Last updated: September 26, 2020.

I get messages and emails asking about my story and how I started from people aspiring to enter data visualization. I usually respond to them through lengthy messages. Lately, I have noticed that I get similar questions over and over again. I want to be helpful, but it’s not possible for me to keep repeating myself. I’ve put together this page that lists questions I have been asked relating to my independent career in data visualization.

I hope these questions asked by others will help people who are interested in learning about data visualization as a career path. I mostly speak as an independent, so I’m not too helpful when it comes to landing a job at a company.

This page will be updated as I get new and interesting questions.

An introduction of me as a data visualization designer

2011-2015: studied life sciences as undergrad, completed it and got my Bachelor of Science.
2015-2016: studied design strategy as post-grad program
2016-2017: working in a small start-up in an operations role
2017-2019: worked at Kantar as a data designer
2019-present: independent data visualization designer, while having a side hustle as a social media strategist

I never went to school to formally study data visualization design. I originally studied life sciences and later studied design strategy. Design strategy covered high level skills required to understand business of design. We learned about product design, developing user personas, crafting value propositions, typography, exhibition design, book design, solving wicked problems, systems design, communication, and storytelling. We got our ass kicked on how to deliver stellar presentations that embedded insights. I used to design crappy presentations coming from a science background. Now, I am more thoughtful about what I say.

After I graduated design school in the summer of 2016, I spent a couple months applying to jobs related to design strategy. Sometime in the fall, I went to a language meetup to practice Chinese. I met someone there who was looking to practice Spanish. After we talked, he became my boss for his start-up. I worked there for about eight months. I learned so much about running a business. I saw first-hand how he handed challenges and it was a great experience. I maintained contact with him and see him as my mentor. During my time working there, I handled a lot of admin work. I enjoyed what I was learning, but it wasn’t building towards where I wanted to go. I still yearned for design and I was confused about how to move forward. I decided I needed to try various things to get an idea of what design meant to me.

Let’s back up a bit.

Data visualization came to me through various events when I was in design strategy school. The first incident was when Vanessa Eckstein (principal at Blok Design), one of my design instructors showed me a book called Information is Beautiful. She noted the book was designed by a journalist. I remember flipping through the book and being shocked that this was a field of its own. It was eye-opening. The second incident was when a fellow student (who is a graphic designer), showed me Nicholas Felton and Processing.

Fast forward to when I was working at the start-up, I thought back to what interested me. Data visualization was one of them, among other things, such as film, service design, and UX research. I contacted Vanessa to talk to her about pursuing data visualization. She showed me Edward Tufte’s book, Envisioning Information. I went home, ordered it on Amazon, and my heart started to skip. I was in love.

To test out what I had an aptitude for, I created personal projects on my own time during weeknights and weekends. At the time, I worked from home so this wasn’t hard for me to do. I would finish work, walk to the kitchen to make dinner, then go back to the office and develop my projects until midnight. I was having a blast trying different things out. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or where it was leading up to, but I knew it was interesting enough to keep me engaged.

Around this time, I joined Twitter. I discovered the data visualization community and learned about online challenges like Viz for Social Good and Make over Mondays. These were both relatively new at the time and it was active with a lot of people participating. I would submit my entries and be part of the community.

Slowly, by accident, these projects and online challenges helped me build a portfolio in data visualization. In 2017, I applied for a job at a market research company called Kantar. I applied to the job after I got home from a birthday party. I was quite drunk and somehow, being drunk made me more confident to apply.

Two weeks later, I got the call for the job and a couple months later, I got the job. I worked as a data designer and built PowerPoint reports for Fortune 500 clients. I worked there from August 2017 to August 2019. I continued to develop personal projects as I worked at Kantar. I decided to be independent in 2019 because I wanted to move beyond reports. The transition was very challenging, going from full-time to freelancing. I wrote a feature article about the first four months of my experience on the Nightingale publication on Medium.

As of writing this, it’s been one year since I left my full-time job to be independent. It’s been extremely difficult. I didn’t have consistent revenue from data visualization and made most of my money from social media contracts. Currently, I have decided to close all my social media contracts and focus more on developing data visualization projects that aim to solve specific problems. I am in the middle of a transition and I am testing some ideas out. Whether or not if they work out, only time will tell.

