How To Get Insight From Data Visualization: SHUT UP and SLOW DOWN! | Beth's Blog

How To Get Insight From Data Visualization: SHUT UP and SLOW DOWN!


From SXSW Session: Shut Up and Draw

I have been interested in visualization techniques, visual facilitation, and visual thinking since 1991 when I read Tony Buzan’s book, “Using Both Sides of the Brain: Mind Mapping Techniques” that started me down a very slow and leisurely learning journey.      This year I’ve been focusing on data visualization and techniques for nonprofits – and working on my visual thinking skills without letting my basic drawing skills become a barrier.

I’ve been a fan of Dan Roam’s work since his book “The Back of the Napkin” in 2008.  He was the keynote speaker at the 2012 NTC this year talking about the ideas in his recent book, “Blah Blah Blah:  What To Do When Words Don’t Work.”   I’ve gone back to his workbook based on his first book to practice and improve visualization skills and thinking as well as drawing.

He has some terrific advice about how to apply visual thinking to your data visualization and to get insights.    But first, he simplifies what visual thinking is:  Look, See, Imagine, and Show.

Look:  What is out there?  What am I looking for?  What are the limits?
See:   What do I see?  Have I seen this before?  What patterns emerge?  What stands out?
Imagine:  How can I manipulate the patterns?   Can I fill in gaps?  Have I seen enough or do I need to look at more?
Show:  This is what I saw, this is what I think it means.   Is this what I expected or not?  When you look at this, do you see the same things?

These are a great set of questions to ask as you look over your data.  The steps are:

  • Collect your data
  • Lay it out where you can really look at it
  • Establish the underlying coordinates
  • Map the data
  • Draw a conclusion

As a trainer,  I always do a participant assessment to understand their experience, knowledge, and attitudes related to the topic – for the most part social media and networked nonprofits.   I have a survey that allows me to understand the composition of the group in aggregate as well as the maturity of practice levels for each individual participant according to “Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly.” Understanding this, I can adjust and customize the curriculum level and content.

I use survey monkey and grab the visual chart for each question and dumping each chart into its own Powerpoint slide.   I thought was done!  But I realized that having the visuals for each question on a separate slide did not let me see patterns.    I also found the ready-made charts from survey monkey ugly and distracting … but lacking graphic design skills and drawing skills.   Then, I caught myself in the negative thinking trap and told myself, “shut up and draw!”

I gave myself 30 minutes, played Mozart on my Ipod and looked at all the data one page.   I followed Dan Roam’s steps  I did some rough drawings, but I wanted to create more insightful visuals. Then I discovered Chartwell Fonts.   This font lets you take simple strings of numbers and transform them into charts. The visualized data remains editable, allowing for hassle-free updates and styling.   You have to slow down to create the charts and you really how to think about the “show step.”    When you use automated excel or survey monkey charts, it encourages you to skip that important step.

Old Way – Not Visual Thinking – Automatically Create Visual for Every Survey Question on Separate Powerpoint Slide

Better Method:   Create Visualizations of Important Data and Pull Together On One Slide

This took some time, but the ability to stretch my visual thinking muscles was worth it.    I know understand the process and it took less time the second time it did, and even less the third.

What is your techniques or process visualizing data?


10 Responses

  1. Tina says:

    Hi Beth,
    Very insightful– do you know where I can download the Chartwell Fonts?

  2. Mary Lynn says:

    Thanks for spotlighting Dan Roam’s work, and for mentioning Chartwell Fonts. I’m sure you’ve found his work to be a huge help in your work – I’m hoping to incorporate drawing more and more into my work. I’ve been a fan of Dan’s work for a while, and bought (and read!) his books, but couldn’t afford the 2 day seminar he held in NYC. So when Dan launched his on-line “Napkin Academy” workshops I signed up. I’m slowly working my way through the video clips, doing some every week. Thanks again, Beth, for bringing this body of work to the attention of your readers.

  3. Linda says:

    Our local museum, Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz, headed up by Nina Simon (Blog is Museum 2.0), is using Pinterest in a creative way to visually “work” on projects, sharing their pinned boards. Each board is project specific, and they started out pinning visual ideas & sayings, etc. It was being used internally, but then outside people started to contribute, so they are now getting a lot of visual “buzz” for furture projects. Very inspiring, very cool.

  4. Beth says:

    Tina: If you follow link in the post, it will take you to my and you can to the link for the fonts which is here:

  5. Beth says:

    Mary Lynn: Wow, an online Napkin Academy – that sounds like a great opportunity to learn.

  6. Fard Johnmar says:


    Great post. Can you provide info on whether the fonts require InDesign or how you used them with Word, etc.? This will be helpful for those of us trying to determine if the font will work for us.

  7. Beth says:

    Fard — I don’t use Indesign, but I downloaded a trial of photoshop and it worked in that. I didn’t want to spend money on Photoshop. So, I did a hack in Microsoft Publisher — you have to get to the advanced font tab on the font dialog box which is a little arrow. Then you have to check the box for stylistic alternatives or stylistic set 1.

    I then screen captured the resulting chart.

    If you are in the US, there is a tech support number you can call and ask –

    For service during US business hours please contact:
    In the USA: 1 888 FF FONTS (1 888 333 6687)
    From outside the USA: +1 (415) 252 1003

  8. […] Kanter’s blog posting on Jun 1st provides several ideas about thinking visually, How to Get Insight from Data Visualization: SHUT UP and SLOW DOWN!   She provides a good reminder to not store data in silos, rather look at relationships in data, […]

  9. Fard Johnmar says:


    Just wanted to pop back in to give you a big thank you. I contacted the folks at FontFont (the company selling the font) and they were very helpful in terms of getting everything up and running. For those using Mac computers, one great program to use (that’s much more flexible than Word and less expensive than Adobe) is Omnigraffle. Omnigraffle works well with these fonts, which made creating charts and graphs much easier for our staff, as we put together lots of infographics.

    Appreciate the response from you and you providing this great resource (re: the fonts), as it has saved us lots of money and time.



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