Episode 37: How to Be Consistently Creative - A Journey to Find Info We Trust - Featuring RJ Andrews
Welcome to episode 37 of Data Viz Today. I recently caught wind of a forthcoming data viz book all about the craft of being a data storyteller called Info We Trust by RJ Andrews, and I wanted to know all about it. So I hopped on the phone with RJ and got the scoop on how he cleverly structures his days to be the most creative data storyteller and author that he can be, plus he shared his essential components to being consistently creative, even when faced with a limited toolset or under a deadline. I hope you enjoy our chat, and you can pre-order his book (due out January 2019) here!
Alli: 00:00 Hey, you're listening to episode 37 of Data Viz Today today. I'm Alli Torban, and every week I bring you data viz inspiration and actionable tips by featuring a creative project. Thanks for joining me. I am super excited about today's episode because it's a little different. It's a little longer than usual, but also very special. I've been on this data viz book kick lately. I've been trying to gather as many as I can, read as many as I can because I'm trying to get away from the computer screen a bit so when I caught wind of a new data viz book all about the craft of being a data storyteller, I wanted to know all about it so I was able to hop on the phone with the author, RJ Andrews, and I got the scoop on how he cleverly structures his day to be the most creative data storyteller and author that he can be. Plus he shared his essential components to being consistently creative, even when faced with a limited tool set or under a deadline. I want you to hear every minute of that discussion that I had with RJ, so that's why this episode is a little bit longer than usual. So RJ Andrews is an independent data storyteller based in San Francisco who's recent clients include MIT and Microsoft and now he's working on a new book Info We Trust due January 2019. So here's my discussion with RJ packed with lots of wisdom. I hope you enjoy it and I'll hop back on at the end and share my main takeaways....
Alli: 01:20 I know that you're an independent storyteller and I've kind of always wondered, how do you structure your day? Do you kind of have every day looks different or do you try to keep like a general structure?
RJ: 01:36 So I think that there are some common structure elements that I aspire to. I think it's important when you think about a structure is that the structure has to last for the longterm. And so what that means is that you have to play not only within your structure, but you have to play with the structure itself. And if you don't, you know, always hit all the goals that you have. That's okay. It's okay if you didn't make it to the gym today, but you're gonna make, make it to the gym tomorrow, right? Because you can't be too hard on yourself or you're not just, you're not, you're not going to be able to do it for the long term. Alright? So with that sort of caveat said, you know, today is actually a pretty, pretty good representative day of this morning. I got up, I chauffeured, my wife to work.
RJ: 02:23 She works on the other side of the hill and I always drive her to work when she's working. I came back, I had coffee already brewed, I grabbed a coffee, I went for a walk on the bay. So I live about two blocks off the bay and dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. And today was, today was a lucky day. I saw a really young juvenile sea lion, not in the water but actually up on the shore. And so that was just, you know, the sun is rising, there's all kinds of shore birds that you're looking at and you see the sea lion and it's just, it's time to think about what am I going to do today, you know, what does the world need from me today, whenever you get to walk and walking is an incredibly powerful activity because it allows your body to move and kind of be busy doing something and kinda clears up a lot of space in a way that if you're just sitting in a room and like thinking and only thinking, you know, the thinking you have when you, when you go on a walk is very different.
RJ: 03:22 So whether it's a walker, a light jog, that's how I try to start a lot of days for my most productive days. I have two heavy creative times, time periods and they're usually in the morning. So during the time we're talking right now, I'm very high energy then. And usually late at night I can often fit in another sort of burst of really focused high energy, creative time.
Alli: 03:44 How long do those times usually last? Is it a couple hours?
RJ: 03:47 It really depends on the activity and this is something that I've heard from artists and engineers and all types of people who make things is that one of the reasons we like making things is because we can get into a flow state and just almost kind of become one with the work and have our whole identity honestly sort of just fade away and we just become completely consumed by the work and it's honestly addictive, you know, to get into those kinds of flow states in order to get into that flow state and stay in it though, you really have to carve out a lot of time or protect it.
RJ: 04:25 And so hopefully you can get into that state and then stay there for as long as you can either because you're not being distracted by emails or meetings or you know, other kind of normal responsibilities. It's usually not that you're exiting those states because you know, you're burned out. Like if you can get there, usually can stay there for awhile. That said at the end of the night, you know, sometimes you're just, you're just tired, so you make it a priority to protect your flow state.
