I love year-end lists not only to learn about the best movies, books, articles, and events of the previous year but also because I really value the act of self-reflection. Just like the end of a sprint in Agile development, this time of the year is for retrospection.
I want to share my story of 2019 so that anyone can see what is possible with some planning and a bit of luck. Often simply beginning is the hardest aspect of doing anything, and giving yourself the freedom to experiment and get things wrong is equally important. But in order to tell you who I am now, I need to tell you who I was a year ago.
My Story (Or How I Went From Being Relatively Famous to Missing Something in My Life)
Looking back at the last year, I’m struck by how far I have come not only as a writer but also as a person in search of a passion.
Here’s my story:
What many in the dataviz community may not know is that I am a very well-known figure in a small but global electronic music scene. Just before the turn of the last decade, and shortly after the birth of my son, I decided to move into the next chapter of my career. Much to everyone’s surprise, I had literally accomplished all my dreams as a musician and it was time to move on.
Over the span of a few years, I stopped being a professional musician and moved into iOS development, and then co-founded a start-up for online video called Network Awesome. Going into Network Awesome, I knew that there could only be two outcomes: (1) that my company would work and I could do that as a job, or (2) I would gain the skills to “get a real job.” After a few years, Network Awesome was almost successful (i.e., not) and after a painful job search, I found myself working as a UX Designer. It was a job that I liked a lot, and it taught me how to use a system and leverage a process to make something with a purpose. But despite how interesting it was, it was ultimately just a job — not an identity like I had as a musician.
Not having a purpose (or a passion) was extremely difficult for me. I had gone from being a person that others sought out to just a guy with a job. Certainly happy in my life, but missing that certain spark.
In 2017, after working in UX Design for eight years, I started to go back and re-explore the foundations of design that I first learned in art school. I had always been interested in typography, so I spent a few months learning and experimenting. Shortly thereafter, I chose to move into data visualization as a way to marry my design interests with my technical and UX process knowledge. It all seemed related and I guess I wasn’t wrong.
One day I found a book of rare typographic specimens and diagrams called A2Z+ and that’s where I stumbled across some charts created in the year 1900 by the African-American political activist W.E.B. Du Bois. There wasn’t much information in the book, so I hit Google and started to look around. I was shocked. My initial search showed no substantial writing on his work. I found myself digging further and further into research. Despite feeling so massively unqualified to write about his landmark series of charts, I published my first article on his charts in July 2018. That piece is my most-read article to date and eventually led to a presentation at the Tapestry Conference in November of that year.
(Re)Finding My Passion: January 2019
So here I was. On January 1, 2019, I had just published the last article in my research on W.E.B. Du Bois’s data visualizations. It was meant to be a big gesture, as it made public the discovery of a previously unknown chart from Du Bois that I found in my research. I was so proud of this work and pleased to finish this project, yet drained by the effort. Despite being the pinnacle of my research, it remains one of my least read articles.
My research on Du Bois was an exhilarating project that had helped me tear down preconceived notions and force myself to examine the world from a new perspective. Exploring the charts and trying to understand their 19th-century context revealed a vast archive of fascinating and complex stories just waiting to be explored. Every time I opened a link, it seemed to reveal 10 more images, names, and events that caught my curiosity. I found more and more historic charts by more people that remain under-researched (at least digitally).
The clever reader will notice that even as I have told my story above, I went from describing my career to describing my new interests. Tapping into the rich world of history and data visualization literally opened new worlds for me. Without realizing it, I had found a new passion.
2019: The Year I Would Write My Ass Off
After spending so much time in the world of Du Bois, I set a challenge for myself to write two articles a month for 2019. I had so much to explore, and, early in 2019, I set off to fulfill my agenda. I dutifully wrote about the spiritualist painter Hilma af Klint, the master of the pictorial map Ernest Dudley Chase, and photographer Garry Winogrand, as well as the first in what I had planned as a series about data visualization in music.
Then in March, Elijah Meeks, Amy Cesal, and Mollie Pettit started the Data Visualization Society (DVS). The amazing people I met at the Tapestry Conference and the thousands more who joined the DVS had suddenly become my new peer group. I had kept it in mind to publish two articles a month until about March — right when the DVS launched — then promptly forgot about it. By that point, I had already been writing several nights a week and with the launching of the DVS, I also now had a new platform to publish my writing.
