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Review: “Chart Spark” by Alli Torban

A book cover with the title "Chart Spark: Harness your creativity in data communication to stand out & innovate by Alli Torban" A lightning bolt going through a pie chart covers the right side of the cover while the title Chart Spark is repeated going down the left.

As a freelance data journalist and designer, I’m no stranger to the struggle to generate new ideas and feel creative in my work. It’s easy to feel stuck, especially when there is a constant flow of data visualization content to consume and be intimidated by via news, social media, and more. In Alli Torban’s new book, Chart Spark, she tackles this issue of perceived creativity block and shares her own creative journey while providing tips, prompts, and encouragement to readers. Ultimately, though this book is specifically geared toward data visualization professionals, Chart Spark provides an accessible, practical, and actionable path forward for anyone looking to boost their creativity in their work.

An open book with details the reading plan, segmented into seven days.

Chart Spark’s preface begins with a no-frills question: “is this book for you?” Torban lays out the goals and purpose of the book plainly, inviting readers to consider what they will gain from continuing their journey through the book. She also provides an overview of her qualifications for writing the book. The last section of the preface is the one I found most useful: a reading plan for the entire book. Torban recommends reading Chart Spark in chunks, tackling a maximum of thirty minutes of reading per day for seven days. In total, readers can expect to spend about two and a half hours cover to cover, which I found was an accurate estimate.

A page with an illustrated comic strip which reads "an illustrated guide to data literacy - pie charts"

After the preface, Torban jumps right into the introduction, defining and breaking down creativity. I appreciated her adaptation of the different types of creativity from James C. Kaufman and Ronald A. Beghetto’s research paper, “Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity.” The Four C Model encompasses mini-c, little-c, Pro-c, and Big-C creativity, which range from being new and creative just for you personally to so creative that it changes the world. Torban urges readers not to focus on Big-C creativity, but instead to build creative habits and practices that contribute to consistently producing mini-c, little-c and Pro-c work. This section also contains a personal narrative where Torban describes her journey from unfulfilled government data worker to creative freelance information designer. She provides a note that reading this narrative is optional, but I felt that reading it contributed to the heart and relatability of the book as a whole.

Section I: Care, explores the necessary work that allows space for our minds to foster creative ideas. I appreciated Torban’s explanation of not only short-term creative cycles, where we alternate between ideation, execution, and rest, but also larger creative seasons that alternate between productive summers and slower winters. Understanding and accepting that no one can be at peak creative productivity all the time and that there are ways to prepare for slow seasons is key to any creative care routine. 

Moving to Section II: Coax, Torban provides actionable tasks to help readers bring out their creative energy, even when they feel creatively blocked. I enjoyed her focus on small tasks to jumpstart creative processes. I also found that Torban’s use of personal examples was particularly effective in this section, as she walked through multiple projects of her own to showcase how she moved past moments of feeling stuck.

An open book with the title "Chapter 8: Explain it using a visual metaphor with the "Haystack" prompt"

The final section of Chart Spark – Section III: Communicate, tackles both communication with the intended audience for data visualizations and clients throughout the project development process. Significant time is spent deconstructing the idea of visual metaphors; when to use them, and how to execute them properly. Beyond this, I loved Torban’s “4Q” prompt, which helps data visualization designers determine when to be more experimental or creative in their work and when to stick to tried and true methods. By taking into account the reader’s sense of urgency, attention span, and familiarity with the material, as well the designer’s own time and energy, it becomes much easier to discern when creativity is a must and when it might need to take a backseat.

Torban uses the conclusion of her book to remind readers that their creative output does not equate to their self worth. Among all of the advice in the book, I feel that this is the most important for people (including myself) to hear and internalize. In this industry, zeroing in on the quality of deliverables is essential, but that can draw focus away from physical and mental wellbeing. Torban describes this not as a balance to be struck between the personal and professional, but as a constant tug-of-war. My experience has been similar and I recognize the vulnerability it requires to publish this struggle, showcasing once again the empathy and courage with which Torban works and writes.

Taken as a cohesive work, Chart Spark is a practical guide to increasing and maintaining creative output with accessible and actionable prompts at the conclusion of every section. The book is concise and would serve as a good reference book for any data visualization designer or other creative professional to keep on their shelf.

Emilia Ruzicka is a data journalist, designer, producer, and storyteller who specializes in health, science, and technology reporting. They are currently pursuing their M.A. in Media, Culture, and Technology at University of Virginia while continuing to work on freelance projects and write their own blog. Outside of data viz, Emilia loves to visit museums, make art, and talk about the USPS. If you have a project proposal, story tips, or want to find out more, visit emiliaruzicka.com.

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