A love letter (of sorts) to Makeover Monday

Throughout my life I’ve had an uneasy relationship between my logical and creative impulses. I’ve pursued both, but have generally allowed the logical impulses to dominate or win when a crossroads was reached. For example, as a kid and young man I had dreams of going into filmmaking or writing, but I never allowed myself to fully embrace those dreams (I.e. put in the requisite time and effort) because my logical side convinced me that these paths were too risky to go down without a solid practical fallback. But in going about establishing the fallback (e.g. getting and keeping good corporate jobs) I allowed the fallback to become the path, and the road my creative side had dreamed of traveling down became an alleyway I’d periodically take a detour into instead.
This isn’t to say that the logical path is a bad or unfulfilling one. My logical impulses are still a fundamental part of me (it is why I am happier in an orderly vs messy house, and why I get a visceral thrill when I build workflows in Alteryx), and following the practical path has provided me and my family with a relatively comfortable life. But when the logical side is disproportionately catered to, like when I allow my perfectionist tendencies at work to eat up the hours I could have spent out in nature with my camera, I really feel that imbalance and seek out ways to right the existential ship.
I know this dissonance is fairly common, and there are likely multiple reasons why I struggle with it. Although, if I had to synthesize my psychological conflict down to a single moment from my past, it’d be the time my family and I were visiting my aunt and uncle in Germany, back when I was a 16 year old daydreamer with gauzy aspirations of becoming a famous film director.  We were all sitting in my aunt and uncle’s basement, which had been converted into a bar with liters and liters of exquisite German beer on tap.  My uncle, a successful businessman, and my dad, a successful lawyer, were talking about how much happier they were in their 50s than they ever were in their 20s and 30s, mainly because of the comfortable lives they’d built for themselves and their families.  My mom and aunt were sitting at the other end of the bar discussing the struggles some friends’ kids were going through due to their dogged pursuit of a “Brotlose Kunst” (German for “breadless art”, I.e. artistic endeavors that don’t earn any money).   And I sat between them, enjoying the buzz from a beer I would eventually grow quite fond of while fortifying a worldview, forged of pragmatism and insecurity, that saw no viable connection between that early artistic hardship and a desired future of comfort and happiness.  As a result, my creative impulses tended to remain in the basement (metaphorically) while the pragmatic / logical pursuits took over the main floor.
Enter Makeover Monday
This autobiographical preamble is just a way of explaining why I’m so appreciative of how the Makeover Monday project and community has encouraged me to marry my logical and creative impulses in ways I hadn’t before, and why my love affair with Tableau has only deepened as a result, since that impressive piece of software doesn’t stand in the way of this often unlikely marriage.
In my particular case, the creative and logical coupling has taken the form of adding photos to my Tableau vizzes. And not just adding an image to the top of my viz (which I’ve done before), but rather selecting images that captured an essence of the story the data was telling and then allowing the selected image (or images) to influence all of my other deign choices, including dashboard layout, background colors, fonts and which dashboard elements should float (increasingly all of them).  This approach to creating a viz is very different from the way I’ve designed most Tableau vizzes throughout my career, where tiled order, simplicity and unemotional displays of data have been my guiding principles. At work, where I did the majority of my Tableau vizzing prior to Makeover Monday, I was definitely on the Few side of the Few/McCandless spectrum.  And while there is nothing wrong with that (there’s a reason why Few’s guidelines are part of the bedrock of data viz education – they do very effectively convey information),  it’s good to flex across the spectrum and explore the benefits of connecting with your audience on a more emotional or aesthetic level.
For example, one of the weeks’ data sets involved theft in Japan.  It contained some interesting tidbits, like the fact that theft of women’s underwear was a big enough event to warrant its own category in the data set, but the big story seemed to be that bicycles were far and away the most attractive target for Japan’s thieves. Conveying this fact wouldn’t require more than a simple bar chart in descending order of incidents – the bar for bikes is much larger than all other categories.  But how interesting would that visual be?  Not very.  It’d get a nod of approval from my bosses at work (along with perhaps a frustrating request for a complimentary table of numbers), but that wasn’t my aim this time.  I wanted a photo backdrop to that bar chart that conveyed the key takeaway (that bikes were the favorite target of thieves in Japan) in a more emotionally engaging way.
So to Google Image Search I went.  I find that this part is often one of, if not the lengthiest part of the design process since it is so important to find good images. Not only do they need to convey some part of the data story, but they should ideally be composed in a way that encourages the layout of an effective dashboard. So negative space (I.e. a portion of the image file where nothing exists) or the ability to extend the image into negative space (I.e. using masking to blend the image into a larger, complimentary background image) is something I look for.  I also allow my intended mood for the viz (humorous, serious) to help me filter the results down to something I want to use.
In this case, when I came across the image of the masked thief reaching his large hand toward the viewer, I knew I had my anchor photo.  But I needed to incorporate Japan and bikes into it somehow in order to complete the scene. Pictures of bikes and the Japanese flag were in ready abundance, but I wanted images that either reflected or could be incorporated into the overall sinister feel of the main photo.  The image of the Japanese flag already embellished with shadows was perfect, and the heavily silhouetted photo of a bicyclist riding away from the camera would work because it both didn’t add unnecessary color (I intentionally searched for monochrome images) and was moody enough that it could convey multiple feelings depending on how it was used.

