Telling Stories with Data: 3 Steps to Help You Craft Eye-Catching Data Visualizations

Reading time: 10 minutes

We are constantly inundated with data that demands our attention and comprehension. From avoiding traffic jams to tracking COVID case counts, data has undoubtedly improved our personal lives in many ways. But valuable data is not inherently useful data. For data to be useful, it must be comprehensible and then actionable. Technical visual storytelling (often called data visualization) is a way to convey complex concepts and ideas clearly so the intended audience can act. To do that, you first need to understand your audience.

Effective Technical Storytelling Starts with Empathy

Dudek Technical Storytelling Practice Leader Raoul Rañoa recounted, “When I first started studying music, I took lessons and failed. I failed to comprehend the notes on the page, failed at subdividing beats, and failed at understanding the differences between a major and a minor third. I could instinctively understand the concepts but failed at bridging the gap between instinct and practical knowledge.” He explains that these failures were not entirely the result of an inability to comprehend music theory. “I partly failed because the story behind the data of music theory was obscured by expertise,” Rañoa said. “I read books and took lessons that were not truly designed with a beginner in mind.” For Rañoa, this experience changed after learning from teachers who combined empathy with ability. These individuals explained music theory in a way that lifted the curtain behind the complexity. Although experts, they instinctively remembered what it was like to be a beginner.

Similarly, technical/visual storytelling is successful when you understand your audience and shape your data into a story that communicates with that specific audience. Consider the following questions to help you connect with your audience’s perspective:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What level of knowledge do they already have on this topic?
  • How does my audience feel about this topic?
  • What is the goal of the story I’m telling?
  • What should the audience take away from the story?

Key Takeaway: Having the expertise to gather accurate, robust data isn’t enough; you must put yourself in the audience’s position and communicate the story within the data without overwhelming.

Mastering the 3-Step Process to Effective Data Visualization

Crafting your graphic is a multi-step process that includes planning, drafting, and finally editing and refinement. Let’s talk about planning first.

1.     Planning

Once you understand your audience, you can determine how best to convey the story you want to tell. Dudek Technical Storyteller Aaron Atencio explained his initial process saying, “It’s key to engage with the client to understand their goal. With that in mind, I research and gather the data that allows me to suggest the best solution.” Sometimes, a simple bar chart, line graph, or table is the most concise way to communicate the message. When a process is complex, a more artistic approach may be needed. While most are familiar with the standard pie, bar, and line charts, additional data visualization types, such as those that follow, may be better suited for your graphic.

Graphic TypeDescriptionSample Graphic
TreemapA visualization that uses rectangles of varying sizes to compare quantities. Able to nest categories and subcategories of data.
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Animation/Motion GraphicAny animated graphic. Adding motion to data can increase comprehension by controlling where viewers focus their attention.View animation
Block DiagramDiagram showing underground topography.
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Data MapVisual that combines geographical and numerical information.
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Interactive GraphicAny visual that invites and reacts to reader interaction.View interactive graphic
Story Map/Experience BuilderESRI product that allows the creation of a large-scale, often scrollable graphic on a website requiring minimal codingView story map
Technical IllustrationRendering of a project, structure, or process that sometimes ignores the boundaries of reality in service of a story.
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2.     Drafting

Once you’ve planned the format of your graphic, it’s time to put a draft together. A draft can take many forms, from very rough to more polished. If you’re providing an idea to a designer, then maybe your draft is a simple drawing with pencil and paper. If you are the designer, then maybe you feel comfortable jumping right into mocking something up digitally from a picture you have in your head.

Even a vague idea is enough to get started. Drawing skills are not necessary at all. What is necessary is trust between expert and artist.  Both parties need to be able to communicate freely so that the best ideas come out. Rañoa said, “Often, I will start sketching in real-time as people describe their data. These sketches are often horrible, but the real-time feedback that is generated is essential to the process of creating an effective visual story. It causes the subject-matter expert to think through their thinking.”

Thinking through your thinking is like organizing an unruly garage where only one person can find last year’s Christmas ornaments. The location that makes perfect sense to the organizer may be completely illogical to another. As an artist sketches and the subject-matter expert reacts, a comprehensible data visualization begins to take shape. The discrete elements of rich data and expertise can be arranged, re-arranged, shaped, and re-shaped into a visual story that is comprehensible and meaningful to others.

3. Editing and Refining
Graphic explaining the iterative process of data visualization development. Three arrows in a circular shape. Arrows read: conversation, iteration, refinement. The Dudek logo is in the middle of the graphic.

