Stop Trying to Prove Yourself with a Viz

Portions of four, different data visualizations stitched together each with different topics, styles, and backgrounds.
These dashboards are taken from over a decade. Each one comes from a time in my life, where I felt my design had to impress others to win trust. What motivates your designs?

Every data visualization job that I have held has included introducing my work to teammates and then feeling like I have to impress them. There are personal reasons for this tendency that I think all creators hold in common, but there is also a professional rationale for the instinct to prove oneself. To understand this unsaid logic, you need to contextualize your professional experiences.

Over the past fifteen years, the business world went from mainly academic texts on the field of data visualization to dedicated software making millions and Fortune 500 companies creating new viz-related positions. Yet, fast, large-scale change is not the same thing as full adoption. Early adopters and innovators invested in data visualization tend to comprise less than a majority of the population as a whole and/or less than a majority within a company. This uneven distribution of adoption creates pockets of professionals who understand our industry while many more in a company may not have even heard of it.

Unfortunately, it is common for those hiring leaders who have attained this understanding to not yet have mastered its content and therefore feel uncomfortable introducing the details of your hire. This gap in understanding is probably part of the reason they hired you to begin with. However, the result is that new hires in data visualization can end up behind the starting line compared to other departments’ new hires. For example, when was the last time you saw new employees in finance have to explain in a team meeting why accounting matters or what budgeting is? If you have an urge to prove yourself in this field, I get it completely. That desire likely comes from maneuvering these transitory situations over your career.

Yet, in spite of these very understandable circumstances, the answer is not to prove ourselves with visualizations. That kind of work product may confuse a mixed data literacy audience—acting like a highway billboard that shouts a viewpoint, but does nothing to inform you. Remember, the company hired you to create solutions and trust that you will do so, even if some of them do not fully understand how. Furthermore, any time you try to prove yourself at work may end up conflating your self-worth with your business value proposition. Those are different topics as you, dear reader, are so much more than your amazing, data work.

The answer is to identify pain points and quickly solve them with data visualizations. Meet with teammates individually and invest in addressing their needs. If you can, try to understand and adopt their worldview or language in your designs. Our world is full of folks who identify or ignore problems—be the select few who can solve them. And why not? Our jobs, our work, democratizes information. We can empower faster, stronger decision making and communicate those ideas on a wide scale.

If that idea feels compelling to you, then in your next job focus on explaining your investment in others versus wowing them with design. Describe it the way a friend did to me one day, “you just want people to understand data better.”

Christopher Laubenthal headshot
Christopher Laubenthal

Christopher Laubenthal focuses on better data use with visualizations in an organizational setting. He has experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors where he increases literacy, grows culture, and builds data visualizations. Christopher is the Data Design Manager at The DeBruce Foundation, a national foundation whose mission is to expand pathways to economic growth and opportunity. Current projects include his public viz and The DeBruce Foundation’s Career Explorer Tools.