Helpful Resources

If you are considering freelancing in data visualization, here’s a list of resources that might be helpful:

How I Quit My Full-Time Job to Pursue a Freelance Career As a Data Visualization Designer (2019) – The first time I opened up about my career and how I started out independent. So much has changed since then.

How Self-Employed Data Visualization Designers Make a Living (2020) – I interviewed four self-employed dataviz designers and explored their revenue streams and how they built their business.

Data Vis Consulting: Advice for Newbies by Lynn Cherny (2013) — A classic blog post that covers the details on consulting in data visualization.

My first year as a data visualization freelancer by Maarten Lambrechts (2018) — A look at how Maarten started his career freelancing.

Our Advice to Data Viz Designers Just Starting Out by Data Viz Today (2020) — Alli compiled advice from various interviews to help people who are starting out.

Shirley Wu — How To Be A Successful Niche Freelancer (2020) — Shirley Wu talks about how she built her portfolio and network.

Advice for Early-Career Data Visualization Freelancers: Ann’s Interview with Jane Zhang (2020) — This was the video call I had with Ann to help write this article. There are more insights on how she develops her business in this video.

How to Get Your First Data Viz Freelance Project — Featuring Dr. Stephanie Evergreen (2020) — A fantastic interview with great tips on running a small business. My favourite tip was the three main criteria for every project: 1) Fun; 2) Lucrative; 3) No assholes.

Constructing a Career in Dataviz Series – Will Chase (2020) — A series of articles by Will Chase. He gives thoughtful and concrete advice for those just starting out.

How did you learn data visualziation?

I learned through my own time. While I worked at a start-up, I spent my evenings and weekends doing fun projects. I lost a lot of free time. I was lucky that I worked at home. If you are working at a job that takes up more than 40 hrs a week, then it will be extremely challenging to learn on your own time. You could consider switching to a different job with fewer hours.

I took a basic course on Coursera on infographics. It was by Karl Gude and it was very short, about one month. It wasn’t a deal breaker to take this course. I took it because I thought it would be useful and because it was very short.

No matter how many courses you take, the best way I’ve learned data visualization has been through personal projects. If you are starting out, I recommend picking a topic you like, maybe a favourite TV show, game, or hobby. Collect your own data or find them online. If there’s a specific tool you want to learn, such as Adobe Illustrator or d3, I recommend watching some basic intro tutorials to start out.

I picked up Adobe Illustrator while I was studying design. We never had formal courses to learn the software. I sat beside a graphic designer and would glance over my shoulder to see how he used Illustrator. I went to the student lab and asked the coordinator to show me how to do basic things with the program. After graduation, I kept tinkering with Illustrator. I got better every time I was met with a problem. I watched YouTube clips here and there and expanded my knowledge of the tool. I am not an expert at it, but I know just enough to get by. This is important to understand as you learn something new. Don’t expect to understand every aspect of it from the start. Learn how the program works at a high level, and build your skills by applying them through projects.

To learn Adobe Illustrator, the most important tools you need to start with is the pen tool and pathfinder. Master these two and you will have a good grasp of the software.

Here’s a great series of tutorials from Alberto Cairo’s website to help you get started.

I recommend online challenges you can participate. Storytelling with DataViz for Social Good, Make over Mondays are great ways to engage with the data visualization community.

What tools/software do you use for your work?

I specialize in static data visualizations and rely heavily on Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign when I design visualizations. When I organize data, I use Google Sheets. Due to the nature of my work and the small datasets I work with, I don’t rely on tools like RAWgraphs or Flourish. When I organize concepts and ideas, I use post-its. It helps me move ideas around and build new categories. Finally, I use my notebook and pencil to sketch ideas.

What is data visualization?

What a simple yet complex question. In essence, data visualization is the practice of visualizing data, usually quantitative data. Wikipedia defines data visualization as graphically representing data.

If you then ask me what is the difference between information design, infographics, and data visualization, that’s where the lines get blurry. Some people will say they are all the same. I disagree. Generally, I think that information design is the broader discipline that includes data visualizations. Information design also includes wayfinding, a specialization that has been established much longer than data visualization.

