I stopped using pencils in 5th grade.

Without ceremony, my teacher rather mundanely announced to the class that we were now allowed to use pens on our school work. Pencils would henceforth no longer be required (except for math, of course). Huzzah! This was no small moment for me. Pens, like yearbooks, and switching classrooms for different subjects were a hallmark of middle school and thus, a monumental step toward adulthood in my 10-year-old mind. I giddily seized the opportunity to give up the graphite, filled my backpack with a fistful of Bics, and never looked back. Ballpoints would provide the gateway for the next four decades to roller balls and gel inks. I sought finer and finer points over the years, and a enjoyed a brief segue through a somewhat pretentious fountain pen phase. But I never purchased another pencil. Ever.

In fact for today’s work, I had to scrounge around my office just to find one of the darn things – sharpened and with a serviceable eraser, not a small feat in my house.

The Perils and Power of the Pencil


I’ve been teaching loads of data visualization workshops lately, coast to coast and into Canada, as well as right here at home, having just finished teaching the very first session of Foundations of Data Visualization, a graduate course for the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. I love this topic for its close ties with other interest areas – program evaluation, survey design, and presentation design. All require careful attention to matters of design. As much as I’m enamored of design in any arena, it never comes easy, and always seems a long road from draft to deliverable.

Designers recommend hand sketching rather than taking to technology right out of the gate. Though I’ve repeatedly encountered this advice, I’ve rarely followed it. Until now. Dataviz dynamo Stephanie Evergreen gave me a sneak peek of some templates from one of her forthcoming books, The Data Visualization Sketchbook. I told her (honestly) I’m not much of a sketcher, but I’d be willing to try.

I enjoy designing handouts (you can download my free Guidelines for Handouts tool here), one-page reports, and infographics for my clients, but my workflow always involves opening up a blank PowerPoint presentation and starting my draft on Slide 1. There’s tremendous appeal in the ability to insert a square and simply drag it across the screen when I feel the urge, rather than having to grab an eraser and push… and drag it… back and forth… over my mistake. I can’t stand those little bits of graphite-infused rubber that require brushing aside only to leave behind the smudgy shadows of my initial inclinations. A bit of a whiny rant, I know.

Nevertheless, having finally scored an old #2 from my desk drawer, I printed the three versions of Stephanie’s One-Page Handout Helper. I’m currently in Phase 1 of a program evaluation that will eventually require a final report, but neither a lengthy traditional report with loads of narrative, nor a 1-page summary will be quite right for the audience. I’ve settled on the idea of a 3-page report with the visual appeal and characteristics of both an infographic and a handout – striking some sort of balance among engaging charts and graphs, summary soundbite take-away points, and more detailed relevant context.

I set out to sketch, but found myself only staring at the pages for some time before picking up the pencil. I reminded myself there was no expectation of brilliance in an early attempt, though I’d promised Stephanie I would share my results… publicly. Once I selected one of the templates and began, the inevitable happened. I sketched and sketched and then…I changed my mind and had to erase {sigh}. But, dismissing my disdain for the write-and-rub-out process, I shifted my focus to the positive.

Starting with Stephanie’s templates instead of a blank page helped me consider possible page design frameworks. Where might I want symmetry among the chunks of information, and where might I apply the rule of thirds? Where might there be hierarchy in the information? The beauty of these templates lies in the fact that while they catalyze my thinking, I’m still ultimately in charge of the design. I can change the headings. I can put “Recommendations” in the space labeled “Call to Action” if I want to. I can put a small graph in the square for “Main Point” and include both my main point and some details in the rectangle for “Graph.” I can sketch outside the lines.

For my current project, sketching out early ideas for the final report using templates from The Data Visualization Sketchbook made me realize how much qualitative information I’ll have, and how many single numbers will be part of the report. This realization sent me to revisit Stephanie’s Qualitative Chart Chooser to review options for when bars, lines, or pies won’t do the trick. And, it will lead me to perhaps the best part of sketching on the templates…

I can print them out and try again!

And next time… I. CAN. USE. PEN.

Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.