When it comes to data viz (and marketing), the concept is key

Posted on September 29, 2016 by Lauren Greatorex

I went to a really exciting workshop last week (how often can you say that and mean it!) by David McCandless of Information is Beautiful-fame.

Data has become a crucial part of a communicator’s role, both for visualising external comms stories and for gaining internal buy-in. I encourage any marketers or PRs to attend the next session so I won’t give away too many spoilers, but…

Throughout the session, David explained the core principles of creating interesting data visualisations. The crux of his process and methodology is based on coming up with good concepts and ideas in the first place: “Concept, data, story, design, style - all are precision arts. In visualisation, they're stacked one on top of the other. If one sags or slips, the entire edifice can collapse.


Concepts with purpose

This is essentially (and reassuringly) the same advice that we give to clients when generating campaign ideas - that the most effective concepts have a clear goal and strategy behind them. To come up with good data viz, David says you need:

  • Data / information (What?)
  • Concept / story (Exactly what? E.g. an idea you can explain to someone else)
  • Goal / purpose (Why? E.g. tell a story, show trends, give an overview, show outliers, find patterns, compare outcomes)
  • Visualisation / design (How?)

His process:

  1. Start with the seed of an idea (‘I'd love to know more about x’ - e.g. relationships / dating).
  2. Shape that into a concept (An idea you can easily explain to someone else - e.g. most common times of year for a breakup).
  3. Do some research into the topic and look at the available data you could use (e.g. using facebook data - status updates - to work out most common time of year for breakups).
  4. Sketch out several iterations for displaying that data in the most interesting way (e.g. A bubble chart or a line graph with dates on the bottom and key times of year labelled).
  5. Only then move on to the computer to refine your design. Sometimes that will be a really exciting, colourful diagram. Other times, it might just be a simple line graph.


Lacking inspiration?

In both data viz and campaign planning, the concept itself could be based on a question, a problem or a very broad theme that appeals to your audience. If you’re lacking inspiration for campaign ideas, we often suggest thinking of a topic that creates fear, uncertainty and doubt - it’s a sure fire way to grab an audience’s interest. David calls that ‘negative concepting’ in a data viz context - see diagram below.


We say that there are three ways to provoke an audience response based on positive opportunities and negative threats:

  • Pot of gold: Highlight an opportunity (often financial) that your audience hasn’t spotted on the horizon.
  • Ticking time bomb: In contrast, highlight a significant, impending threat that your audience isn’t prepared for.
  • Boiling frog: Highlight a threat that could creep up on your clients (the - rather gruesome - theory being that if you drop a frog into boiling water it will jump straight out, but if you heat it slowly it will not sense the change in temperature). Our ‘Cost Boomerang’ campaign for KPMG is a good example of the frog in action!

Many comms professionals won’t think of themselves as data-savvy but the principles of generating a cool dataviz are the same as creating a compelling marketing or PR story.

Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch for us to put that maths GCSE to good use (just me?) and think about displaying our stories as data visualisations to better communicate the message. The Information is Beautiful website provides all the inspiration we need…  



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