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August 15, 2012

Data viz exercise: Find all possible ways to visualize a ludicrously small data set of two numbers

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I was teaching a data viz class at work yesterday and I tried an exercise that I’ve never done before.  The idea came from this blog post by Santiago Ortiz on

To set that stage, we covered attentive vs. preattentive processing, three forms of preattentive processing (I skipped motion), and the Gestalt principles of visual perception.  Nothing ground breaking there, but a necessary base/toolkit that everyone should have.

After the initial training, I had them grab some markers, head to the white board, and think of as many possible ways to visualize two simple numbers: 75 and 37. 

At the end, we picked the best visualization.

Here’s a sample of what they came up with (there was plenty more to the left and right):


Like the author of the blog post, I had no idea how this would go.  It could have been a total flop, but it was the exact opposite.  We spent a good hour discussing two simple numbers!  And it was incredibly rich discussion.  We went through each and every sample, discussed the pros and cons, and compared them all to determine which one we like best.

What I found very interesting was that everyone made an assumption that the base was 100, but the directions never said that.  All I gave them was two numbers.  This led to an awesome discussion about needing context when presenting data.

Give it a shot!  Grab a few fellow data viz nerds and do this at lunch.  Or better yet, over dinner and beers.

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