After seven years of leading Graphic Hunters, Goof van de Winkel’s data visualisation training programme will come to a close this autumn. We had the privilege of chatting with Goof to find out what he learnt about teaching dataviz, tips for other entrepreneurs in the field and the process of preparing a training course.

Chesca Kirkland for Nightingale: Can you start by telling us a bit about who you are, your background, and what led you to start Graphic Hunters? What problem or gap did you see that needed to be filled? 

Goof van de Winkel: Before I started Graphic Hunters (GH) I had been working as a training coordinator for 15 years. I worked at the Dutch Athletic Federation to organise training for officials and trainers and at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht to organise training for journalists. I basically covered the entire area of looking for trends within the field of attention, translating trends into training, finding the right trainer, looking for venues, and all the administrative tasks.    

After 12 years at the University of Applied Sciences it was time for a change. I wanted to find out if I was able to start my own training company from scratch, without the name of the university to help attract participants, as a nobody in the field. A new name that no one knew. 

I had organised training sessions on data journalism at the university and found that there was interest. Data journalism had quite a revival due to all the online resources that were available. Journalists could search for stories in the data, but needed tools and skills to do this. The first training I organised covered all areas from finding data, to finding the stories, to visualising the data. However, after the first training it appeared that journalists weren’t interested in visualising the data. That part was done by a designer. So we changed the curriculum a bit and focused fully on finding data and data stories. 

But the visualisation part interested me—how to tell a compelling story or even just how to show the data in a visual way. So I organised a one-day training on data visualisation for journalists. It sold out in no time: 20 participants! But, no journalists. Only participants from multinationals, banks, insurance companies. That interested me. I seemed to have triggered something for an audience I wasn’t aware of.

A few months later, when some changes came at the university, I realised that data visualisation was the topic to focus on. There were already training institutes offering sessions on dashboards and business intelligence, but not on storytelling and design. So the focus of GH became helping participants that were working with data to make better graphs, to focus on the story, and to learn more about design choices.  

Can you describe Graphic Hunters for our readers who aren’t familiar with it? Who are your typical clients? 

GH is a one-man band, and the focus of the training sessions is on design and data storytelling. The aim is to bring the best designers and trainers to the Netherlands, where participants can learn from the best in the field. 

Training is available for all levels of expertise, and is usually a one- or two-day training on location. The focus is of course on the content, but also on the social aspect (meeting each other, building a community). Also important is to have the training at a nice venue with a great atmosphere. 

The participants are mainly data analysts, designers, and communication experts. They work in commercial companies, non-profit or governmental organisations, universities, etc. There are also freelancers that join the trainings. In the first two years, participants only came from the Netherlands (even though all training sessions are in English). Later on, participants came from all over Europe.  The last few years, some sessions were offered online, which opened the trainings to everyone in the world.

Besides training, GH also organised events like S-H-O-W (a two-day conference) and BEAUTIFUL DATA (a meet-up with talks, exercises and Q&A). And of course, organisations also sometimes asked GH for specific in-house trainings on data visualisation.  

S-H-O-W conference. Photo credit: Michiel Bles
Beautiful Data. Illustration: Eva Polakovicova

It takes a lot of time and effort to build up, curate and teach a dataviz session. Most of our readers won’t realise the full scale of the behind-the-scenes effort. Can you expand on the process for preparing a training? 

Sure. It usually starts with the focus of a specific topic. What elements are interesting for participants? What are people in the field talking about? What are conferences focusing on? This could be a broader topic (for example, maps) or quite specific. 

The second step is to find out if this topic could be translated into a training:

  • What aspects of the topic would we need to cover?
  • What content would we need to teach and to what depth?
  • What level of expertise would be needed for someone to join?   

We then need to find a trainer. Who in the field is already running training sessions on the topic? Who is sharing interesting information on the topic through blogs, social media, conferences? Is this person well-known in the community to attract an audience?

Then we need to focus on the content again. What specific content can the trainer cover? How many days should the training be? After writing the text for the website (and making agreements on payment), the promotion can start. 

When I started GH, the hardest part was to be aware of who is who in the field. I had no idea. I also didn’t know what specific topics would be of interest to people. It was basically trial and error—setting up a training and hoping for the best 🙂 But it was also hard for potential trainers to judge why they should accept the opportunity. Why would you run a training for an institute that no one knew? Luckily the first two training sessions that I offered had quite some interest, and it slowly grew from there. I was very lucky to have a few amazing trainers that wanted to cooperate from the start.

