Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The training wheel approach to teaching visualization

Every semester I teach my regular introduction to information design and data visualization class (syllabus here.) Most students are data scientists, statisticians, engineers, interaction designers, plus a few communication and journalism majors.

At the beginning of the semester, many students are wary about their lack of visual design and narrative skills, and they are often surprised at how fast they can improve if they are willing to engage in intense practice and constant feedback. I'm not exaggerating when writing “intense”: an anonymous former student perfectly described the experience of taking my class in RateMyProfessors: “SO. MUCH. WORK”.

Indeed. The only way to learn a craft is to practice the craft nonstop.

My classes consist of three parts:

First month: lectures, readings, discussions, and exercises to master concepts, reasoning, and software tools. I don't grade these exercises, I simply give credit for completion, but I hint what grades students would receive if I did grade them.

Second month: Project 1. I give students a general theme and a client. This semester I chose The Economist magazine's Graphic Detail section, so a requirement for the project was that students tried to mimic its style. Once a week during this second month I give each student individualized advice on their progress prior to the deadline. I don't give most feedback after they turn their project in, but before.

Third month: Project 2. I give students complete freedom to choose a topic and a style. I also provide weekly feedback, but it's briefer and more general than on Project 1.

I sometimes think that my classes are similar to how we, people from older generations, learned to ride a bike. You can certainly try to do it without training wheels; it's faster, but it might also lead to crashes. Or you can begin with two training wheels —month one, where I guide students by the hand,— then one wheel —month two, although I still give tons of feedback,— and then no training wheels —month three, where students are almost on their own.

Below you can see some examples of what students can accomplish in just a couple of months of hard work. None of these are perfect, but I'm happy with the results. 

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Read some updates on my work here.

Graphic by Runyu Da

Graphic by Luís Ángeles

Graphic by James McKenney

Graphic by Livia Brodie

Graphic by Luisa Gómez

Graphic by Nia James