Alli: 04:55 And so you said you have two times during the day that you do that. And then what about in between?
RJ: 05:00 So inbetween, which for me would be late morning or early afternoon, I often exercise then because my mind is kind of like turned to mush. I'm not super high energy mentally, but it's like, okay, this is a good time to slug some lead or you know, get some miles under the belt or whatever.
RJ: 05:19 I don't really play social sports, but I do like activities where I can keep thinking kind of in a different way. And so there's this idea of while you're exercising for athletic competition or something, but there's also that idea of like, you need to exercise for cognition. You only get one meat vehicle in this life and you have to, you have to really take care of it. And so you have to be strong in order to have high energy to do the work. Your body has to be healthy. So that's one side of it. But the other side is that in a similar way to walking, like when I'm swimming in a pool or a paddling on my kayak or running or even slugging lead, then part of my brain is occupied doing the activity and it. And it frees up the rest of it to kind of wander and have thoughts and have a little bit of a, some people call it empty time, I think of it as free association time, but it's, it's, it's time that you know, your mind can wander. And that's similar to when you're under a hot shower, you know, and you have like these mental wanderings, you know, you can achieve that without always jumping in the shower.
Alli: 06:26 Yeah. That's really interesting. So you have these creative times, then you have all these breaks where you let your mind kind of free associate all the ideas you've been. Yeah, that's really cool. But now you are writing a book called Info We Trust and it's due out in January 2019. So when did you first get the idea that you needed to get your message into a book?
RJ: 06:53 I think that Info We Trust probably has a bit more complex of an origin story. One of the key insights in the very beginning from my perspective was sort of this idea of information vs informing. And so I really love information. I love making information. I love maps, I love charts. I love diagrams ... I really, I really love it all. But what I love even more is uh, helping people become informed, you know, focusing on information. It's really easy to get lost in the machine side of things. Well, one of my observations was that quite a lot of the chatter, both in books, conference talks, blog posts, you know, twitter or whatever. A lot of it is all about sort of the, the technical, like how do you, how do you make the machine. And I was very, very interested in sort of like, all right, once we have the information, how does it, how does it actually inform? And so to take from design world and take a very human centered approach to the craft information on its own doesn't create any meaning, meaning only happens when the reader, the viewer, the audience interacts with the information and it's the connection between the information and how the information excite some something in that person's mind that that's where the meaning comes from. That's where all the value comes from. That was one of the really one of the big early things that I wanted to focus on with this book.
Alli: 08:28 Who do you think that this is the ideal book for and what do you hope that they will learn from it?
RJ: 08:35 So Info We Trust is for everyone who believes in pursuing new and wonderful ways of looking at the world. I wrote it for everyone. Not only people who want to understand and see things better, but also want to help all the other people understand and see things better too. You know, the first word in the title, Info - information - informed, informing, but then there's this last word in the title which is trust. Trust is a pretty interesting word and it's one that I address a lot in the book, but the big idea is that, you know, we all pretty much know nothing. We all know only a little bit and thank Gosh for that, if we all had to know everything, we would have never escaped the bronze age because we really depend on the knowledge, information and wisdom of others.
RJ: 09:27 Information is the way that we you know, it's kind of like this glue that kind of stitches us all together. People who are really excited about maps, charts and diagrams, but how maps charts and diagrams sort of help stitch, not only helps stitch society and civilization together, but how they all help actually improve and advance civilization together. It's very much a kind of like we're all in this together. So that's why I wrote it. I promise you that reading this book will show you new ways to bring meaning not only into your own life, but into everybody's lives.
Alli: 10:07 I'm really excited to read it. When did you first start writing? Was it earlier this year or in 2017?
RJ: 10:14 It was in 2017, so I signed the contract at the end of October and started writing or at least started the process of writing in early November. So, just about 12 months ago.
Alli: 10:30 Wow. That's a lot of work.
RJ: 10:32 It is a lot of work. But really it's a luxury. The ability to take a year off from normal work and completely focus myself. I mean, I'm really, really grateful that the universe shone down and gave me this opportunity to completely focus on this. I'm now at the end, at the end stages of a book production about to return to doing my more normal activities. But for a solid maybe 10 months or so, it was only the book every day for a very long stretch, seven days a week, many 12, 14, 15 hour days, you know, hammering on this, trying to make the most of the time I got to spend with it.
