Although it was meant as a put-down, I believe that one of greatest compliments anyone ever gave me was this: “Ken just plays with pictures.”
Little did this person realize, I was “playing with pictures” because I was in a high-speed pursuit of my life-long passion.
Sometimes you can be riding in the lead locomotive, stoking the engine by shoveling coal into the furnace while the conductor blows the horn, and sometimes you can be in the caboose. In my case, I was riding near the front of the train for years, seemingly by myself as the train rolled down the tracks. I was isolated in that compartment, which was a good thing because it gave me the time and freedom to fall in love with data visualization without any fear of recrimination.
It was during this time, I was practicing turning numbers into pictures. In other words, I was “playing with pictures.” Not only was I playing with pictures, I was playing with data. What I learned is that to be good at turning numbers into pictures, you have to be excellent at modifying data.
I was conducting my own version of Makeover Monday, long before the concept was created. I was testing, improvising, experimenting and creating visualizations with all kinds of data in an attempt to tell the stories hidden in data.
Although I was unwillingly being forced to create rudimentary black and white graphics for client presentations, I was filling my office with explosive color charts, dashboards, and visualizations that had personalities like cartoon characters. Sometimes I believed that these pieces of paper were talking to me. When I created these items, I’d print them, study them, and then stack them in the bottom of the bookcase to be reviewed later on.
Years later, I found them as I unstacked the stack as I prepared to leave the company. I saw the progression of my passion. I saw the growth and development of my style and techniques. It was like opening up a time capsule. It was similar to reading a book about someone’s life but in this case, the pictures told the story.
Looking back on this formative time for me, I realize that this type of creative practice isn’t much different than the following iterative activities:
- Musicians creating music with lyrics and instruments;
- Cooks making great things to eat by using ingredients and experimentation;
- Athletes creating new moves on the basketball court or perfecting their 3-point shot;
- Writers creating short stories as they worked their way up to writing full-length books;
- Woodworkers making beautiful furniture from rough sawn boards whose grain is hidden within.
The Allure of Data Visualization
It is this form of practice that is liberating and exhilarating. When you are hooked on playing with pictures, you will realize that you have become smitten by the allure of data visualization.
The allure occurs because we work with numbers. Numbers by themselves are relatively boring. Long lists of numbers are exceptionally boring. Tables of numbers are the worst. However, if you have the love of math and numbers and quantitative work is your destiny, what else can be better than turning these numbers into miniature works of art that inform us?
Today I heard my friend at work say this: “I have determined that my best days at work occur when I am building Tableau dashboards because the time seems to fly by”. I understood what he meant because I have spent about a decade doing just that. For many years I felt a slight twinge of guilt over loving my job so much that taking pay did not quite seem fair. If felt this way because I was having such a good time playing with pictures.
Moreover, today I realized that my friend has learned in his first year of work what took me many years of practice to realize. He already has a full-blown love affair with Tableau.
This has occurred to him because he is damn good at building dashboards. He has an instinct for it. His natural artistic flair explodes off his dashboards. Pleasing colors are combined with solid design to create interactive tools that spreading around the company like mini wildfires, being viewed thousands of times.
Our internal business clients are writing notes to us, thanking us for making their jobs better and more fun. We are helping them deliver the truth in their work. It is this type of activity that can provide the impetus for someone to reach the highest level of their craft and it is a sneaky, alluring activity.
Tableau gives us mere mortals this type of ability. We may not all be like Jonni Walker, whose talents are transcendent, but we can practice our craft and become pretty darn good at playing with pictures.
The next time you look at the clock and see it is 2 am and you are playing with your pictures, don’t feel guilty. Just remember that I told you it is OK to feel the passion, to pursue your dreams. Don’t let anyone ever put you down by saying all you do is “play with pictures”.