When it comes to infographics, I have mixed feelings about them. Technically, all data visualizations are infographics, but not all infographics are data visualizations. Infographics also include qualitative representations of concepts. It can describe how things work through a flow chart or explain the evolution of plants as a species in a Scientific American magazine.

At a high level, data visualization specializes in quantitative data.

What does the data visualization field look like?

Data visualization as a field is broad. You can work for news agencies such as New York Times or Financial Times as a data journalist. You can be in academia and expand the understanding of how data visualization works. You can make art with creative code through programs like d3, processing, or a pen plotter. You can create analogue pieces that aim to add human elements to data. You can work for consulting companies like PwC and Deloitte and be a Tableau master. You can develop data-driven reports for non-profits and help measure their impact.

I suggest talking to people in these specific fields and asking specific questions on their journey. You can find them on Twitter. Do a quick search on Google for ‘Dataviz people to follow on Twitter’. That’s a good place to start.

What were the first couple of months like after you left your full-time job?

It was a huge adjustment going from 9 to 5 to free-for-all. I lost structure in my life and spent a couple of weeks trying to build my routine. My first priority was to help build my side hustle, which was social media work. That’s how I was going to fund my data visualization work. The reason I say this is because the kind of data visualization work I want to do isn’t in demand. I was fully aware of this so I needed something on the side to sustain me. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make data visualization as a career work, but I needed to try out different ideas and projects for as long as I can.

The biggest thing that scared me when I was transitioning out of my job was the nightmares I had in the first couple of months of being independent. I didn’t have them often, but it happened a few times a month. I dreamed that I gave up trying to be independent and I was working in a company. I remember waking up with a mix of feeling shame, guilt, anger, sadness, and regret. I wake up knowing what it felt like to not give myself a chance. There’s nothing more scary than giving up on yourself because you will realize that the only reason you didn’t achieve your dreams was because of yourself. It was a strange experience and it motivated me to try harder. I think subconsciously, I was terrified everyday. I wasn’t sure what I was doing and I felt no direction. It’s not a pleasant experience to live.

Social isolation was a surprise for me. I am an introvert, but I still like social interactions. When I was in an office, I enjoyed saying hello to my co-workers as I walked in the morning. It was nice to have someone to talk to during lunch. Working as an independent, it’s quite lonely. What helped was getting a gym membership. I would work in the morning, have lunch, then walk to my local gym. I would see people and that helped a lot. I want to add that physical exercise is crucial in helping me stay motivated and kept my mental health in check. Working independently is very hard on you mentally. It can be draining and there’s a lot at stake. I had a depressive episode 6 months in, and it was scary. I contemplated a lot about my life and where it was going. During that time, I wasn’t physically active because I got sick and life got very dark. Thankfully, the episode lasted about one week and I was able to get back on my feet.

If you want to read a more detailed account on my first four months, I wrote an article here.

What was it like explaining your decision to be independent to your parents?

I think this question is helpful to those from immigrant families, specifically strict Asian parents.

When I told my mom I wanted to be independent in data visualization, I was honest about my plan and that it was something I needed to try out. I had no resistance going independent because she could sense I was ready for change.

The only time I had resistance was when I decided to study design in a college after I graduated from studying sciences in a university. My mom never agreed for me to study design after I studied life sciences. The main reason was because the design program was in a college, not a university. Colleges here usually specialize in applied skills, while universities specialize in academia. In her mind, universities were superior to colleges. I fought back because I knew what I was getting myself into. It was one of the first times in my life I stood up for myself. I was determined to study design and develop new skills. In my final year studying sciences, I visited all the campuses of the programs I wanted to apply to after graduation. The design program I chose to attend had an impressive class space. The class sizes were small, typically 10 students. The space was amazing, every student had their own desk and iMacs equipped with custom-made furniture and Aeron chairs. It looked like a design studio. During my time there, I enjoyed all the growing pains.

As a child of an immigrant, it’s very hard to talk about ‘chasing dreams’. Parents favour stable jobs that pay well while boosting your family’s reputation. Bonus points if you work at a company everyone knows, like Google or Amazon. Over the years, I have worked on being more communicative of what I want in my life. It’s not easy to do, it lead to arguments and a lot of resentment. But, I always remind myself that at the end of the day, our parents just want us to be happy and not suffer.

