(upbeat music) - So it's time now for the listen portion of this episode and I'm very happy to have Nadieh Bremer with me, coming in from Amsterdam. Nadieh's an award winning data visualization designer and does some of the most beautiful and interesting and unique work out there today. So Nadieh, thank you very much for joining me. - Thank you very much for inviting me! - So what I want to do is I want to sort of start at the beginning. Nadieh, you have a very interesting sort of path towards getting to where you are today.
You were an astronomer, a data analyst, and then you were doing data dashboard design. And then you made this switch and you decided you wanted to do more sort of custom visualization. So tell us a little bit about that pathway and how you went from astronomy to data visualization, which isn't really as big a leap as maybe it sounds, 'cause astronomy is all about data, right? - Yeah, exactly, yeah. During astronomy, I already learned how to program in some arcane language that they only use in astronomy because we have loads of data to actually investigate simulations and what comes from the stars.
But I knew I didn't actually want to continue with that, doing a PhD and farther, so I looked outside to see where I could still find sort of that... The challenges, the puzzles to solve, the insights to find. And that's how I kind of rolled into becoming a data analyst. I mean, the data was different, it was no longer about the stars but more about people, what they buy, mortgages, whatever, but no longer the stars. And during that time, I was doing this as a consultant and that means we were external to the companies that we visited.
That meant that we often had to create slide expert presentations to explain to the client what we had found from their data and from the analysis. Well those often could use some data visualization to actually help explain the point. And that's kind of how I got really into the beginnings of data visualization. And after a while, I started noticing that I really liked doing the visualization side of things more than actually making the prediction model just a little bit better and at some point, I just knew that I wanted to become a data viz designer in its own right and really focus on that.
But yeah, dashboards are really the main thing that was happening, especially at that time, so I was really doing more stuff around that but not that much around Tableau or Click View but more D3 based. So I switched companies and became a data visualization designer for another company where I then mostly D3 dashboards. And after about a year I realized that I was enjoying the projects I was doing in my own time a lot more, which were much more custom made. And that's when I finally took the leap, well, I'd rather be doing something that I enjoy and see how far I can go with that.
And thankfully it's been going really well. So at least enough clients out there that want some unique data visualizations. - Yeah, thank goodness (laughs) keeps life interesting. I appreciate you explaining that. You know, a lot of us, in my case you know, we sort of, our careers sort of happen to us. We don't necessarily strategically plan them and go in a direction every step along the way. So it's nice to hear that you sort of... Maybe you sort of fell into the direction to some degree, but for the most part you sort of made it happen and I know that you intentionally took the step to become a custom data viz designer, which was, it's nice to see that really coming to fruition.
So given that you have found this success as a data visualization designer, doing this unique custom work, I think our viewers would have a lot of interest in hearing how you do what you do. How do you get to that creative process. How do you come up with ideas. Maybe some tips and tricks you can offer our audience on the process you follow and how you really create unique and different visual experiences. - Yeah, sure, of course. I guess it sounds maybe odd for data visualization, but the most important thing for me to keep in mind during the start is the data and the goals.
So, what is the main goal that this visualization needs to convey in the end? And what is the data that I have available, both in terms of really separate variables, but also in terms of the topic. For example, it could be about music, which can guide you in your design. And when I know those two things, I can then think of how I would actually design it. So I prefer to not design from an available chart perspective, but really design from this sort of data and goals perspective. And then what I do to get a little bit more inspiration is actually, I look at what others have done.
So, I curate these Pinterest boards about things I see on twitter or in the newspapers or somewhere else, when I see something interesting I save it in some very specific boards like Radial or Geography. And other people do that as well. So right after I sort of... Well right after I know what the data and goals are and before I really start sketching a design, I browse through this and I try and keep that in mind, what is the goal, what is the data? And I kind of try and project it into other options to see what will really fit or could fit.
