Susan Kistler on a Free Book Drawing and Free Online Training on Infographics and Data Visualization

My name is Susan Kistler. I am the American Evaluation Association’s Executive Director and aea365’s regularly Saturday contributor. Back in September, I wrote about the emergence of huge, free, online courses – some of them taught by leading-edge thinkers in a particular field. I noted that I’d need to wait until winter to enroll in one, given AEA’s schedule and upcoming conference. Well, I saw a snowflake yesterday, I’m wrapping holiday gifts, and we’ve dug the hats and scarves out of the attic. Winter’s here and I’m ready for a bit of professional invigoration!

Rad Resource – Subscribe to Evaluspheric Perceptions: AEA Member Sheila Robinson has started her own blog, focusing on “Reflections of an everyday evaluator/learner/educator exploring the evalusphere.” She’ll be telling us more about her blog during this winter’s installation of the aea365 bloggers series, but suffice it to say that she brings a unique voice, an on the ground perspective, and an evaluative lens to her writing. And…it was her blog that alerted me to a course being offered this winter that I just can’t pass up.

Hot Tip – Enroll in the Free Knight Center’s Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization: The course is online, and free, and will be offered between January 12 and February 23. According to the course information, we’ll learn the basics of:

“How to analyze and critique infographics and visualizations in newspapers, books, TV, etc., and how to propose alternatives that would improve them.

How to plan for data-based storytelling through charts, maps, and diagrams.

How to design infographics and visualizations that are not just attractive but, above all, informative, deep, and accurate.

The rules of graphic design and of interaction design, applied to infographics and visualizations.

Optional: How to use Adobe Illustrator to create infographics.”

Rad Resource – The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization: The course is being taught by Alberto Cairo, author of The Functional Art.  You don’t need to buy the book to take the course (you’ll be given free access to select chapters), but my copy arrived earlier this week. It is a mix of theory, practice, and research and appears to offer a solid grounding in both the art and science behind data visualization.

Hot Tip – Win a Free Copy! We haven’t had a book drawing in a while on aea365. Share your favorite resource or tip for improving data visualization via the comments (just click on the session title if you are receiving this via email to get back to the website). We’ll draw a name at random from among the comments posted on or before Friday, December 14, and the winner will receive a free copy of The Functional Art. Anyone is welcome to enter, but only one entry per person please!

The above represents my own opinions, and not necessarily that of AEA. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

33 thoughts on “Susan Kistler on a Free Book Drawing and Free Online Training on Infographics and Data Visualization”

  1. Like many others eliminating “junk” is imperative. I often create a summary or big headline graphic element for the masses with a corresponding visualization for those who want to know more.

    1. I love learning from the dataviz at the New York Times. Today, there was also an interesting article on their data artist in residence! This Man Makes Data Look Beautiful – artist in residence @nytimes but…does it increase understanding?

  2. Stephen Few’s book Show Me the Numbers (2nd Ed) was so helpful for me to learn what to / to not include in graphs and tables. It covers the essentials! He also includes 3 different color palettes (with RGB codes) to use for different types of graphs, which I have pinned above my computer monitor, because I am a total geek.

  3. I’m a fan of — it’s a great resource for those of us who struggle with figuring out what colors go together. This has really helped me design some visually pleasing PowerPoints and charts.

  4. Thank you for this initiative. Someone asked about the time commitment you will need to make to complete the MOOC. That depends a lot on your previous experience. If you are a designer, 4-6 hours a week is a realistic expectation. If you don’t have experience (and the course is aimed at this kind of people), the amount of hours will be higher.

    Some bloggers that have taken the course say that they used up to 10 hours in the last weeks of the course, when the projects get more complicated. That’s an average of more than one hour and a half a day. The course is pretty demanding and challenging, but also rewarding, according to some reviews:

  5. My tip: Never use the default settings when graphing in Microsoft Excel. You can almost always improve your charts and graphs simply by removing gridlines, removing tick marks, increasing font size, switching color schemes, adding data labels, etc.

  6. Two years ago I switched careers to program evaluation. I knew I had the drive towards this direction but found myself always looking for an area in the field that felt like home. I soon discovered it in data visualization; it combines my backgrounds in art and data analysis. Working on a visual gives a sense of tangibility as it moves from concept to a neat little package. I am registered for the MOOC in January and looking forward to learning skills and theory. Love it! Thank you Susan for posting about it!

  7. Have clarity about the story you are trying to tell, and what do you want your audience to know. Try and not get caught up in showing off your technical skills in visualization (remember playing with PPT animations?). As Leonardo da Vinci said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

  8. I like to use ArcGIS for data visualization, but used to struggle with picking color schemes for the maps.
    This website helps you choose color ramps specifically for taking into account the needs of print, online, color blind viewers, and/or photocopying.

  9. I find that designing visualization in two passes works best for me. The first pass is to clearly identify WHAT needs to be communicated. That’s the step that too many people skim over, and it undermines the effectiveness of their visuals. It can be messy – I start with a braindump, just writing “what I want to say” in no particular order. Then I do a “reverse outline” which helps me to organize my points more clearly and effectively. Only then do I move to the second pass, in which I identify what points can best be made visually. That’s the HOW, but it depends on the WHAT.