As I was working as an independent, I would tell her the little wins I would have here and there. Of course, I also tell her of the times I’d fall down and ask her for advice. I try to engage her with my journey as much as possible. As a result, she sees me working hard. My efforts are visible and as a result, she has grown to be more supportive of my vision for myself.

If you went back to a full-time job, what new skills could you bring to the table?

I am a different person from the first day I was independent. I think the biggest thing I’d bring to the table is confidence. Although confidence isn’t a skill that could help with my job, it certainly does help with I get the job done. Confidence is very valuable to have. It empowers me to say no and advocate for myself, which is extremely important to get things done. I lacked a lot of confidence before I was independent. There’s something that happens when you have to learn how to sell your skills to others. I gained a lot of confidence while I worked with my social media clients. I was very helpful and gave them advice they appreciated. It helped me feel useful, I learned that I had a lot of value to offer. The way I talk about who I am and what I do, everything has changed.

As an independent designer, I am always forced to question why I am doing this. Everyday, I find more clarity, little by little. When I have a strong direction and purpose in what I do, I feel very confident about my existence and my role in life at large.

Do you have any tips on how I could improve my design skills?

Design as a discipline is a beast. It is something that cannot be mastered in one’s lifetime. There are many aspects when it comes to design so don’t expect that you can master it in a crash course. However, you don’t need to be an expert to get by. If you are not looking to have some fluency of design, I’d recommend building an understanding of the following: layout, colour, and typography.

I was recommend the Vignelli Canon for a quick and basic introduction to design. One of my classmates in design school showed me this. Vanessa (the same instructor who showed me the book Information is Beautiful) recommended it to my classmateIt’s amazing how a very well-read instructor could impact my life. Vanessa loved design, she breathed it. I remember when she told me that typography is like Bach. I was speechless when she said that. I didn’t understand how the way type was displayed could emulate music. It was alien to me.

How did you build your website?

I use WordPress for my website. I hired someone on UpWork to help me set up my site and connect it to GoDaddy. I bought my domain, hosting, and SSL certificates through GoDaddy. I have a long-term plan and it costs around $23 CAD per month for my website.

I never took a WordPress course before. I invested a lot of my time tinkering with the interface to know how to use it. I’m still bad at it, but it’s enough for me to get by for now.

The theme I use for my website is called Jupiter.

If you are tight on money, you can use Behance to build a portfolio. Wix is also an alternative, they have a free plan which includes ads. If you are more tech-savvy, you could consider Github Pages.

A website is a home for your work. If you can invest the money in one, I strongly recommend you to. It will become a way to generate new leads and build professional relationships.

How do I stay on track working on personal projects?

A problem a lot of people encounter when they are considering freelancing, is that they can’t show any past work from the company they work/worked at. Chances are, the data you visualized is confidential. There is a way to workaround this. If you are on friendly terms with your manager, you could ask if there are ways to show the work you’ve done with dummy data. This is a tricky line to walk on, judge it based on your own circumstances.

Thus, a lot of folks turn to personal projects as a means to build a public-facing body of work. A portfolio is a mirror of your interests and your expertise. It should reflect the type of work you want to do.

It’s extremely hard to build personal projects while working full-time. It eats away your weeknights and weekends, and it could adversely affect your well-being. There’s no easy way to get this done. I have a few tips to help you get them done.