After seven years of leading Graphic Hunters, you’ve probably learned a few things about how best to teach data viz. What are some tips that you’ve learned along the way?

In the beginning there was quite a lot that needed to be taught and told. Participants weren’t too familiar with data visualisation, so the focus was more on teaching and explaining. In the last few years, I have noticed that participants already have a fair understanding (and often work in the field of data visualisation), so the needs are shifting more towards learning from each other, experimenting, focusing on what has been scientifically proven to be the best solution.

You’ve probably also learned quite a bit about launching a successful business. What tips do you have for other entrepreneurs in data viz?

I never thought of myself of being an entrepreneur. For me the focus was always on organising great training sessions, meeting new people, and hoping that they like the sessions. I always had a part-time job in addition to GH. Having a part-time job also meant that I couldn’t organise more sessions than my agenda allowed. And that was a good thing! I never planned more trainings just because I thought I could make more money. 

Of course, GH couldn’t last for seven years if it wasn’t successful. Some tips, not just for other entrepreneurs, but also for people organising training and events:

  • Always pay your trainer a fair fee. The trainer is the most important person. Participants register because of the trainer. Treat them nicely!
  • Also ask a fair price of your participants. Realise that not everyone has the financial needs to pay for a training. No need to ask for the jackpot. 
  • Always offer help to people. Not everything you do needs a price. Connect people with each other. If your training isn’t the best way to help them, direct them to other paths. If you organise an event, offer free diversity tickets.
  • Be open for change. Don’t focus solely on your core activities, but be open to organise other events. In my case, a conference or building a community with a few organisations to share knowledge. 
  • Be aware of the diversity in the field. Even if you think the field you are working in perhaps isn’t that diverse, look harder. Give attention to people with a different background or voice.

Reflecting back on your time at Graphic Hunters, what has been a favourite memory, a most inspiring moment, or something that surprised you?

This is a difficult question. I think the most exciting memories are from the beginning of GH, when everything was new: contact with the first trainers, the first registrations, the first training, travelling to Amsterdam by train with three bags full of training materials and a portable record player, drinks after the training with the trainer and participants, etc.

I think the best memory is all the nice people I have met. As a nobody in the field, I was amazed (and still am) at how accessible the field is. People are open, friendly, and eager to learn, share and help. This gave me the opportunity to start working in the field of dataviz and to still feel welcome and appreciated ever since.

You recently announced that Graphic Hunters trainings are coming to an end this fall. Tell us about this decision. How do you know when it’s time to close one chapter to open the next?

I think Covid definitely had a big influence on this decision. A few months before Covid I decided to quit my part-time job and fully focus on GH. A few months later I had to cancel all my in-person training sessions. It took me a while to switch from offline to online, since I am not an online person. One of the reasons to start GH was to connect (with) people in the field of dataviz. With online, I found this much harder. 

The past few years I did learn quite a lot working online. I even appreciated the online way of working and organising events. I couldn’t organise a S-H-O-W conference and invite all these great names in the field on the stage, if it wasn’t online. 

But I also missed the connection with others. I missed the motivation and commitment from myself to keep on going. So I applied to a few jobs and decided to accept a full-time job.  I had experienced before that a part-time job didn’t work. That meant that I needed to find a balance between two jobs, which is harder.

But: the door is still a bit open. I am excited for a new and fresh start in a new job. The training sessions of GH that are planned after summer will still continue (register while you can!). And perhaps I still find some time and energy to organise a few events. It won’t be at the same pace as before, but hopefully I can still be part of the community with a few interesting sessions in 2023. 

To wrap up, a key part of the mission of DVS is to support people looking to grow professionally in the field of data viz. Do you have any tips for aspiring data visualisation designers?

  • Built a portfolio.
  • Learn and experiment. 
  • Work on projects of your own and try out different tools (or sketch).
  • Read dataviz books.
  • Go to events and meet-ups.
  • Connect to people in the field. 
  • Follow a training.

Although Graphic Hunters will be coming to a close, Goof will still be active on social media. Find him on Twitter @GraphicHunters.  and Linkedin. The Graphic Hunters website will still be open in the months to come.

Chesca Kirkland is an Information Designer at Set Reset, a design studio helping people reimagine how they see, experience and interact with data.

To see more of her work, follow her on Behance and Instagram.