Interviewing RJ Andrews, Alli Torban, Matt Baker, and Ann K. Emery on how they started—and made—their careers in data visualization
I hit a point in my life where I could take my career in countless directions. I left my job in the summer of 2019 and began my venture as a freelancer. I work part-time as a social media strategist while I develop my career in data visualization design. At the end of 2019, I wrapped up a dataviz contract and I started to have doubts. I wasn’t sure if I was any good in this line of work and didn’t know how I could contribute to it. I wasn’t sure how to make this work. I didn’t have the answer to these questions, and I was getting nowhere ruminating. There were two encounters in the new year that helped me turn rumination into something productive. The first was coming across a Ted Talk by psychologist Guy Winch, he offered a way of dealing with rumination. The goal is to transform these thoughts into problems that can be solved:
“To convert [the thought] into a productive one, you have to pose it as a problem to be solved. The problem-solving version of ‘I have so much work to do’ is a scheduling question. ‘Where in my schedule can I fit the tasks that are troubling me?’”
The second was when I asked for career advice on Twitter. I was recommended a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I went through the book and discovered that Newport was going the same challenge as I was. He had a question that plagued him and he needed answers. To get answers, he interviewed various people and gathered his insights into a book.
One day, an idea clicked: Why not turn my ruminating thoughts into a question and interview experienced designers to get answers? I pinpointed the following question to guide my interviews:
“How do self-employed data visualization designers make their money?”
There is a big gap of resources explaining how people do what they love in data visualization. So I decided to write about what I learned and share voice clips of our calls. I wrote this article for people like me, who are starting out on their own and need guidance on how to navigate this industry.
Income streams in data visualization design
In general, there are two main ways to make an income as a self-employed data visualization professional: (1) provide a service, and (2) sell a product. Many folks use a combination of these to create diverse streams of income.
Provide a service
Services are generally hard to scale and are tailored to a specific client’s needs and problems. You will notice that for any service or product to exist, there must be a skill and experience to leverage from. To consult, teach, or speak, one must develop specialized skills. If you are new and lack experience, a good place to start is through personal projects or participating in online challenges like Make Over Mondays or Viz for Social Good.
Specialized skills: These skills are usually technical and the work is client-facing. In data visualization design, these skills are used to create a concrete deliverable. Examples include: maps, infographics, reports, presentations, and dashboards. Clients hire people with these skills because expertise is required to create high quality results. Example: Studio Terp.
Consulting: Consultants possess a library of solutions they have developed from solving many problems. They are asked to provide direction on how to build projects and might not be too involved in execution. Example: Visualizing Data.
Teaching: This takes the form of workshops or courses. It can exist in the corporate space or in educational settings. These are usually done in groups. There is more predictability and control through teaching and it’s a great way to attract new projects. Example: Stefanie Posavec.
Speaking: This takes place at events, conferences, or corporations. Like teaching, it requires experience. Speaking can be lucrative, but it can be hard to start due to costs involved with travel. Speaking provides exposure to people from different industries and it could generate new leads. Example: Maarten Lambrechts.
Products are scaleable (i.e. serve many people at a time) and are good ways to generate recurring revenue.
Physical products: The common products sold in data visualization design are posters or books. In these cases, data visualization is informative and can act as a reference. Or, it could serve a similar purpose to art, where it adds some personality and joy to the living space. Example: Nick Rougeux.
Digital products: These can include software, online PDF sheets, and online courses or training. These require a huge investment in time and money up front to develop. Example: Stephanie Evergreen.
Additional income sources
People can make income from creating content (writing, audio, or video) and be paid in the form of ads or sponsorships. You can be paid to write for Nightingale; you can produce a podcast and get paid by sponsors; or you can make YouTube videos and earn income from ads. You can create a Patreon account to build an audience that will support your work. Affiliate marketing is another avenue in which you can get a small cut through sponsored links on your page. Granted, these sources of income are unstable and can be very competitive. They require a strong following and high-quality content. Many content creators develop these types of income streams while managing a job with consistent pay.
Why they started their own business
When thinking about people who gained success, we tend to wonder how they did it and whether their process can be replicated. The people I talked to all had different reasons for starting their venture and they all approached it differently. For some, it was never part of the plan; it conspired through luck and chance. For others, it was something that was willed into existence, and they adapted their careers to fit their life circumstances. Here’s a breakdown on why they started.
RJ is the founder and Data Storyteller at Info We Trust. He got his start by doing freelance graphic design work. The work had a heavy emphasis on design and marketing. The start of Info We Trust was when RJ’s friend asked him to work on an ambitious data story project. He thought it would be a good idea if he published this work online and that was when he built his website for Info We Trust. In 2014, he made Creative Routines which helped his website gain a lot of interest.