Seeing the first draft of your idea come together is usually exciting because you are starting to see the story behind the data come to life. This is also when you may see some opportunities for editing. Editing and refining is part of a circular process and vital step to help eliminate extraneous information that doesn’t support the story you’re telling. It will also highlight the information that is most critical to ensuring your audience understands the message. Don’t skip or skimp on this step! You might go through multiple rounds of revisions, tweaking to strike the right balance between having enough detail to ensure comprehension but not having so much detail that your message is unclear.

Rañoa said, “Editing requires empathy. Edit for your audience. Empathize with the person watching your presentation or engaging with your content. Remove layers of data one by one and ask if the story is still intact. If it is, maybe you don’t need that data point. Constantly ask yourself if the story being told is worthy of the time the viewer is spending to engage with it.”

Key takeaway: Effective data visualization is a process of conversation, iteration, and refinement where your expertise is molded into a cohesive visual message. All ideas —even “bad” ones—could lead to insights and should be considered.

Enlisting the Best Tools (and Team) for the Job

If you have a simple subject and a straightforward or limited set of data, you can start crafting your own data visualizations and continue refining your skills. But, what about highly complex, scientific, or controversial concepts with large datasets? Dudek’s engineers, hydrologists, and biologists (to name just a few) spend their days steeped in data, gathering information that directly impacts the communities in which we live and work. This data dives deep and takes on many forms, including numbers, spreadsheets, CAD diagrams, drone imagery, LiDAR data, and more. Collecting, analyzing, and visualizing this data takes more than a Google search—it takes expertise.

Dudek’s Technical Visual Storytelling team has more than 20 years of experience creating visuals for the environmental consulting industry, major news media outlets, space exploration organizations, litigation firms, and educational institutions. Our graphics and data visualizations combine appeal and comprehension to ensure retention.

  • Appeal engages the viewer with compelling graphics
  • Comprehension means information is easily grasped
  • Retention results from appeal and comprehension
Graphic describing the aspects necessary for an audience to retain meaning from a data visualization. Graphic reads: appeal plus comprehension equals retention.

Our visual storytellers work in concert with our technical subject-matter experts to help shape complex data into visual stories tailored to specific audiences that are effective for use in all media. Dudek project manager Jonathan Martin, said, “We recently completed a project for the City of San Diego that required communicating complex landscape/water interactions to a wide range of stakeholders with various backgrounds and levels of expertise. Raoul and his team produced several graphics that distilled a potentially mind-numbing word-salad into the San Pasqual Valley Resource Management Guide, a visual document that is exponentially more effective than text alone.”

“The visual content for the Resource Management Guide is both direct and intuitive. It presents complex information and makes it available to any audience while showcasing the intricacy of functioning systems.”

Greg Johansen, Senior Planner for Environmental & Public Spaces, City of San Diego

We pride ourselves on helping clients realize their vision and tell their project story, even if that vision is initially vague or ultimately complex. You can sketch something on a napkin if you want. Or not. Either way, Dudek’s Visual Storytelling team can work with you to craft your vision. We can work from a simple pencil sketch, marked-up PDFs, Bluebeam diagrams, Google Earth screenshots, or even no visual reference at all. We draft and refine sketches until you have a visual that tells a story tailor-made for your audience.

Dudek Principal Engineer Chuck Greely, said, “I feel spoiled getting to work with Raoul and our technical storytelling team. The ability to convey complex technical concepts using easy-to-understand pictures and spatial imaging is such a powerful tool, especially considering the various audiences and publishing constraints we face, such as page limits. Using rough sketches (sometimes very rough!) and walking through my ideas, Raoul can capture those details and paint a picture that is easy to understand while being accurate and comprehensive.”

Visual/technical storytelling saves you time by helping your key stakeholders and decision-makers better understand complex issues, potentially reducing processing times for environmental documents. And time is money, so defensible documents made comprehensible through effective, eye-catching data visualizations are good for your bottom line.

Key takeaway: From simple diagrams to 3D illustrations Dudek’s expert designers consistently produce engaging data visualizations and technical storytelling graphics that have resulted in successful projects, proposals, client presentations, and public outreach efforts.

Raoul Rañoa is Dudek’s Technical Storytelling Practice Manager. He has provided data visualizations to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and infographics to the California Institute of Technology, as well as served as senior graphics and data journalist in the Los Angeles Times Data Visualization Department for 19 years. Dudek Technical Storyteller Aaron Atencio owned and ran Image360 in San Diego for five years and spent 20 years as a news artist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Boston Globe, Riverside Press-Enterprise, and San Bernardino County Sun.

Contact us for more information on how our designers can help bring your data to life through technical visual storytelling and data visualization.