5 Essentials for a Great Data Visualization Portfolio: Tips for Designers & Marketers

By September 4, 2019 January 3rd, 2020 Data Visualization, Design Tips
visual agency blog header showing abstract data visualizations

Maybe you’re a marketer looking for the right visual communication agency. Or maybe you’re one of the many designers today who are looking to build their portfolio in data visualization and visual communication. Whatever the case may be, there are a few common mistakes that many such portfolios make. Avoiding these will be essential to furthering your goals. 

So let’s take a look at the 5 key elements of any great data visualization portfolio. 

1. Prioritize accuracy above all else.

There are plenty of designers and agencies out there that claim they’re skilled at information design. But many designers haven’t been properly trained in the accurate, effective visualization of information. They might not know the right graph or chart to use for a given situation. Or they might not put in the time and effort necessary to really understand the information before they start planning their design. 

For marketers looking to build trust with their customers, inaccurate data visualization may be misinterpreted as intentionally misleading. This could seriously hurt your business. That’s why designers looking to work in this field won’t get very far without knowing the fundamentals of strong visual communication.

Example of Poor Data Visualization for Percent Increase

Signs of a poor portfolio include a pie chart representing information that should be on a bar graph, or illustrations that inaccurately represent the information at hand. 

2. Make sure the portfolio showcases a broad variety of data visualization.

If the designs that are showcased seem to repeat the same motifs again and again, that could signal a few possible problems. Perhaps the designer is unsure about how to use certain kinds of graphs. Or this may signal a lack of flexibility in dealing with different kinds of information.

Data Visualization Example Line graph
Data Visualization Example Map
Data Visualization Example Hierarchy Diagram

You’ll also want to ensure that the portfolio features work from a variety of industries, targeted to a range of audience segments. This way, it proves that the designer is capable of working with — and accurately interpreting — different types of data and information. 

So whether you’re looking for the right team of designers or building a portfolio of your own, make sure it includes evidence of a broad range of skills when it comes to data visualization.

3. Display creativity in information design.

Not every pie chart looks the same. The same holds true for any type of graph or chart.

Strong visual communication is always seeking creative new ways to get its message across. For instance, this bar chart — which appears in an interactive infographic of a Bluetooth annual report — is expanded into three dimensions to communicate the dynamic, future-oriented ethos of the company:

Bluetooth data visualization bar graph

Meanwhile, this pie chart for a National Endowment for the Arts infographic combines 2 datasets into 1, and interacts directly with the illustration so we can tell immediately what the topic is:

NEA data visualization designer portfolio example

4. Demonstrate an understanding of the topic.

All data visualization designers worth their salt are constantly seeking new and creative ways to communicate — and they demonstrate that in their portfolio. But creativity isn’t enough. Making sure that their visualizations capture the underlying theme and the spirit of the content is essential. 

For instance, this poster design depicts the complex web of relationships between different Seattle companies. It captures the aspirational spirit of those organizations with a space-based theme:

Seattle Tech Universe Poster Design and Data Visualization

And this infographic for Red Bull’s Music Academy captures the spirit of the heavy-metal music it’s discussing:

5. Know when to use data visualization — and when not to.

One of the fundamental principles of great visual communication is that data visualization is used whenever possible. Why? Because it increases the viewer’s understanding of the information and makes the data more memorable. 

But a chart or a graph isn’t always the right solution. For instance, back when Killer Infographics was first founded (before we changed our name to Killer Visual Strategies) we tended to use more quantagrams than we do now. This is because — as we learned over time — for larger numbers, quantagrams cease to be meaningful for the reader. 

For instance, take a look at the following data:

Example from Nikon data visualization portfolio

It makes sense to visualize the number 16 as a quantagram because they’re easy to count. But the number 1.8 million would be impossible to represent in a quantagram where every icon represented 1 unit. Even if every icon represented 100 or 1,000 or even 1 million, the quantagram would cease to be useful. It wouldn’t help readers really visualize that huge number. Large numbers such as this are often best communicated through typography. 

A strong data visualization portfolio should exhibit these 5 characteristics. That way, you know the designer is capable of working with a variety of topics and data types — and bringing those to life through visual communication.

Erin McCoy

Author Erin McCoy

Erin McCoy is director of content marketing and public relations at Killer Visual Strategies. She earned her BA in Spanish with minors in French and Russian, and holds 2 master’s degrees from the University of Washington: an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Hispanic literature. She has won nearly 2 dozen awards in photojournalism, and has dedicated those skills to boosting Killer’s brand recognition and thought leadership in visual communication. Since Erin took on her marketing/PR role, Killer has been named a member of the Inc. 5000 for 4 years in a row; has been featured in such publications as Inc., Forbes, Mashable, and the Huffington Post; and has been invited to present at such conferences as SXSW and SMX Advanced.

More posts by Erin McCoy

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