Dataviz Horror Stories: Jon Schwabish

Jon Schwabish, co-author with Alice Feng of the “Do No Harm” guide, tells his children five things:

  1. Be honest
  2. Be kind
  3. Be respectful
  4. Be hard working
  5. Be responsible
  6. Be safe (okay, six things, he added this one over the past year)

Not only do those values guide his children through school each day, but they also guide Jon in his collaborations with colleagues and clients. These values help build relationships, improve friendships, and lead to successful partnerships with clients.

Of course, these values are usually learned through some mistakes, missteps, and even “failures” (however, as I’ll show, there are no real failures here, only observations). Jon Schwabish is an economist and data visualization specialist at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. I sat down with him to talk about a couple work experiences that went awry and reflect on the subsequent lessons learned for this latest installment in our Horror Stories series.

Building while flying

The story

Jon was working with a client he’d worked with before. The previous project was successful, so he didn’t question the challenge this time. For this engagement, the client wanted his help with a new project that they weren’t quite sure how to build. Jon came onboard in the early stages.

The task was to help develop a model of how the client would carry out their research and then pull it together into a final report. Typically, on client engagements, the clients conduct the research and then they work with Jon to carry out the communication. With this project, however, the work was primarily scoping and modeling, so there wasn’t a specific contract with delivery dates.

Adding to the complexity was the client’s timeline: they wanted this work to be delivered as soon as possible, aiming for a period of three or four weeks to completion. While this project was a smidge out of his usual comfort zone, he spent the next couple of weeks understanding their objectives, exploring the data, and putting together a few ideas. 

After the third meeting, however, he could tell there was some tension. The client was pushing for more to be delivered faster, and Jon wasn’t able to meet them there. “They called me the next day to communicate that they were going in a different direction,” Jon recalls. Due to the quick timeline and the nature of the agreement, he wasn’t paid for the conceptual work. 

“I understood where they were coming from, but yeah, I learned a hard lesson with that one. At some point you sort of realize when you need the people you’re working with or working for to be at a certain starting point [before you begin working with them].” 

In general, like many of us, Jon loves trying new things, pushing boundaries, and using client projects to grow and improve his skills, to a point. In this case, the scoping work felt a bit out of his wheelhouse, and ultimately led to mismatched expectations, disappointment on the client’s side, and embarrassment on Jon’s end.

“If your job is to make a thing, you’re [often] simultaneously learning how to make that thing,” Jon believes. Each project is an opportunity to both provide valuable work and learn something new while doing it. Ultimately, the work required for this project relied on scoping and data visualization design that were a smidge too far out of his comfort zone for the client’s timeline. 

Lessons learned

Jon’s biggest lesson learned? 

  • Know your limits (what you’re comfortable doing or not doing)
  • Communicate these limits clearly to the person you’re working with
  • Learn how to say no

Human-first interaction

The story

On this occasion, Jon was asked to help develop a data visualization and reporting template for a client. Growing from the first lesson, Jon knew his limitations around the template software, so he reached out to a friend and colleague whom he trusted to implement the design pieces. 

This time, in the midst of a global pandemic, personal challenges and health challenges needed to be prioritized, which pushed the delivery date out bit by bit. Enough time passed and eventually the client reached out with the fateful words, “We need to move on.” When they asked for the bill Jon felt conflicted about sending it — after all, he hadn’t delivered the work in a timely way — so he decided not to bill them. He asked his colleague to send him a bill so that they, at least, could be paid for the work. They responded the same way, resulting in a trusting relationship on all sides.

In the end, the client was incredibly understanding, as was Jon and his colleague. 

“This was one of those situations where things didn’t go according to plan and there was nothing you could do about it,” Jon reflects. “It relied on salvaging relationships rather than trying to force the work to happen.”

While there were disappointments, relationships were more important here. Because he also shared the work in progress with the client throughout the project, he empowered them with the skills they’d need for the next time. Belief in upskilling and multiplying skills is critical to Jon’s work, and in this case, it potentially led to the client having a better understanding of what they needed.

The project still produced significant value, and the client’s acceptance and kindness around the circumstances helped Jon feel confident that he’d work with them again.

Lessons learned

  • Along the way, give the client the building blocks they need (show your work).
  • Admit faults, apologize, and charge fairly. This will leave the relationship positive and instill trust in you as a practitioner. 
  • Understand that everyone has someone they need to convince, some boss above them that they want to bring good work to. Help the client by providing quality work (even in pieces) that they can use to feel prepared.


Let’s revisit those five — okay, six — values that Jon encourages his kids, and himself, to live by:

  • Be honest
  • Be kind
  • Be respectful
  • Be hard working
  • Be responsible
  • Be safe 

While these stories exhibit times when projects didn’t go quite according to plan, they don’t necessarily mean “failure.” There are always lessons to learn when trying to live by your values. It’s up to us as practitioners, colleagues, and friends to reflect, to embrace, to move on, and to try for better next time.

Elle Gover is a human, writer, dedicated observer, and UX researcher. Her experience in Detroit with book publishing and community building informs her attention to detail and beauty in ways we communicate information, eventually drawing her to data visualization at Nightingale. In her daily work, she observes professionally as a UX researcher with the goals of remaining curious, reducing risk, educating others on the value of good listening, and advocating for all people and nature in the production of digital products.