Communicating ideas - "if content is king, then CONTEXT IS GOD"

Ryan Robitaille
il October 29, 2013

This is the fifth post in a series of guest posts from Tableau Public authors for Design Month. Ryan Robitaille is a Tableau Zen Master and true data rockstar. You can find his data visualization work including dashboards on Metallica, Bigfoot, and more on his website

As we come to the end of Design Month (and artificial Pumpkin flavor), I'm really glad that design has been highlighted so much this year. Sometimes "design" tends to be the elephant in the room when it comes to what we do and I think many business-minded viz creators tend to not put much time or effort into it - or worse - ignore it completely.

This, I think, is a mistake. Why? Because at the end of the day - what we really are doing here is COMMUNICATING IDEAS to others.

Communicating ideas and information. Visually.

Sorry, if you've heard this story before - but I think it bears repeating.

Again, "Data Art" = Communicating ideas and information visually. That's right, even you, Stanley in Cube 437. YOU, my friend, are a "Data Artist" - we all can be, it doesn't matter if you use Tableau all day or once a month - so feel free to put that on your business card (right underneath "Potential Lunch Winner" and "Rockstar Ninja Wizard").

Communicating through visuals. Historically, humans have been pretty freaking good at that - from cave paintings to mystical Crystal Skulls to tear-jerkingly beautiful PowerPoint Presentations (ok, maybe not the Crystal Skulls - Aliens!). It's WHAT WE DO, and will continue to do - but you need to be *effective* at it to make an impact. Besides, it would be a shame for your detailed Pokemon analysis to go unnoticed.

You might have: done your detailed data analysis, reached several epic conclusions, divided by the angle of the sun, built custom paramatized table calcs that forecast Jupiter's position, and geocoded the migration of Atlantic Northern Shrimp...

By all measures - a masterpiece...

...however, if your intended audience can't understand your viz within 7 seconds... you've lost. Game over, man. Game over.

Any time you find yourself in the position of having to explain to someone how to interact with or even understand your 'brilliant work of viz', you've funked up somewhere - just like that time you accidentally spilled red wine all over your manager's child at it's christening (hey, it happens - no harm, no foul, right?).

Poor Stanley.

A lot has been said about creating effective dashboards and useful layouts (all great posts from the past few weeks) - so I'm just going to share some quick tips for delivering better results with a minimum amount of time invested. An 80/20 "cheatsheet", if you will. Easy as pie. Well, if pie is "easy" for you that is - I don't know how that became a saying. Maybe you're a diabetic - so let's just say - Easy.


Without proper context - numbers are just numbers and colors are just colors. No. One. Cares. You should first and foremost make sure that the viewer is aware of EXACTLY what they are looking at - only then can they begin to absorb your brilliance. Try to convey this with a smart use of typography, (short) descriptions, consistent colors all over, and clever usage of images and custom shapes.

Example: My Bigfoot vs Alien Sightings viz. No explanation needed. AT ALL. Admittedly very tongue-and-cheek and has issues, BUT it showcases this point well.


Colors, Fonts, Chart formatting. This sounds like common sense, and it is, but you'd be mortified if you knew how often this was NOT done. Every time someone uses the default font - a kitten dies. But seriously though... ever see Evil Dead 2 - when Henrietta is trying to break out of the basement? You don't want any of that. ARIAL IS THE DEVIL.

Just keep everything cohesive and save all our souls (and kittens). As an added bonus, your viz will look more professional and stand out over more "vanilla" Tableau dashboards.

Example: More Bigfoot - Red, White, Fully Borderless, and all SEGOE UI (not the devil)


After I start to make a few worksheets filled with what the bulk of my results will be - I'll actually sit down and sketch out the basic layout of the dashboard on paper first. This cuts down on the trial-and-error later (for me at least). The earlier you can do this, the better - you'll find that it will focus your efforts into a cohesive goal instead of just blindly "click fishing for numbers" (is that the name of a card game? It should be). Planning is good.

Don't kitchen sink it. Try to keep it clean and to the point. You ever hear that saying "Less is more"? Well it's very true here (but highly debatable elsewhere). Tableau 8.0 added many visually helpful features for the designer-crowd (floating tiles, yo), but it also gives you just enough rope to hang yourself.

Don't do this. Just because you CAN put all kinds of crap all over the place - doesn't mean that you SHOULD.


Let's face it - people are going to click around like they're being stung by bees. They have needs. Needs that require clicking stuff and having other stuff happen. You need to have actions. Those 1,700 Quick Filter drop-downs? No me gusta.

Think about creating smaller workbooks with a small worksheet that will serve as a filter (low cardinality dimensions) for the rest of them. That way - when they click on the red bar that says "Sexy Rabbit Costumes", the entire dashboard / viz will now be all about Sexy Rabbits. Huzzah! Besides, it's what they *expected* to happen - and when they zombie click on something that obeys their command - they feel like smart zombies! Double win.

Example: My Padres viz. The top part is filled with things that when clicked on - will filter all workbooks to that level (if possible). Leaving users to do their own mini-analysis within the constraints of my display.

Another simple example: The faces on the bottom is a small worksheet with custom shapes mapped to the "Member Name" dimension. It is used to highlight the relevant bar - and the bar highlights the relevant face. Why use words when you can use pictures?


It's next to impossible to make anything elaborate design-wise unless you make the dashboard a fixed-size. This allows you to know EXACTLY how it will render, instead of just hoping that they will see it properly. It also speeds up the viz up - due to the way the dashboards are cached and rendered internally.

Pick a size and aspect ratio based on the majority of your intended viewers (embedded in a blog, on iPads) and stick with it. Any small problems caused by this are well worth it.

Never will you have to worry about your beautiful work becoming an incomprehensible jumble.


This just might be a personal preference because I deal with so many "Operational Dashboard" type views. But, I'm talking about Summary Totals, Averages, etc of the data that you are showing breakdowns of. Especially any number that is important and will be changed and re-aggregated by filtering (see "Natural Interactions" above).

Each is a separate worksheet driven by a filter - placed carefully and lovingly.

Example: Small (tooltip heavy) graphs balanced by various call out numbers and filters. Each box represents and different worksheet (21 of them) or image.

The best way to create great stuff is just to keep your eyes and mind open - you'll see potential viz inspiration in everything from magazines to tv, movies, and even video games. Design is funny like that - it's everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Try to use some of these in your own work - even just one - it might help you create more visually interesting, engaging, and ultimately better viz.

Hell, you might even get that corner office, your own German Shepherd office assistant, and a big fat gift certificate for SkyMall - think big!



Love your work and the post but have a big problem with the dual axis Big Foot / UFO sightings visualization. As you are in fact comparing apples to apples, why have the dual axis? Anyone not paying careful attention will think that Bigfoot and UFO sightings are within the same order of magnitude.

Same goes for the size of the shapes on the map.

I know you say in the caption that the chart has issues, but I fear that people will think it's okay to sacrifice accuracy for interest.

On another note -- space aliens are not green; they are either blue or purple. That "little green men" thing is a myth.


As above, I love your work: it is important, compelling, and clever. However, another problem with the Aliens vs Bigfoot is the lack of consistency: if you are suing dual axes, then the maps should each be on the same side of the graphic as the corresponding axis, i.e., the Aliens map should be on the right and the Bigfoot map should be on the left. Other than that, rock on.

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ahhh,but it's long been deftly demonstrated that content is NOT king: (Odlyzko, 2001)

Does not mean god is dead, but someone should at least check in on her....

This is amazing.........I read so much about content on the internet and you must do this or you must do that, but this is a real eye-opener. Thankyou so much