Data Visualization: Developing Your Mock-Up Using Pencil and Paper

Although software is available for doing just about everything, including drawing your data visualization mock-ups, don't overlook the good old pencil-and-paper approach. It's as good now as it was in 1801, when the first pie chart appeared in William Playfair's publication The Statistical Breviary.

To get started, you should have some blank white paper (or a sketch pad of some sort), two pencils, and a big eraser. You'll be doing a lot of erasing.

As software continues to evolve, however, there are fewer arguments for using pencil and paper. Here are a few pros for the old-fashioned method:

  • Low cost: A few sheets of white paper, a pack of pencils, and a big eraser will set you back $10 at most, although it's likely that you already have most of these items in your possession.

  • No learning curve: You can just pick up a pencil and start drawing. You don't need to learn how to use a toolbar or menu options in software.

  • More creative freedom for beginners: It would be great if we were all blessed with graphic design skills. You'd probably love to know how to use advanced graphics tools like Adobe Photoshop to whip up any visualization you desire. But most of us have no formal design training and need to stick to the basics. Pencil and paper provide the freedom to be as creative as you want without being hampered by a keyboard, mouse, or annoying pop-ups on the screen.

Here are a few arguments against using pencil and paper:

  • Sharing can be difficult. You won't have convenient options for sharing your mock-up to collaborate with your users or get their feedback.

  • Paper pages are often too small to share with a large audience. Even big sheets of paper may be hard for everyone to see at once.

  • Paper lacks security. To ensure the highest level of security, most organizations encourage their employees to embrace a digital lifestyle. Doing nightly backups on employees' PCs enables the company to minimize the impact of a disaster. Having a paper trail with no backup is asking for an accident. Based on some embarrassing experiences, we've exchanged some of our pencil-and-paper habits for more web-based ones.

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