactive jitterplot can be accessed here.

Like everyone in the field I get inspiration from other people’s work, and used Steve Wexler’s post I’ve Got the Jitters (and I Like it!) to create the main chart (albeit the data points are ordered by club name, rather than randomized).  Another reason to keep Tableau Public!

Are home attendance and success related.

The Friday project – week 19

A late – and short – blog post this week as I write from my sickbed, stricken by a bout of man flu…

This week’s lesson: find your angle

My thoughts this week harked back to Andy Kirk’s original advice to think like a Data Journalist: the importance of finding an angle.

Makeover Monday has some excellent examples of this every week, and it is amazing to see just what completely different tacks people take using the same data.

Week 16 had some particular fine examples (take a look at Adam Crahen’s below or read Mike Cisneros’ blog post Going a Different Way: The NHS Dataset).  And if you don’t already follow Mike’s blog, you should – it is a must read.

adam crahen

So I started week 19 looking for an angle, but with limited time to grapple with what seemed a complex and incomplete dataset I landed on a fairly superficial subject for my viz: car price by colour.

I was reasonably happy with my final, simple, colourful design (a lollipop chart using custom marks), and finished it within my hour timeframe, so: a partial success.

Car colour and price

My second viz was made the day after Chelsea won the Premier League, and was triggered by a curious stat I saw that morning: that my team Ipswich Town had been Champions of England more recently than Spurs.

My first step was to find the most recent season each English club has been crowned Champions and show it as a bar chart, but it felt….boring, so with a bit of googling I found the exact date that each team had last won the league and cross-referenced against a list of UK number ones.

It is barely Data Visualisation at all but I had found my angle (look how young Elvis looks, and Madonna!) and I think the songs are more redolent of times past than a number on a bar chart:

Funny how time slips away

The Friday project – week 18

This week’s lesson: be timely

Last week I was experimenting with an infographic to celebrate Lionel Messi’s 500th goal for Barcelona. I was reasonably happy with the results as it is not my normal style, but like La Liga defences, I was playing catch-up.

Messi scored his 500th goal in the game again Real on Sunday 23rd April so I had earmarked the following Thursday to put together my viz (I know – it is called the Friday project – but I had a window in my schedule).

The problem was that Barcelona had a game against lowly Osasuna on the Wednesday night, and Messi scored another two!

messi tweet

With this in mind I was interested to hear earlier in the week that Roma’s new Sporting Director had revealed that Francesco Totti will retire at the end of the season.

Like Messi, Totti is a one-club man and a legendary figure in European football, although unlike Messi he is under appreciated in the UK (check out Hoddle and Souness on Totti if you don’t believe me).

So this seemed like an opportunity to develop the infographic with a new subject, and be ahead of the game when the man himself confirms his retirement, or plays his last game for the club.

As with Andy Kirk’s original advice, although this was far from a scoop, I was beginning to think more like a Data Journalist.

Here is the infographic below, or take a look at the interactive version on Tableau public to use the hover options and play the YouTube video.totti

And, talking of timeliness, here is the Makeover Monday remake I did on Saturday…just the five days late!

Sydney Ferries Network