And then some of the things usually kind of stick and that's then, with that kind of, sort of very, very base of things I start sketching things on plain paper and try and at least do a few different versions, a few different kinds of designs, and then going with the thing that I think works best. But I wish there was a magical formula that you could follow and you would have something that's unique and custom every time, but a part of it is really also just doing it lots of times and then you can get more into it and more experience into not having to think about oh it's bar chart or it's a line chart, but really just thinking of hm, maybe something with circles or something with wisps or yeah, that's just, doing it lots of times helps a lot.
- I think that there a couple things in there that I hear. First of all, I actually have this thing that I talk about when I talk about how people should do this work. And I have these ridiculously awful acronyms and they're summarized as the KWYs. And it's know what you really want to say, know what your audience needs to hear, and know what your data is saying. And you just said two of those three things and I'm sure you think about your audience a lot too. - Oh yeah, for sure about them. - And I love that you also said that you think about, you try not to think about charts. And I always recommend that as well. Don't think about charts, think about the visual that's going to express what you want to say.
I think people will be really relieved to hear that even you, Nadieh Bremer, essentially finds inspiration. Because I tell people all the time, go look at beautiful things and it will inspire you to do something else. And so to know that a luminary in the field is doing that I think will be very comforting to people. So you do have a lot of visibility in the community. You're doing great work, you're winning awards, you're speaking at conferences, et cetera. I guess one thing people might want to know is how did you get there? So, you've gone through the process that we've discussed in terms of astronomy to analyst to et cetera.
What was that one moment or that one project that sort of catapulted you to that next level would you say? Was it one thing, was it a series of things? - I think it's actually three things. Three quite different things. The first one that I started with, the first was setting up or creating a website. And that was when I really took that, sort of made this conscious decision of I want to learn more about data visualization. No longer data analyst but going to data viz expert specialist, however you want to call it.
And I just started my website to be able to share my personal projects and to share tutorials and hopefully just become I guess connected to the community that was already out there. And I did that really out of the passion that I had. But that at least helped me build up a portfolio without even really knowing or realizing it. And another one is I started speaking at conferences. The first one I spoke at really was Open Viz, which is a great data viz conference.
It was mostly, I really wanted to go to Open Viz, but it was across the Atlantic and if you're a speaker, you actually get paid to go. Well, I mean they pay your plane ticket and the ticket and the hotel, so I thought well, that's a good deal. So I tried to apply to the conference and they picked me and it was such a great experience and thankfully, I've tried more conferences and I've been asked back to other conferences. So that's how that started. And the final moment was when I started Data Sketches together with Shirley Wu who is, like me, also a freelancing data viz designer and we just wanted to create more projects, personal projects that we had before.
So we thought well, if we do collaboration, we would have this perfect opportunity to actually force ourselves to create more data visualization projects together. - Yeah, well I have to say, a couple years ago I was trying to figure out how to do, how to put labels on an arc for a circular chart. And I'm googling, I'm googling, and I come across Visual Cinnamon, your website, and I used your tutorial. So that was a great tutorial and it was a good source of content for me. - You have no idea. I go back to that particular tutorial so often myself.
(laughing) - I'm sure. Well I was going to say, I had to do it again recently and I went back to it. And I was going to ask you about Data Sketches. So Data Sketches, as Nadieh mentioned, is this great project where she and Shirley Wu essentially every month set a theme. And it was topics like nostalgia or music. And then each month, each one of them would produce a visualization on that topic. And that was pretty much the end of the rules. There wasn't a shared data set, they could approach it however they wanted to, and it's just a really interesting collection of very different projects from both of them.
And so tell us more about that project and how that came to fruition and what you got out of it. - So Data Sketches started in July of 2016 already. And it was maybe a month before when the Information is Beautiful Awards kind of started up again. You could send in things. And we both didn't really have that much to send in. I mean, that's fine, but it bummed us out more in the sense that, well that's too bad. Why didn't we spend more time actually creating data visualizations? That's what we love.