To have it fit into the dark mood I was going for, I knew that I wanted the bicyclist to be riding toward the outstretched hand of the thief, like he was riding into a trap.  In order to achieve that, I would have to extend the bottom portion of the thief image so that there was enough room for the bicyclist photo to fit and still have some negative space below it (I didn’t want any of the layout elements to bump up against the borders).

This is where layers and masking entered the process, photo editing techniques I hadn’t used in a while but still had muscle memory for. Since I no longer had a working copy of Photoshop (the software I’d used in the past to layer images), I downloaded GIMP, a free and Mac-friendly software package that provides most of the functionality Photoshop does and in a very similar interface.

Using the photo of the thief as my baseline, I created a new layer that was just as wide but about twice as long, and then filled it with a single color sampled from the bottom of the thief photo (using the color picker tool). After that I dragged the thief photo atop the new layer, added a mask onto the thief layer and then used the brush tool to blend the transition between these two layers so that it looked like a single image.

Once I had that, I dragged the bike and flag images on top of the thief layer (so that I now had four separate layers), arranged them where I wanted them (with the bike below the hand, and the flag near the head of the thief to reinforce the story of Japanese thieves) and then used masking and brushwork on both the bike and flag layers to blend them into the overall image. This primarily involved removing the hard borders so that the visual transition between these photos and the background layer seemed natural. After adding a simple text box for my dashboard title, I had a complete background image I could export from GIMP and bring into Tableau.

I sized the dashboard to be the same as the exported image file and then placed the image into the dashboard. At that point it was just a matter of bringing the simple bar chart I mentioned earlier onto the dashboard as a floating object and editing the bar colors so that the Bicycle bar stood out from the rest. I chose to use the same red as was in the Japanese flag to visually connect the elements together. To add a bit of humor into it, I also highlighted the bar for women’s underwear, making it the same pink color as the panties in the underwear ninja cartoon I serendipitously discovered during my initial Googling.  All I had to do with that one was replace the blue background with a black one.

While the final viz didn’t convey any additional information over what the basic bar chart offered, it was certainly more engaging and a hell of a lot more fun to create.

I used a similar approach for another week where we looked at the militarization of the Middle East, an arguably more serious data set but one where the embedded stories could just as easily get neutered by a quotidian visualization. In this case the story that resonated most with me was the fact that lying just beneath the surface of these numbers were human lives destroyed by warfare.  So I wanted to create a connection between the sterile numbers that counted the volume of arms traded and the lives that those weapons ruined. To do that, I envisioned a layout where the top section focused on the number of weapons exported over time and the bottom section drew attention to the human impact of that arms trade. There weren’t any stats in the data set about lives lost, so I knew that this portion of the story would rely solely on the selected image and any corresponding text. I also wanted to create a transition between the top and bottom so that the two sides of this story sort of “bled” into each other.
That blood metaphor influenced my design of the bottom section – it was going to be some shade of red and feature an image that captured the human suffering of warfare.  So if the bottom was going to be red, then the top section would need to be a color that could blend well into red while also serving as a backdrop for the unemotional data that I would have up there. Black fit that bill. While the color black can certainly pack an emotional wallop, it also rivals white in its use as a standard background color and therefore inherits the neutrality that comes with ubiquity.

After a bit of searching I found two images that would work with that color scheme – a black & white photo of shells being prepared in a munitions factory (a visual nod to the counting inherent in the data) and then a photo of a young, bloodied war victim.  I first created a background layer in GIMP set to the dimensions I wanted for my viz (it needed to be long so that the bottom portion didn’t show up immediately when someone looked at it – I wanted them to scroll before seeing the image at the bottom) and then placed the two photos in their respective sections.  Then some masking to remove the hard edges and blend them into a cohesive whole and a gradient fill for the background layer that went from black at the top (sampled from the black in the shell prep photo) to a deep red at the bottom (sampled from the blood on the child’s face) and I had my background image.

In Tableau, I set up the charts to go from the very macro (i.e. the total dollars that have exchanged hands in the arms trade) to the more micro (i.e. the increase in imports into the Middle East since 2002) and made sure to use colors that either pulled directly from the background image or were complimentary to it.  I floated all of them so that I could control the amount of “breathing room” between the charts.  The final step was to add some descriptive text to each of the chart titles to reinforce the story I was telling visually and then the viz was complete.

I recognize that this approach to creating vizzes can eat up a lot more time than the recommended hour we are supposed to spend on our Makeover Monday entries, and that it can run counter to the K.I.S.S. mantra, but for me, the opportunity to move beyond the simple communication of numbers (while still paying attention to the effective communication of story) has been a rewarding one. A design-oriented mindset is not my default state, and so affording myself the time to consider things like color, font and layout has increased my overall confidence in these areas and helped build a new bridge between the logical and creative sides of my personality. While I won’t always take this approach when I visualize data (time, audience and purpose need to align for that), having this option in my toolkit gives me a level of creativity I didn’t have six months ago. And for that I am grateful.
Thanks for reading.

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