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A lesson in data visualization with Nick Desbarats

Published May 20 2024 4 minute read Last updated May 20 2024
Nick Desbarats
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  • Sean Dougherty
    Written by Sean Dougherty

    A copywriter at Funnel, Sean has more than 15 years of experience working in branding and advertising (both agency and client side). He's also a professional voice actor.

Data visualizations are, arguably, the most important part of working with data. They are the lens through which you (and your audience) can understand the insights embedded within your data. 

Visualizations are so important that our own product team has sought out the wisdom of leaders in the field. One of those leaders we’ve learned from is best-selling author Nick Desbarats. He is considered to be one of the foremost data visualization experts. His books and workshops are sought after worldwide by those who want to harness the power of effective charts and dashboards.

So, with Funnel Dashboards newly released to our customers worldwide, we thought it was high time to sit down with Nick to understand his views on visualization and how he found himself at the center of the field. 

Nick Desbarats, author and data visualization expert

Taking the scenic route

You may be surprised to learn that Nick didn’t start his career in the data visualization field. In fact, like many people in data visualization, he took an indirect path. 

In Nick’s telling, he worked as a software developer for years before exploring new roles and even starting his own businesses. In his 30s, he developed a side interest in psychology — particularly in cognitive biases and the psychology of perception. While he found the subject fascinating, even collecting several dozen books on the subject, it remained more of a hobby than a business interest. 

That is until he attended a workshop by Stephen Few in 2013. 

Lots of epiphanies

“He’s a guru in the dashboard design space,” said Nick. “My interests in psychology and data collided in that workshop. I was a real revelation..”

This workshop served as Nick’s introduction to the world of data visualization, and it was mind-blowing to him. 

“It was a multi-day workshop, and there were a lot of epiphanies,” said Nick. “I realized that data visualization had more in common with writing than I thought.” 

Like many others, his preconception was that data visualization was mostly a “technical” skill. However, over the course of the workshop, Nick saw that it was more about communication among people. 

“Creating a chart is a lot like writing an article or essay in that the main goal is to cause some kind of change in the mind of the audience, such as making them aware of a problem or opportunity, or persuading them to take a specific action,” said Nick. 

While data visualization can involve subjective elements like storytelling, Nick advises that it’s not purely subjective. There are, in fact, quite specific guidelines for choosing chart types, choosing color palettes, and for making most other design decisions. 

A teacher is born

From that workshop, Nick became hooked, and he asked Mr. Few to teach him how to teach the workshops which had so enthralled him. . 

Almost like an apprentice sushi chef, Nick went through about seven months of intense training with Mr. Few to learn how to deliver his workshops. During this time, Nick picked up many of the secrets of his visualization mentor.

When Mr. Few announced his retirement from teaching in 2019, he encouraged Nick to develop his own workshops. But it was an unexpectedly difficult time to start a new solo venture. 

“I launched my workshops at the start of the pandemic,” said Nick. “Not ideal timing.”

But that didn't deter Nick. He adapted his in-person workshops for delivery online and started writing two books. He launched his first book, Practical Charts, in November 2023 — followed by his second book, More Practical Charts, in January 2024. Both the course and the books have been popular, with Practical Charts becoming an Amazon #1 New Release and being used as a textbook at Yale. 

The art of book writing

Like anyone approaching book writing, he thought it would be fairly straightforward. Except…

“It was horrific,” said Nick. “It was much harder than I’d expected. It was so hard to figure out how to structure all of the guidelines that I felt were important to include. I had to block off weeks and weeks of uninterrupted time for writing. You almost have to hold the entire book in your head at once, then ask yourself, ‘Does this sentence make sense at this point in the book?’” for every single sentence.”

All of the hard work has paid off so far, though. He has received glowing reviews from beginners along with globally recognized experts like Andy Cotgreave and Alberto Cairo. 

Practical Charts covers 30 essential chart types, including when, where and how they should be used. More Practical Charts then delves into 20 more “advanced” chart types, such as scatter plots and histograms. 

Nick's first book: Practical Charts

While writing both books, Nick wanted to make sure that everyone, from beginners to advanced information designers, could take something away. 

“There are many books about data visualization,” said Nick, “but many don’t actually offer specific guidance. They tend to ultimately boil down to ‘use your judgment’ when it comes to design choices like chart type and color selection. I wanted to be more specific and concrete in the guidelines that I offered.”

Indeed, Nick has tried to make his book as definitive as possible. It even features decision trees to help readers select the best chart type for a wide variety of circumstances. 

Nick's second book: More Practical Charts

Guiding philosophies for data visualization

If you can create decision trees that define the exact chart type that should be used in a given situation, there should be some underlying principle that guides it, right? 

For Nick, it all starts with the “why.”

“I advise chart creators to move away from merely thinking of charts as visual representations of data,” said Nick. “Instead, you need to figure out why you’re making a chart in the first place, and think about how you can design the chart so that it does that job.” 

Is the purpose of your chart to persuade an audience of your views? Are you trying to inspire them to take action, or just trying to make them aware of a specific problem or opportunity? The purpose of your visualization will, then, influence all of your design choices, from chart type selection, to choosing whether to make quantitative scales wider or narrower, and everything in between. 

Playing favorites

With so much experience and expertise in data visualization, you might think Nick keeps a few favorite chart types in his back pocket. But you’d actually be quite wrong. When pressed to name his favorite chart types, Nick pointed out a crucial fact while alluding to his visualization-writing analogy. 

“You shouldn’t have favorite chart types,” said Nick. “Otherwise, you might be like those people who favor certain words when writing, even when those words aren’t the best choices.” 

According to Nick, allowing yourself to have favorite (or least favorite) chart types adversely affects the quality of your design choices. Instead, your goal should be to let go of your favorites and learn how to choose the best chart type for the situation at hand, regardless of how much you personally like or dislike that chart type. 

Surely, though, there are charts that Nick doesn’t like. 

“In my view, there are two groups of charts,” said Nick. “There are about a dozen chart types that, in my opinion, are virtually never the best choice. And then there’s all the other chart types, which can be the best choice in specific situations.” 

To discover Nick’s “dirty dozen” chart types, you’ll have to read his books. Be sure to head over to his website to purchase them. While you’re there, you can also find information about his training workshops, including upcoming dates. 

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