  1. Build a project on a topic you care about. It could be on a show you enjoy, a favourite hobby, or maybe a favourite song. If you enjoy the topic, you are more likely to complete the project.
  2. Give yourself a time limit. Don’t let the project drag on forever. Give a hard deadline and work towards that. I suggest limiting them to no more than 2-3 months. Of course, this would depend on the type of project you are doing.
  3. Be realistic. Don’t be too ambitious with this. It’s better to make 3 good projects in a year than 1 ‘perfect’ project in the same time. Scale back if your projects get too big.
  4. It’s helpful to write out a short brief before you start your project. Identify why you are doing the project, who your audience is, and what your intended outcome is.
  5. Every time you sit down to work on your project, write out the tasks in your notebook that would mark this session as complete. It’s important to measure what ‘done’ looks like so you don’t dread starting your project.
  6. After each session, if possible, write down a list of next steps. This makes it much easier to pick up the project again for your next session. It’s very easy to forget what you did if you are working a full-time job in between.
  7. Focus on one project at a time. It’s a very bad idea to start a project in the middle of one in progress. You will feel scattered, overwhelmed, and regretful. Finish one project before moving onto the next one.
  8. If you think it’s useful, track the time it takes to do your projects. I use Clockify (free) to track my time. It helps me give estimates on how long it takes to complete my work. If I ever get asked for a quote, I can give them a reasonable ballpark.
  9. Try to work on your project in large chunks of time. It’s even better if you can prevent interruptions. There’s a reason why writers go to hotels to write. They can focus during a stretch of time uninterrupted. It’s extremely inefficient to work on your project for 10 minutes, get interrupted, then spend another 10 minutes trying to figure out where you left off. Aim to have each working session to be at least 30-40 minutes.
  10. Make sure to track your progress and take screenshots/photos of your work. Process content is very useful when explaining how you work. If your project makes it into your portfolio, this type of content helps people build an appreciation of your work and skills.
How do you structure your day?

I chunk my day into sections. I focus my mornings on getting administrative tasks done. I respond to e-mail, do some writing, record a video, check my website or post social media stuff. I try to focus my morning on finite tasks. These are tasks that I could quickly complete and don’t drag on. I have my lunch, then take a break. Sometimes I would squeeze in a workout session.

For the rest of the day, I reserve it for creativity-intensive work, which has no finite end. If I need to come up with new ideas or designs, I usually do them in the afternoon. I can iterate on design ideas forever and that’s why it’s not a good idea to do them early in the day. I would never feel the gratification of checking something off and calling it done.

Is data visualization in demand on the job market?

Data visualization is a very broad industry. It encompasses a wide variety of skills and cuts through diverse sectors.

Keep in mind that I only worked at Kantar and worked on developing PowerPoint reports. I don’t have experience in any other company to say for sure. The following is only my speculation. Take it with a grain of salt.

From my perspective so far, data visualization is growing. In terms of job prospects, it depends. It’s common for companies to hire a coach to train their staff in data visualization, rather than hire someone dedicated to it. So this means to have an entire job dedicated to data visualization, it needs to be specialized. Data visualization as a skill expresses itself in different places. You can be a designer, data journalist, data scientist, business analyst, front-end developer, researcher, and so on. The money is mostly in the business sector clustering in big data. Tableau and Power BI are highly sought after. I don’t see this dying down anytime soon and it will continue to be relevant.

The real question becomes: why you? Why would someone hire you? Growth in an industry also means more competition. Think about why you are different and what is something you can do that few others do.

How do you stay motivated?

Why did you start data visualization in the first place? What motivated you in the first place?

For me, I was drawn to its ability to stand out as a communication medium. When I first discovered it, it was something new to me. It felt unique and it combined my background in science and design. My early personal projects focused on collecting data about my life and expressing it through data visualization. I continue to do this in the form of ‘data documentaries’.

In my first year as an independent, I focused my energy to build an awareness of who I was and who I wanted to become. I looked for a vision to guide me. At a high level, my vision is to create outcomes that could only be achieved through static data visualizations. A film documentary shows you the story in 1.5 hours. A data visualization can tell a similar story on a poster.

Motivation comes from deep within. I do data visualization because it’s new territory. I go places no one else has and can touch a future not yet seen. 

What do you do as a social media strategist?

When I quit my job, I knew that I wouldn’t have much luck finding data visualization clients right away. I decided to have social media as the side hustle to my side hustle.

Social media is always in demand. People understand what it and I don’t need to educate clients on its value. Data visualization is different. It comes in many forms and has tremendous value. Yet, a lot of people dismiss it.

It was important to me to be professionally engaged and be useful. I felt I had value and was helpful to others. It’s a good feeling to help people build their business. As a social media strategist, I worked with small business owners to build their brand. I found most of my clients on UpWork. In August 2020, I decided to stop all social media work. I spent the year shuffling between social media clients and data visualization. It’s time I gave more of my attention to data visualization. I have ideas I want to explore for 2020-2021.

