How Self-Employed Data Visualization Designers Make a Living

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?”

With this question in mind, I reached out to the following designers: RJ Andrews (Info We Trust), Alli Torban (Data Viz Today), Matt Baker (UsefulCharts), and Ann K. Emery (Depict Data Studio).

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.