Alli: 11:21 Did your creative process change at all from your schedule when you were doing freelance work or do you kind of try to keep the same structure where you had some exercise time, you had two creative time periods and other times you were consuming information or did you change it up at all for the last 10 months when you were writing the book?
RJ: 11:41 So the nature of putting together a data story and putting together a book about data storytelling, they each have a little bit of nuance. I think that, to be honest, technically a book is not a impressive artifact, right? I mean we've been making books since Gutenberg in 14, 15 century or so. You know, we sort of figured out how to make books. That said, the complexity management process of actually putting together this book has been way more intimidating, more way, more challenging, way more satisfying than any data story I've ever put together. Either publicly or for a client, even though the technology isn't hard. The book's hand illustrated, so I'm using markers and papers and I'm typing it out in a variety of word processing programs. It was really challenging and so the routine sort of reflected my attempts to try to wrangle the whole book writing process.
RJ: 12:49 So my approach to writing the book was very strategic from the beginning. What I did was I identified that I didn't want the book to be too influenced by fashion, sorta like what's the hot topic on data viz twitter today. And I also knew that I wanted the book to be written in my own voice and so how I chased those goals was I first went and read everything about the craft of data visualization and data storytelling written before 1985. Alright. Why 1985? It was about the year when interactive computer graphics really started to take off and you started to see that in the literature. And so the first thing I did was I spent pretty much the month of November reading all the classics, so Turkey and Tufte and Nigel Holmes and William Cleveland. And so that's, you know, late sixties throughout 1985.
RJ: 13:49 And then, I went even deeper. And so I read everything from William Playfair through the early 19 hundreds and there's a couple of interesting things, you know, even in the mid 20th century, I read all of that and I took careful note of what people were talking about when they're talking about informing each other using data that still resonated with my experience as a creator. And so I wanted the whole book, there's sort of some kind of advice that's really useful for analysis, meaning that we can, we can kind of talk about whether or not this thing is working, you know, maybe the psychophysics community is more interested in that type of advice or information. But what I wanted this book to be was really about creating, not about critics but about producers, creators, you know, how to make because like, because that's what I am, there are plenty of critics in the world, you know, I really believe we need more more makers and so we have this one sort of input which is all of this pre interactive computer work.
RJ: 14:52 And then we have this second input to the process which is my own experience as a creator. And I assume that whatever overlapped from those two input sources was essentially timeless. You know, if it was true before interactive computers and I still find it true across my modern work. Then that thing has a really good shot at being a timeless thing. And that's the kind of material that I wanted to construct the skeleton of the book out of. So I did this first wave of research and I had these two inputs. I figured out where the overlap was. And then I wrote the first draft of the book, and that first draft of the book, you know, came together probably about mid January, 2018 and then once that happened I was able to open up my research process to the rest of the literature to help sort of polish and sharpen and focus the narrative journey.
Alli: 15:49 I think I and many of the other people in the data viz community see you as one of the most creative makers out there. And, but I think that a lot of people also think that creativity is kind of like a lightning strike, but you strategically schedule it into your day. So I was curious, what do you think are the essential components of being consistently creative in your work?
RJ: 16:14 So lightening strike sort of Aha moments. They certainly happen and it's wonderful when they do happen. I believe though, that you can construct an environment via your creative routines, your daily routines, but also sort of like your cognitive environment in terms of what you're thinking about. Right? Because what you think about is what you are, right, and so how do you do that? So there's a lot of different theories of kinda like what creativity is. One of them centers on this idea of intersectional creativity where creativity it's very similar to metaphor. We're making a new thing is about connecting to existing things in a new way. And so we do that with language when we try to use existing concepts to describe new things. I'm looking at my computer screen right now.
RJ: 17:07 So the computer screen is full of iconic metaphors, right? So we have a trashcan to throw files out and sort of depending on this old concept, you know, the save icon still looks like a floppy disk even though a lot of people who use the save icon don't know what a floppy disk is. And so that's sort of what I mean. That's honestly kind of what creativity is. It's like you take something that's existing, that's old, maybe you smash it with something else. Most famously kind of George Lucas does this with star wars where he takes a lot of Japanese films in World War II films and kind of rips favorite scenes from one of the other layers that I had Joseph Campbell myth structure and we have star wars. And so if you can accept this idea of intersectionality, then what you need first in order for the Aha moments to fire is that you need a really good warehouse in your head of content to connect.