It’s very helpful to have skills in social media. I observed other’s people’s businesses and gave advice that helped them grow. I learned from these experiences and I could apply it to my own work. Working in social media had multiple outcomes in my favour. I made revenue, learned about marketing, and felt good helping others grow.

My best client found me through one of my articles on my career journey. They found me when they were going through a lot of challenges in life. I helped them build their brand from the ground up. I built their website, helped them define their brand, built a newsletter, and published an article online. At the end of our working relationship, they became a completely different person. They were more confident in their abilities and it was extremely fulfilling to hear them change in the course of our contract. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to empower others to build their independence as a brand.

Why do you only make static data visualizations?

Because I have talent for it. I am horrible at writing code. I’ve committed to it for six months at one point, it failed miserably. I don’t have the patience to figure things out. I would rather use a tool where I can immediately see the outcome. Whether that’s a sketch, something in Illustrator, or on PowerPoint.

I don’t like to dwell on what I’m not good at. So, I spend all my time to be a master at what I do.

I'm starting from ground zero, how do I start?

If you have no skills or experience in data visualization, then start by joining the community. Data Visualization Society is a good start. Join the conversation on Twitter. That’s where it’s most active. Engage with people, respond to comments. Over time, you will build a community. If you can, identify people similar to you. Ask them if they want to form a Slack group and regularly share ideas or challenges. I am part of a small group and we are all in a similar position. We are all independent or striving to be one. We share our wins or vent out our frustrations. We share useful links, recommend things we use for our business. Talk about how to deal with contracts, etc.

The next step is to know your goal. Is your goal to get a job at a specific company? Do you want to freelance and have a specific client in mind? This is the hardest part. It will take time to work through.

Finally, develop and showcase your skills. What do you need to be good at? Adobe Illustrator? D3? Tableau? Learn through personal projects or online challenges. Share these projects online to keep yourself accountable. It will keep you going to see positive encouragement from the community. Slowly, you will develop a portfolio that can express your expertise and interests. A portfolio is nothing more than a way to reflect our desires. It reflects the work we want to do, not just work we’ve already done.

Network as much as possible as you develop your skills. I am based in Toronto and there’s not that many people who are interested in data visualization. If I find someone has written an interesting article, I would reach out to them on LinkedIn and ask to meet. I try to get to know them and build a relationship. Stay engaged with them if possible. Share interesting links. Out of 10 people you connect with, maybe only 1 is a connection that will sustain. I continue to do this. Sometimes, I get a note from someone when they send me a connection request on LinkedIn. If they are from Toronto, I initiate to meet them. I truly believe that people make opportunities happen. If you know the right people, you get access to them. It’s a long game and takes time and effort. I’ve had some connections that didn’t go anywhere. But some lead me to interesting places. You never know. Stay vigilant. 

What's your process?

I get asked this question all the time! My process isn’t always the same. The description below only applies to my process with personal projects.

Currently, my process starts with putting together a design brief. I list out the problem I am aiming to solve, target audience, and intended outcomes. Then I explore the idea through sticky notes. This is a common practice in design strategy. I sketch ideas with pen and paper. I do lots of research of the topic and study design precedents. To study design precedents means looking up similar work and understanding how they executed on their concept. I find work on Behance or Pinterest. Finally, I put my work into Illustrator, fuss over the small details, then realize I was making something off the mark. So, I go back to ideation and explore new ideas. It’s a real mess. The process isn’t linear. It moves around a lot.

Eventually, I find clarity and can focus on the outcome.

If you have the appetite, I documented my work on a project I did on Tekken. It’s messy because I wrote it as I did my project. You can find the work in progress posts here. If you want to see the final outcome, click here.

Subscribe to Jane’s Newsletter

I’ve had many insights about life, work, data visualization, design, and creativity ever since I became an independent designer. I have been documenting them as much as I can. I write for Medium publications, write on my blog, and discuss on various Slack channels. I decided that I wanted to put all of my thoughts into something less formal while keeping it consistent. A newsletter seemed like the ideal way to do this. It’s not a newsletter meant for clients, it’s meant for people who want to learn more about what it’s like to be an independent data visualization designer.

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