So that's when Shirley kind of suddenly reached out to me and said well, maybe we can do a project together. And then very quickly we came up with this idea of doing something for a year every month and pick one topic and then both of us would have creative freedom to do whatever we wanted but kind of just see how one topic can create two completely different things is something that we really liked. And yeah, that was... We planned to do it every month, but in the final three months, we kind of slipped and it's been two years now and I've finally finished my final month just now.
So that's a good thing. - That's great. That's a big commitment. I mean every month is quite a schedule. That's a tough thing to do. Did you find that going through that process helped you? It was good practice, you come up with really new and interesting and creative ideas, was it a burden? I mean I'm sure it was a burden to some degree, but what did you get out of it personally beyond obviously the accolades? - Yeah, so it was actually all those things that you said.
I learned new creative ways of doing things because I didn't have a client, so I could do or try whatever I wanted. And so I really tried to and tried to use techniques that I hadn't used before or frameworks that I hadn't used before like Regal or WebGL in general. And just having this sort of safe space to actually do that and doesn't matter how many hours you actually take. I learned more about creating the custom visualizations. So how to get my mind in the right setting in a way and finding this inspiration I talked about before.
But also on the technical side, yeah I learned a lot about the technical side. But it was definitely, in the final months it became a bit of a burden because you would always have to do this. It's always like, this month I have to do something new even though you just spent a lot of time finishing the previous month. And we noticed that that would actually take away our, kind of our creative juices. So that's why the final three months actually took a whole year to kind of be completed because we needed that breathing time in between to I guess find the fun again of actually doing the project.
Even though we loved doing every month, but it took a little bit more time towards the end to find the start. - Yeah, I bet you wished you had done every other month, right? - Yes, maybe yes. - What would you say, whether part of Data Sketches or not, what's the hardest project that you've done and how did you overcome the challenges that you faced in it? - Right. That was definitely a piece that I did together with Shirley, but as a freelancer, that time for The Guardian.
It was a complete sort of article. A very multi-media article with images and videos and texts of course, and data visualizations about homeless people and how they were being bused around the United States. Because there are several cities where homeless people can get a bus ticket, but it's only a single way bus ticket. So you know, that could raise some questions about what happens to these people on the other side when they finally reach their destination. So that's where where The Guardian had gathered all of this information on about 30,000 of these homeless people having been moved from one city to another city.
And during that project, there were so many things that were new, or we had to learn. One of them was them was actually scrollytelling. So the idea where you scroll down a page and the chart stays on the screen but animates. Figuring out that. And figuring out how to work within the system that The Guardian already had in place and Shirley and me were both new, so we didn't have that experience of exactly that system, that it had to work flawlessly on desktop and mobile and in the app, that took a lot of hours.
So it was just hard work. - Yeah, those are always good learning experiences and hopefully you documented how you solved them so the next time, it's a little bit easier. - Yes. - We're pretty much out of time, Nadieh. I really want to thank you for joining me here today. I do think that our audience will find a lot of great insights in what you've shared with us. I'd love to end it maybe if you can tell us something you're working on now. Maybe your next big project. What's up with you right now? What's coming next and what can we expect to see soon? - Right, so, my final Data Sketches project about constellations and what different cultures across the world see in the stars is almost out.
But in terms of client work, I have a big project with UNESCO about cultural heritage that I was actually supposed to come out last May, but the people liked it so much that they want to make it lots and lots bigger and then have a big reveal in December. So that's something that I'll be working on a lot in the coming months. And also I've been working with Shirley again on a really great project for Planet, which is a satellite company in San Francisco. And we're making sort of a big data viz driven story for them that hopefully comes out in the next two or three months. That's going to be a lot of fun I hope.
- Very cool! So constellations, so we're touching back into astronomy, that's interesting. Satellite company, sort of in that direction. So yeah, everything old is new again, right? We always end where we started. (laughing) - You're right, you're right. - Well that's great. Thank you so much for joining me today. And we'll have to have Shirley on another time for another episode to talk to her about something else. - Cool, yes, definitely do that. And thank you for having me. - Alright, take care. - You too. - Buh bye.