RJ: 18:02 And that's actually like really, really fun. There's just so much knowledge that is at your fingertips all the time that it's very easy to become almost like an overnight expert. That's kinda what it feels like, you know, to study up on something and not actually become an expert, but if you can become functional in something like pretty quickly. And so the first step to being creative is to immerse yourself in and fill up a warehouse of knowledge. And again, maybe it's not in one category or one topic, but maybe it's in multiple. And of course you always have just the regular sort of information that's in your longterm memory. Nobody's kicking around in your head. I see that as step one. I think that step two is, you know, kind of dropping everything and walking away for a little while.
RJ: 18:49 You need some of this time that we talked about earlier, which was this, you know, whether you're exercising or sleeping, but you need time for some of that knowledge to be filtered from your short term memory into your longterm memory and let those concepts either, settle in with how you think about the world or maybe challenge how you think about the world because a lot of the concepts won't really be in harmony with the ways that you thought about things. And then hopefully if you give not too much time because you don't want to forget your whole warehouse of thoughts. Then you start making sort of connections between the thoughts that you just suggested, but also between the new thoughts and the thoughts you've been carrying with you for a long time. And that's where I believe that the Aha moments sort of come from is when you start making those connections.
Alli: 19:37 That's fascinating. So warehouse information and then step away and give yourself time to make connections. So once you do make those connections, so you get some really great ideas and you have to start executing them. I think it's hard sometimes to be creative and then come back and you're limited by your tool set. So how, how do you handle when you get ideas and then you're not sure how to execute.
RJ: 20:05 I think one of the best things you can do is step away from the computer. You know, I'm constantly moving from the screen to analog sort of paper and pencil kind of tools. I want to give a really heavy endorsement for working by hand for many reasons. One is that whatever you output, it's not going to be, it's not going to be content driven, right? It's very hard to do data driven work by hand. Obviously, you know, some people are doing it right now, whether it's Georgia Lupi or Amy Cesal, it's possible to actually do data driven stuff by hand, but that's not, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about not exploring content driven work, but actually exploring the form of the work so it's like this is what it could look like. This is what it might be because then you can jump back onto the screen and actually implement it.
RJ: 20:53 In a way that I'm not a confident enough or talented enough coder, like some people are. Some people are able to do all of this work purely with code. For me, I'm not fast enough. That becomes a little bit limiting and constricting for me that I just don't have. I don't feel like I have the same amount of freedom as when I'm working, you know, with hand drawn sketches for example. But hand drawn sketches are even more powerful than that. Say you are very talented with code drawing by hand. It'll still give you a different way of looking at things. And then, you know, this isn't, I mean, a lot of the work that we do is solitary, you know, you're by yourself in a room, headphones on, dialed in, focused. But ultimately this is a people facing art and we're always working with teammates and colleagues.
RJ: 21:41 And the thing about showing someone something that was built with a computer is that it looks polished. I mean, it's one of the sort of the things we really haven't figured out, but you know, everything looks legitimate, right? Like even like even fake news on facebook. Right? And so one of the nice things about showing people sketches is that it doesn't look polished. It's like it's obvious that this isn't finished. And it's very easy when you show somebody a sketch to direct their attention to the aspect that you actually want to talk about because you know, they're in a design. There's maybe 20 things you could critique if you show something made by the computer, it's easy to get distracted by the 19 other things. Not the one thing you want to focus on during a particular conversation.
Alli: 22:32 I never thought about that sketching has the benefit of, you know, looking unfinished. That's actually something that could work in your favor.
RJ: 22:41 Yeah. And this is something that Elijah Meeks has talked about a little bit and because he's, I think, gone to some great effort to include some sketchy styling and semiotic and I think he's written on it from this perspective as well.
Alli: 22:59 Yeah, I love that.
RJ: 23:01 Info We Trust the book is very technology agnostic. That it doesn't really address any particular tool or programming library that was also very strategic. The whole book is hand illustrated. I obviously use quite a lot of tools to make the charts and diagrams and views that eventually became hand illustrated, but there's honestly just too many tools that I use too many tools and there's even more tools out there that I don't use. Right. And I'm certainly not, I'm not an expert in any tool and that's sort of a nature because of the, because of the multidisciplinary aspect of the craft. It's so hard to become an expert.