In the summer of 2015, he moved to San Francisco expecting to look for a corporate tech job. Soon after arriving, RJ received two unsolicited requests for freelance projects, one promised $20K and the other $30K. He saw these two jobs as signals that he should “forget working for a big company, keep chasing this dragon.”
RJ just moved to San Francisco in 2015 and received two large contracts unsolicited. He viewed them as signals for him to continue his independent practice.
Alli is the host of Data Viz Today podcast. Before Alli transitioned into data visualization, she was a software tester and data analyst for government clients. She had kids several years later and stopped working. Inspired by Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, she thought that this would be a good opportunity to pivot into a job she liked better. During her exploration, she realized data visualization design would be a good career path for her. With no background in data visualization or design, she thought the best way to build her skills and knowledge was to start a podcast. Her podcast focused on the craft of data visualization design. She interviews designers to understand how they build their pieces and she designs something using their process.
Alli was inspired to make this after interviewing Sonja Kuijpers
Alli currently works remotely for the American Institute on a part-time basis. She hosts her podcast and blogs daily on her site. Through her podcast, she built a workflow that helped her build a network while applying the skills she learns from people she interviews. On her podcast, she earns money from affiliate marketing which accounts for 5% of her income. She uses this income to cover the costs of running the podcast.
Alli breaks down the different ways that podcasts can make money.
Matt is the founder and designer at UsefulCharts. Matt spent almost a decade teaching English in Sri Lanka. After returning to Canada and getting a divorce in 2009, Matt found himself unemployed and needing a way to make money while raising his young family. He made a website and put up ads through Google Adsense. This allowed him to work from home while raising his children. He realized he needed a more sustainable income and started making small cheat sheets to sell online. This evolved into a business where he creates and sells large history posters. He initially sold exclusively on Amazon to get traffic for his business. In 2018, he shifted his online shop away from Amazon to his website with Shopify. This allowed him more control of his business and customer base. For each poster he sells, he earns 40% of that in net profit. He also makes ad revenue from YouTube and re-invests that into the narrator and animator he hired to create his videos.
Ann K. Emery
Ann founded Depict Data Studio and trains her clients to create compelling reports. Before she started her business, she was deep in the evaluation world working with foundations and non-profits. She worked on the full project cycle from survey design to data communication. Ann went to grad school at night while working at Innovation Network. After graduating, people asked her: “What’s next?”. She didn’t have any plans to change careers but started to think about it as a possibility. During the summer of that year, she went on a trip with her husband. They met an older couple living in an RV, and learned that the husband was still working while consulting on the side. She turned to her husband and said that someday when she was retired, she wanted to train others on data visualization. Her husband responded with “Why not now?”.
Ann’s encounter with an older couple prompted her to think about her own future. This was the start of how she dreamed of being her own boss.
Ann left her job and went off on her own. She tried many things in the first year and found that teaching was something that she enjoyed and was in demand.
Ann transforms dysfunctional charts into ones that are concise and easy to read.
How they started their venture
Everyone I talked to started small. They took small steps to build their skills and network. Nobody found success overnight. Through hard work, patience, and luck, they found their clients and customers.
Exposing how they think
When someone sees your work, they have started the process of building a relationship with you without ever meeting you. Unless you were a public figure, this was nearly impossible a decade ago. Back then, the only way to build a relationship was through active means such as email, calls, or meeting in person. You can now build this relationship passively as well by creating content.
Ann started blogging in 2012. She blogged about various topics on evaluation, communication, and design, which was the field she was working in at the time. Without realizing, she built a public-facing body of work that served as a portfolio. She had a lot of traffic from her website which helped build people’s interest in her skills. A blog isn’t the only way to do this, you could share work on Behance, or maybe upload your work to Github. The main point is to show it off. Let people see how you approach problems and how you execute on an idea.
It’s never too late to start a blog, podcast, or a video channel. Here’s a great recommendation by Alli on how what she would do if she was starting her podcast all over again:
Alli’s recommendation on how she would approach building a podcast to attract new clients.
Getting their first client: one thing leads to another
“Build a network” was advice I was terrified to hear when I was in school. I’m an introvert and I struggle to meet new people. After so many years out of school, I look back and I surprise myself with how many people I do have in my network. A network consists of family, friends, people you volunteered with, teachers, co-workers, and so on. Essentially, if you sent them an email, you know that they will likely respond. It’s important to tap into our network as we build them, they become ways to reach new opportunities.
RJ started working for people he knew. One of his early jobs was with his professor at MIT. This professor later recommended him to a professor at Harvard for another job. One thing leads to another; the industry is small and people will refer you if you do good work. Similarly for Ann, her first clients were from people she knew. She didn’t send a proposal for her work. She told people in her network about her new business and started to get requests.