Without realizing it, I had created a habit of writing about subjects and people that I found super interesting. The boundless energy that people commented on before in my music career suddenly was back. As a result, in 2019 I wrote 25 major articles and collaborated on three additional feature-length interviews.
Looking back, I can’t believe how far I have come as a writer and as a person. My interest in historic data visualization is actually just an angle to explore human creativity in design. Each chart is a story with an objective, and exploring their context reveals a layer of nuance that takes research to understand. Looking at the past provides new insights into the present. My joy is to share what I find with others.
Finding a Place in the Community
As the DVS grew, so did its organization and I found myself taking over as editor-in-chief of its Medium publication in June.
After collaborating with Elijah Meeks and the DVS board of directors, we launched Nightingale as a Medium Partner Publication in mid-July. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure if I fully grasp the significance of Nightingale in my life and in our community yet, but it has given me a mission and blessed me with a team to see it through.
It has also given me new goals and dreams. The best thing about running a magazine is I now have a platform to meet the people that I admire and in 2019 I’ve been so excited to get the opportunity to meet Giorgia Lupi, Nadieh Bremer, Catherine D’Ignazio, Michelle Rial, and Nicholas Rougeux, to name just a few.
It’s been an incredible year. Our editorial staff at Nightingale and I have had the great fortune to coach and support 29 first-time writers this year and publish a total of 125 articles since July 10. Sure, it’s been a ton of work, but at the same time, it’s super interesting and very gratifying to help others by participating in the discourse that fuels community.
So I was very surprised and deeply gratified, to hear one of the most prominent figures in the Data Visualization Community, Alberto Cairo, list Nightingale as one of his 2019 highlights in the widely regarded Data Stories Podcast this month. He says:
“The quality level in general, is, on average, quite great. I think that it really contributes to the democratization of data visualization, which as you know is one of the main aims of my career. Which is precisely to make data visualization more visible and more accepted, and more widely adopted by the general public.”
He starts at 4:47 if you want to jump ahead: 152 | Year in Review 2019 | Data Stories on ACast
My Brain Works Better
There are so many benefits to writing that I’d be remiss if I didn’t list a few points in closing. After writing 28 articles and editing probably 50 more, I can honestly say that:
- I am a much faster writer now.
- Editing all those Nightingale articles helps me improve my own writing each day.
- I can map out my thoughts more clearly.
- My passion for learning has an outlet that I can share with others.
- There are still so many new things to learn, so many new ideas to discuss, so many more people to meet, so and much more to write about.
- Just as in my music career, my dreams are getting bigger.
My Biggest Lesson of 2019: Just Do It
Somewhere along my journey this year, I heard someone casually drop one of those phrases that you end up mulling over for months afterward. I’m sorry to say I don’t know who said it anymore, or even what the actual quote is, but it went something like:
“In order to be a part of a community, one has to participate in a community.”
It’s a statement that I now realize was the missing piece of what I was looking for all along. It was one thing to find a passion, and another to be part of a community, but it was really my participation in the DVS and the dataviz community at large that really completed who I was and gave me back the self-worth that I had been missing after my career as a musician.
This is a powerful life lesson. One that really only comes in moments of retrospection like this, at the beginning of a new decade and a new life.
What’s Up for 2020?
Becoming an active writer helped me so much in 2019. By (unconsciously) accomplishing my goals last year, I reset my focus for the coming one. Yes, Nightingale will continue to grow, and we have some ambitious plans in the works already, but I plan to focus on fewer subjects in order to help push them beyond our immediate community.
I have found that I am happiest when I am learning and immediately putting that into practice. I am thankful to learn so much from so many of you this year. But it’s time to keep going! To push on into places that I’m not comfortable with, to explore new ideas, and to continue to make friends and grow as a writer, designer, and person. That’s why we participate in a community — to expand discourse, challenge what is possible, and lean on each other for support.
But more than anything — I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun!
Here’s a list of all the articles I wrote in 2019 by date. I’m not sure if there’s any real pattern that emerges, but I do see a fire burning: https://medium.com/nightingale/how-i-became-myself-again-what-writing-did-for-my-self-worth-in-2019-1ed69286686
Jason Forrest is a data visualization designer and writer living in New York City. He is the director of the Data Visualization Lab for McKinsey and Company. In addition to being on the board of directors of the Data Visualization Society, he is also the editor-in-chief of Nightingale: The Journal of the Data Visualization Society. He writes about the intersection of culture and information design and is currently working on a book about pictorial statistics.