Alli: 23:42 Well, I think one of the struggles that I have with creativity in my work is that a lot of times I'm under a time crunch, like sometimes at work I'm given a data set and a goal and I have to send up some prototypes within a day or two. So I'm wondering how would you approach a situation like this where you can maximize your creativity if you're under a time crunch?
RJ: 24:08 Yeah, sure. So this theory of creativity... It's very demanding of your time, right? Because I'm saying that, you know, do a lot of work then step away, that's more time and then come back to it, that's really intensive. So first I'll say, I'll applaud you and say good job prototyping. Prototyping is very, very important. Because the worst thing you can do is go off into a cave for three months and make the perfect solution and then come back and have it be wrong because you've just wasted all that time. So yeah. So the first thing is like, you know, you go off and put your headphones on and make something but have regular interactions. You know, before I make an interactive project, I always first sketch, like a static version and have a discussion with the partner or client or whoever, so this is working, does it work static, you know, what are we going to get by adding more data, what are we going to get by adding interactivity and sort of almost baby step things towards the grand vision.
RJ: 25:17 So prototyping is really useful and I think a really great way to rapidly improve a project. And so in order to prototype on a tight timeframe, what you need is heavy engagement. And this is one of, one of the things, I sort of have this list of things I talked to with new clients and I said, look, the more you lean into this process, the more information that flows between us, the better the project's going to be. At the end, and so in a tight timeline, what that means is that you need really tight engagement. You need people who, whoever the stakeholders are who are either the recipient of your work or somebody who is informing your work. You need them to really be on board with your process and really be available and accessible and just as enthusiastic to make that new vision that you're trying to achieve.
RJ: 26:13 So that's our first thing - having engaged stakeholders. The second piece is that you need to limit your scope, so you need to be very specific as specific as you can about this is what we can achieve in this timeline. And if we had more time, this is what else we could achieve. And that's a nice way of putting it because it's a little positive. It's not saying, well I can't, I'm not going to do these things. You know, it's like, if we had more time we could accomplish these other things. But it helps because again, it's the people facing art. It helps everybody who's around the table understand what's possible given the time that's being afforded for this particular part of the project.
Alli: 27:02 Yeah, that is really great advice.
RJ: 27:04 Maybe we could end on quoting Elijah Meeks because I think that so much of what he says is so smart, but he was talking about color specifically, but I think this quote extends to the whole craft... "Recognize that it's hard and that it's going to take time and effort. Point that out to your stakeholders. Schedule some time for it. Don't just brush it off. One major reason why people are so bad at color and data visualization is because they don't budget any time for it." And I think that's true not only for color but across all dimensions of the craft.
Alli: 27:39 That's really smart. Well, thank you so much for being with me, RJ.
RJ: 27:43 My pleasure. This has been really fun.
Alli: 27:48 Thanks again to RJ for sharing so much wisdom. I learned a lot during our discussion and as always I wanted to highlight my key takeaways first. There is no one right way to do things. There is no one best creative routine, but RJ has found that the essential components for a creative routine are
1. periods of gathering lots of information and then 2. move into a period of light exercise or rest where you can kind of free your mind to free associate the ideas that you just collected and then 3. carve out time periods in your day where you can enter a creative flow state. RJ said he schedules to have those time periods in his date where he's high energy.
Alli: 28:30 Then when you do have a creative idea, try sketching it out. First, the benefits are that you can explore the form of your idea rather than the technical aspect of what you can and can't do in a certain tool and your idea doesn't get influenced by your tool knowledge. It has the benefit of also looking unfinished so you can more easily focus someone's attention like your client on your specific idea and when you're trying to maximize your creativity under a deadline. Know that this calls for heavy engagement from your client so that you can rapidly prototype and make sure to limit your scope, start working to train your clients to understand that data is as hard and they need to budget time for it.
Alli: 29:10 Finally, the thing that RJ said that really stuck with me was that we need more makers and fewer critics, and I'd love to know what part of my chat with RJ really resonated with you and if you share it on twitter, make sure to tag me @DataVizToday and RJ who is @InfoWeTrust