The ten graph challenge

If you’re like me, you’re a data nerd. You love digging into stats to try to uncover trends and tell a story.

You might even be pretty good at Excel.

But when you create graphs they look boring yet cluttered, like they’re out of a corporate PowerPoint slide.

Are you like me? Then you should take the #10GraphChallenge.

The rules are simple: Create ten different graphs, focusing on making them simple, easy to understand, and visually appealing. Post them to Twitter for the world to see, and try to tell a story around each of them. Use a variety of datasets and a variety of graph types.

I recently finished the challenge. Here’s what I came up with.

A collage of my ten graphs. Data included weather, taxes, running, finances, crime, hockey, lacrosse, blogging, real estate, and road tripping.
A collage of my ten graphs. Data included weather, taxes, running, finances, crime, hockey, lacrosse, blogging, real estate, and road tripping.

View the thread on Twitter for more context and commentary on each of the ten graphs.

My goal with this blog post is to inspire at least one other person to take the challenge. You can do it any way you want, but here’s how I did it.

1) Find data for graphing

Data is everywhere. If you hear an opinion that you disagree with, see if you can find data to prove that person (or yourself) wrong. If you’re into sports, see if you can dig up something interesting that no one else is talking about.

I used a Trello board to track ideas. It started slow, but I ended up with 22 different graph ideas.

My Trello board. The first four columns are empty because I’m done, but all ideas started in the leftmost column then worked their way to the right as I either completed or rejected them.

Gathering data for me was usually a matter of pasting it into Excel, then cleaning it up and digging in. Try conditional formatting, pivot tables, and a variety of chart types to get a feel for what the data is trying to tell you.

Four sheets from my NHL data analysis, including a zoomed-out table with conditional formatting to help me spot patterns, two pivot tables, and a good old bar chart.

I also experimented with Tableau, but I only ended up using it for one graph out of my ten. It’s an easy to use, powerful tool, but it only replaced Excel for me when I was dealing with geographical data.

2) Make your graph look good

Once I had an Excel graph that worked, I popped it into Sketch. The “Creating Line Charts” section of this article explains how to do that, but ignore the part about the PDF. That’s not necessary. Simply copy it out of Excel and paste it into Sketch.

This is where you can start to simplify and play with the layout. Think WWTD: What Would Tufte Do?

My Sketch file for my NHL graph. I decided to go with horizontal bars instead of columns, then removed unnecessary clutter, split out the two sets of data, squished them together, and fine-tuned it.

3) Share your graph

Yes, this is the scary part. But publishing your graph is worth it! Yes, people might call you out on your bullshit.

Me getting called out for my exaggeration. It’s true: I have no idea if most people actually think that. Oh well. Live and learn!

Yes, it’s scary to put yourself out there, but that’s how you get better!

4) Reflect on your journey

Done ten graphs? Congratulations! Now take a moment to reflect on the process. Here are some of my own reflections.

What an improvement!

I cringe when I look back at some of my previous work, even my language learning resources graphic from less than six months ago. It’s really ugly compared to my #10GraphChallenge.

And hopefully I’ll look back at these graphs six months from now and feel the same way. That’s how you know you’re learning!

Still really slow

When I started my #10GraphChallenge, I was thinking of doing one graph a day for ten days. It ended up taking more like 40 days. I’d estimate that each graph took an average of 3 hours. These things take time. And that’s okay. With more practice, I’ll get quicker.

That was fun!

I’ve always liked numbers and graphs, but I loved this challenge. Thinking of graph ideas then digging into the data and trying to tell a story made me feel like a journalist. Graphs are a great way to tell stories with numbers.

I’m not alone

There’s a whole community of data viz nerds like me out there. I stumbled upon Storytelling With Data during this challenge and found it to be an incredibly open, welcoming, and active community.

Your turn: Take the #10GraphChallenge

You’ve come this far, so why not try it out yourself? Here’s a template tweet to get you started.

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