Get to know data visualization designer James Round as he shares his process, tools, and tips for communicating complex ideas in a visually appealing way. Learn more about James’ passion for storytelling through data, and check out some examples of his beautiful infographic work!
Tell us about yourself and how you got into your field of design.
I’m a graphic designer and illustrator based in London. Over the last decade, I’ve worked across the creative industries before making the leap into freelance last year. One of the drivers for this decision was to be able to focus on the kind of work that means the most to me.
As well as print design and illustration, I’ve always loved infographics and data visualization. I created some self-initiated data viz projects that were longlisted in the Information is Beautiful Awards, and soon after that, I started to see requests come in from clients. Since then, I’ve created data visualizations for clients like the BBC, WIRED and Norwegian Airlines.
Skyscrapers - BBC.
UK Tech: The Network Effect - Wired.
You’ve done a handful of personal projects involving data. What is the inspiration behind the subjects you choose?
One of my favorite things about design is being able to take something complex and communicate it in a clear, engaging, and beautiful way. So when it comes to my personal projects, the starting point is usually something I find interesting, want to better understand, and present in a form that’s accessible and captivating.
For example, my data visualization about extinction simply started with the question, ‘why do animals go extinct?’ and grew from there. I love science, and data visualizations offer the opportunity to explore subjects I enjoy, like space and ecology, in a visual way.
What does your process typically look like for data visualization projects?
First, I figure out how many variables need to be visualized and which are the most important—what is the story that needs to be pulled out of the data? I then spent a few minutes sketching out rough layouts until I’ve figured out a few options. From there I jump straight into Adobe Illustrator and start building out two or three of the sketches.
It’s always nice for the client to see different ways to present their content, and it’s a useful process for me to explore the data and notice interesting things that I might have missed initially. Once the best route forward is decided, I input all of the data and craft it towards the finished artwork. My favorite bit of the process comes after the structure has been signed off—the hard part is over, and now it’s just a case of making it look awesome!
What are some tips you have for illustrating heavy sets of data in a visually appealing way?
Make sure your dataset is in good order. A messy spreadsheet is going to cause endless problems down the line. Make sure that you (and your client) are fully committed to the structure of the data visualization before going any further. If there’s a change of heart later on, it can mean starting the whole thing from scratch, which is never much fun. Finally, good housekeeping is a must with these types of projects: name your layers, separate out different elements, never delete something you might need later on, and use a grid like your life depends on it!
In terms of deciding what type of visuals to use, once I feel I understand the data and have started sketching out layouts, I’ll jump over to Pinterest or the Data Viz Project and have a good old scroll. More often than not, you’ll see something that confirms the direction you’re already taking, or you’ll stumble upon the structure you need to make the best out of the data you have.
The International Space Station: The First 50 Expeditions.
Rise in international tourism in Game of Thrones filming locations since 2011.
What kind of challenges have you run into when working with data?
I recently did work for a magazine that was extremely challenging but taught me some valuable lessons. The data set was large and complex, and we worked together to reduce and simplify it. Even then, the data kept breaking the structure; there was just too much. Every time, I had to go back and start again with a tweaked dataset. And each time, I found I couldn’t fit all the data into the DPS.
We were at the point of almost giving up on it, and I suddenly thought of a new way to present the content, which thankfully worked and looked great. I was so happy with how it ended up. It provided a brilliant portfolio piece and received a great response when I shared it online, which was a wonderful way to round off the project.
What are some resources you recommend to folks wanting to improve their skills?
As far as resources go, Data Viz Project is great for seeing different ways of presenting data and The Information is Beautiful Awards has a great showcase section that brings together some of the best work out there.
For finding datasets to work with; the UK Government website has loads of great resources (and I presume other countries offer similar resources), the United Nations has loads of interesting data over at FAOSTAT , and Our World in Data has some wonderful stuff. But my favourite place to find data (certainly for my personal projects) is Wikipedia. I always find another source to double check the data against, but it’s never wrong. For my previous visualizations, I’ve used it to map the moons of Jupiter , explore every crew member of the ISS and create a timeline of all past US presidents . For anybody wanting to create a data viz for the first time, head over to Wikipedia; you never know what you might find!