Three hand-drawn creative people holding tools used for art — a giant pencil, a computer, and a giant calligraphy pen. Red, black, and white coloring.
Picture by @stories

Is data vis only for the creative?

Sarah V
Published in
5 min readApr 9, 2021


I’ve wanted to be a creative person my whole life, but it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. I tried all kinds of different media to see what would be the one that I ‘got,’ but none really seemed to take (according to my definition.) “I don’t think linearly!” I say to myself. “I come up with ideas all the time!” “My favorite outfit when I was a child was a purple sweater with Miss Piggy’s giant face on the front paired with pajama pants and just the insoles of my winter boots!” I have all it takes to be creative, right? Then why isn’t it working? Being the perpetual student that I am, I took to reading academic articles about creativity. I also read popular nonfiction about it and talked to colleagues and friends at length about it.

Here’s my biggest issue — even now, even though I’m not still 10 years old with my box of crayons and books of poems, I’m uncreative about the way I think about creativity. A creative person comes up with original, innovative ideas all the time, right? A creative person always has a great metaphor or adds depths of symbolism to their art. I can’t do that. I write essays that clearly explain things. My stick figures need arrows with labels so others can figure out what the picture is supposed to represent. Here I am, violating my own oddly specific rule of creativity: I can’t even draw. How can I be a creative person if I can’t even sketch my ideas clearly on paper (and even less on a tablet!)

Dashboard wireframe — poorly drawn
Yes, I did draw this myself. Thanks for asking!

Don’t worry; I’m working on broadening my understanding of creativity.

The pretender

In the meantime, I’ve found my niche. Let me preface this by saying that I’ve found a way to do something artistic at the lowest possible level and still have it be interpretable by others. Data visualization has some amazing artists and creators, and there is a wealth of inspiring datavis out there. I just found an accessible way to get around my inability to sketch while creating possible (for me) visualizations. Data vis lets me pretend to be creative. To create low-level visualizations, I’ve got tools and software that can trick me into legible writing and images that look like what I want them to look like. I’ve even gotten good enough that I’m asked to create graphs and dashboards for others. (There are a surprising number of people who aren’t into the vis part of data — I naively assumed everyone wanted to do the fun part.)

Reflecting on this, I’ve identified some key ways data vis helped me find my own creative niche (or at least feel like I’m able to pretend enough to get by.) None of this is novel, but I needed to see that I was not necessarily predestined to be uncreative while there are definitely levels of talent. This is the way I can create art while still not being an artist.

I have spent literal hours looking through fonts to find the one that exactly captures the feel of the visualization. (That’s a lot of country calligraphy to go past these days!) I’ve since regained my sense and spend far less, although probably still too much, time looking at fonts.

I used existing color palettes. — It’s easy to focus on the look of the rest of it if the color is clean. It gives a good foundation, and I was able to adjust them at the end if I needed to after I stared at the colors while going through many, many iterations. I read up on accessibility, understood the limitations required for each project, but still used colors I liked together.

I was lucky enough to start trying things out when the flat design style became incredibly popular. This gave me good direction and permission to reign myself in to focus on the data while I was still learning.

I read about design. Not everyone has an innate design talent, and I’ve got to realize that it’s ok for me to look through guides, and books, and examples. This has been one of the best experiences for me. I sat down and saw the structure that went into creating.

I practice all the time in any way I can. I spend an inordinate amount of time making my PowerPoint decks for school or work meetings visually appealing. When I have time on a project, I will put the data into something like Tableau and play around to look at the data using every vis option. I recently took on learning some Premiere for an end-of-class presentation and ended up adding an introduction to After Effects and Audition (as well as many related and free programs). An important part of practice, though, is that I have to share my attempts. That is nerve-wracking, to say the least [Every. Single. Time.], but still an imperative part of the process.

One final thing that really helped me was talking to my colleagues who think they are uncreative. I sincerely told them all the ways I saw they are creative and realized I was writing the same things off for myself as if they were expected.

(I also learned that a ruler/straight edge is my best friend when I’m trying to sketch out my ideas. This, combined with a sketching book I’m slowly working through, has significantly reduced the number of arrow labels on my papers.)

Not my best work, but class projects are a great way to try out different ways of presenting information.

I don’t have to make everything from scratch, and there are so many great resources for helping with the art part of creativity now!

Multi-colored paint-filled light bulb exploding from being shot. What looks like gold glitter exploding from the exit.
Image by @copperpipe

I’ve picked up many resources, tools, and tricks to help with traditional design at a passable level, and I’ll add more updates with tool reviews and examples. I’m also doing a lot more research into broader creativity and plan to write up my thoughts on that.



Sarah V

Creativity, human -centered AI, future of work. Hey! It's something new! Perpetual student. Perpetual anxiety.