Being self-employed, it’s important to start with people you know. Tell people your career goals, they might know someone who can help you. Maybe they know a good accountant or career coach. A good analogy of this comes from how Facebook Pages was designed. When someone creates a new Facebook Page, Facebook encourages them to invite their friends and family to like the page, even if they aren’t their target audience. Why? The reason is that someone in your family/friend’s network could be part of your target audience. The social media feed was designed so that when someone you follow likes a post, you can see that post. If your friend follows a gardening page and liked one of their posts, you could see the post she liked even if you don’t follow that page. This is how social media posts can extend far beyond one’s own personal network. Similarly, this is how we grow our professional network. I told people about my new venture and although they may not have leads for me at that time, they might have them in the future. Investing in a network is a long-term game and it takes a lot of time for the seeds to blossom.
Dabble in many things
The career choices we have today can be paralyzing because we have so many options to choose from. When I asked Matt and Ann about this, they recommended that people should try different things. There are two criteria to look for in this exploratory phase: (1) if this is something you would enjoy, and (2) if this will make money.
Matt advises new entrepreneurs to try different things to determine which ones work really well. This is in terms of which will bring you personal happiness and which would bring you the most money.
Ann called her first year in business her “dabble year.” She designed dashboards, reports, slideshows, infographics, held various types of training and offered broad consulting services. She noted that this process could take several months or several years.
A lot of people was advising Ann to specialize when she started out. Feeling unsure of what to specialize in, she decided to have a ‘dabble year’.
At some point, it’s important to specialize and find a niche. Being a generalist makes it hard to stand out. I go to a popular Korean restaurant in Toronto that has one page on their menu. They were known for making sundubu jjigae (soft tofu stew). This place is always busy and service is incredibly fast. There are several advantages to running a restaurant like this: (1) It’s efficient—with a small menu, they have less inventory to work with and fewer appliances to maintain; (2) They can maintain high quality—if all they make is sundubu, you can bet that it will be a lot better than other places; (3) they become top of mind for sundubu. The next time I want to eat sundubu, I will likely think about this restaurant. Of course, there are many restaurants that are successful without specializing. But the point remains that there are advantages to specializing. When you develop expertise, something that not everyone has, you become more valuable and thus can demand a higher fee for your work.
The Data Visualization Society (DVS) held an online video call for early-career folks on Feb 11, 2020. Elijah Meeks, Susie Lu, and Jason Forrest were on the call to answer career-related questions. The call was joined by students, new grads, and young professionals looking for advice on how to build their portfolio. During the call, Elijah brought up an interesting point on why a data visualization jobs exist:
Five or 10 years ago it was very challenging to make some of these diagrams and some of these maps, and now there’s an enormous number of extremely well designed and extremely powerful tools, and you hear quite often engineers or data scientists say: ‘Well why should you do that, why simply have a position that does that, when I can make a chart in Tableau/Superset/Plotly in five minutes? Why have an entire job for data visualization?’ I would challenge all of you as you consider this as a career, to answer that question. Not necessarily answer it in the skills you have right now, but answer it in this sort of way ‘what are you building toward,’ why is it that you think someone like myself, Jason, and Susie can be successful in these kinds of careers … Because it does take more than the technical skills to build one of these things, and it does hit on all of these ideas of design, collaboration, and being able to bring some sense of systematization addressing questions by stakeholders … That’s a classic answer why design is a real profession, and not just something that automated tools can take care of. Because I’ll tell you something, they are not going to get less automated and less sophisticated by the time you’ve spent 10 years in data visualization. They will be 100 times better than they are now. And that question will become a 100 times harder to answer.
Elijah’s comment made me think about “value proposition.” The value proposition describes what can be offered to the customer/client/audience. It’s the fundamental reason why a service or product exists. There’s a great book that goes into detail on this concept: Value Proposition Canvas by Strategyzer. In summary, a value proposition creates gains and removes pains for the client/customer/audience. We can apply this concept to a person: How can someone use their skills to create gains and remove pains?
Perhaps it’s their ability to diagnosis a problem and develop a solution with the client. Or they can effectively communicate insights with the appropriate charts. These are just some examples of how someone could bring value.
Back to Elijah’s point, what is the value of having a role for data visualization design if a software can make that chart? Why does this job exist? When I asked RJ what he thought his value was to his clients, he talked about the soft skill of coordination.
RJ explains the most underrated skill designers bring to the table.
Ann gets hired because organizations are struggling to get the most out of their data. The big pain point she is solving is making it easier for staff to do their jobs. I asked Ann what she thought her value was to her clients.
How one of Ann’s workshops helped someone make their job feel less painful, something that wasn’t just a chore anymore.