    Edward Tufte can be considered a rad resource, even though he’s been around a while. Just the admonition to avoid “chart junk” would improve most graphics.

  10. Ann Cisney-Booth

    I’m excited to hear about this course! I’m hoping to fit in my schedule.

    I’m consider myself a novice at data visualization and found Stephen Few’s book “Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis” very helpful when I started data visualization venture.

  11. Thanks, Susan!

    This site has some interesting and free learning resources for filming (that’s data visulazation, eh?).

    Also, Trello is a free resource that can be interactive. For example, suppose you have a bunch of finidngs and need to know which are relevant and important, which don’t matter to the stakeholders, and which are confusing:
    You click on a “card”, type the finding on it (short and sweet on the front; turn the card “over” and add graphics, text, anything).
    Stakeholders meeting not in the same room or same time can click on a card and move it to one of the areas labeled “Not important” “Important” “confusing” etc.

  12. “Make something, ask others, reiterate.” — General advice for designers, very apt for designing visualizations!

    Sometimes, we get so lost in coming up with a beautiful & functional visualization, we tend to overdo it. Every once a while, ask some random/non DataViz geek for feedback (and see if you’re getting the point across!)

    PS: I’m also registered in Alberto’s second Data Viz course. Looking forward to some awesome discussions! 🙂

  13. For me, one of the best things I did to improve my data visualization was to get out of the Microsoft Office suite.

    It is very easy to create a chart in Microsoft Excel (once you learn the style) — but this ease of creation can sometimes lead me into a rut where most of my charts look the same. By diversifying the programs I use (Adobe, online tools, etc) I find myself being more adventurous and effective in my data visualizations.

    BTW – I am also enrolled for Cairo’s MOOC in January (I was wait-listed for the first class so I’m glad I’m in this one). Thanks for your comment Stephanie about the time-management piece – this is a new experience for me so it is helping me plan my January schedule.

  14. This isn’t a revolutionary tip, but I’d say that it’s very important to design an infographic with a clear objective in mind. I’ve seen charts, infographics, etc. used that were poorly planned and that didn’t add anything to the presentation or report in which they were included, almost as if the authors added one for the sake of appearing innovative. There are lots of great online tools and databases to help you design an infographic, but if you don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place, there’s a bigger issue!

  15. I got pulled into data viz through Stephen Few’s work. One simple thing that caught on for me was using hues of one color instead of using different colors. This would pay dividends within a few weeks of starting that standard. A stakeholder to whom I provide data thanked me for accomodating his colorblindness. I had been completely unaware of it, but thanks to Few, I brought that population into consideration.

  16. Stephanie Evergreen

    I just finished Cairo’s first MOOC this past week. It’s good. But it’s hard to balance out the time needed for reading, lectures, and assignments with a busy schedule. There’s no professor asking you where your homework is. So block out the time in your schedule each of the 6 weeks.

    1. Thanks Stephanie for the tip! Can you tell us about how long you would estimate the commitment is each week? I’m hoping to get his book read over the holidays, so perhaps with/without book readings?

  17. Thanks for the tips Susan! I hope to take the course. As a data visualization expert I am always seeking opportunities to learn and grow. Here’s a twofer: Check out Stephen Few’s blog at He is a leader who is helping shape and form the fields of data visualization and business intelligence in ways that will help people get to the truth. His November 5th post summarizes the highlights the work of another leader in using data to solve our most complex problems: Nate Silver. Mr. Silver’s book: The Signal and the Noise is one I am eager to read and that Stephen highly recommends.

    1. Actually, its a threefer: Stephen also offers workshops on dashboard design that I highly recommend. I have found his workshops to be critical to the development of my data visualization practice.

  18. Nice post! I’m a grad student in sciences, and a newbie at datavis. Observations based on my personal experience and attending various science talks, here’s my tip for putting together a visual: if there are more than a few trend lines to show on a plot where you’re trying to highlight a specific one, pick all the other ones in a color space that is distinguishable enough to know that lines are different, but not so different that brain is busy looking at the unimportant lines. And of course, choose color with higher contrast/hue for the important line. Be cautious though. Do not change thickness of lines. Added weight can fool viewers into thinking that another variable besides the time (or trend line) is important.

  19. I would recommend the book Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few as a resource on this topic. The book addresses the research behind why some data visualization formats are better than others in a given situation. It also provides lots of great before and after examples. While the book is specific to dashboards, I have found that many of the ideas lend themselves to a number of different applications.

  20. Well done post Susan and thanks for the shout out! I’m excited about the course and already purchased my copy of the book (so don’t enter my name in the drawing – I’m rootin’ for someone among my eval friends to win it!). I know some evaluators who have already taken Cairo’s course and others who are enrolled in the January session, so we’ll be in good company and likely develop some great additional blog material along with our new skills! 🙂

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