Dealing with the complexities of data is hard, and it can be daunting. I’ve learned that people like RJ and Ann are working to make the process easier. Whether it’s focusing on bringing a team to the same page or making someone’s job easier to do, they involve addressing the human side of the work. When I got hired as a Data Designer at Kantar several years ago, I was told during the interview that more than 70% of my job would involve project management. I worked on teams with moving parts and my role was to coordinate that.
These stories from Ann and RJ point out that their biggest value comes from working directly with their clients. They take the time to listen to their clients and work with them to resolve their challenges. And what I learned was that it’s very important to develop these skills when you are a business owner. Knowing how to work with data isn’t sufficient. It’s important to know how to work with people.
How does one go about finding the value they can deliver? A good starting place is looking at the market. Observe what hasn’t been done yet. Try several things and see what people ask for. Matt started making posters for the humanities targeted at adults because he saw that no one else was making them:
I have found that in early grades, visual materials tend to be incorporated often. However, once a person reaches the higher grades, learning becomes almost exclusively based on reading texts and listening to lectures. There is often very little visually-based material available on more advanced subjects, particularly in the humanities. … Obviously, one cannot learn everything they need to know about a subject simply by looking at a chart. However, I find that charts often work well as both a starting point and an overall framework that can be continually returned to as one incorporates new material. -(taken from www.usefulcharts.com)
Matt initially wanted to make posters on all topics, not just history. He started making posters on science because he loved science. But, there was a lot of material out there for science classrooms. This made it hard for him to compete. He realized that for history classrooms, there were fewer visual aids.
It can be challenging to find market gaps. It takes time, creativity, and resourcefulness to figure out the problems that people face and how we can convert them into business opportunities. Similar to the advice given on how to choose a career, finding a market requires trying many things and learning as you go.
What drives them
Owning a business isn’t all fun—it’s very hard. It’s feast or famine. Sometimes, there won’t be income for many months. Other times, you could make several thousand dollars in a day. Despite these challenges, everyone I talked to continues to pursue this line of work. They are eager to explore, try things, break things, bend the rules, and have fun. Just like anyone, they had hesitations and fears about their ventures.
Alli embraced the unknown and didn’t let having no background in design stop her from pursuing it.
When Alli was starting out, she immersed herself in data visualization. She would cut out graphs from the Washington Post and paste it into her notebook.
Matt never planned to have his current career. Entrepreneurial by nature, he took an iterative approach to his career.
Matt never planned to have the career he currently has. He tried many things and kept pushing in directions he liked.
I believe data visualization can do a lot of good for the world. RJ’s motivation for his work resonated with me as it was a mission I strongly believed in.
RJ talks about what it means to live a meaningful life and why it’s important to do work that is bigger than himself.
I occasionally get messages from people asking for advice on how they could start their career in data visualization. When I talk to them, I sense a lot of hesitation and doubt. I did my best to answer their questions, but didn’t know how to help ease their hesitations. I forwarded this question to Ann. Ann responded with a conversation she had with Jon Schwabish.
Ann had hesitations before starting her business. She shared her concerns with Jon Schwabish and he encouraged her to think about the success she would experience rather than focus on the the possibility of failure.
After interviewing everyone, I was struck by how everyone was forging their own lives in their own unique way. Ann, for example, traveled with her young family as she ran workshops in Asia during the latter half of 2019. Everyone was making their career viable, they were all shaping their own future.
I had a very narrow outlook on what a career in data visualization design was supposed to look like and that made me feel stuck. So, I purposely chose folks who were all different from each other to understand the various approaches people can take when it comes to data visualization. Taking a step back, it’s amazing to observe how people make their living nowadays. Someone can build their entire career on YouTube and that was not possible a decade ago. We can build an online course and work from home full time. It’s mind-blowing.
As I interviewed everyone, I asked for advice on my own career path. I learned that I am still very early in the process. I was trying hard to find my niche but I quickly became frustrated. I didn’t know where I wanted to go or how. I have general ideas on what I want to do, so I am taking small steps to try them. At one point, I asked myself this question:
If you were allowed to dream big and not let anything distract you, what would you be doing? What would that look like?
I’ve never interviewed people in this way before. This was my first time doing this and I’m glad I did. I hope this article has been insightful on how people build their own careers in data visualization design. This field is relatively young and continues to evolve. There’s a lot of potential on what could happen and how we can continue to push the boundaries of communicating data.
Materials referenced for this article
Complex Curiosities by Info We Trust (2016) — How RJ navigated his career from an engineer to a designer.
10+ Tips from an International Dataviz Trainer (2019) — Insights on Ann’s practice and how she works with international clients.
UsefulCharts and his life’s pivot by YouTube History Podcast (2020) — Explores Matt’s career transitions and the niche of history content on YouTube.
3 Core Concepts of Data Viz by Designed Today (2020) — Alli reveals how she entered data visualization and shares three core concepts in data visualization.