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I’d Been Doing Dataviz My Whole Life Without Knowing It

Even though I am working on making it my career, I am pretty new to data visualization. Or so I thought.


Hi, I’m Julie. This is my inaugural post about my new design adventure and career direction doing data visualization or “dataviz” as they like to call it. I’ve always been an artist and designer but I am also interested in math and science. I couldn’t be more excited to find a career path that merges the two and uses the skills that I am best at!


But how did I get here? This trajectory is not as new as I initially thought and I have several examples of dataviz projects I’d done before I knew it was …. a thing.


I was cleaning out the garage recently and made an enlightening discovery. Around 2007, I started a design project that charted the history of the earth geologically on a physical timeline that spanned across several rooms. I wanted to highlight how long the earth had been in existence and the large stretches of time between geological eras, as well as the relatively short duration of human existence on our planet. The present era would comprise about 6 inches of the timeline, a small sliver dramatically showcased at the very end of the last room. Alas, I never finished the project. All that remains are several dusty, taped-together printouts on legal-size paper — roughed-out geological estimations designed in Quark. I had rolled up my vision and thrown it in a box.


And yet another abandoned art project was lurking deep within the garage. I had put together a proposal for an art installation called “One Billion.” It consisted of a single modest table atop which 5,000 identical sheets of office paper are neatly stacked, divided into ten piles. On each piece of paper are printed a grid of 200,000 tiny dots. The dots are so small that you can barely discern them. From a short distance, they blur into a grey mass. The total number of dots across all 5,000 sheets adds up to one billion. As part of the installation, I planned to include statistics from astronomy, economics and politics that referenced such data. A billion stars. A billion dollars. A billion seconds. A billion deaths. Well, maybe not a billion deaths…


The main objective was to drive home the difference between a million and a billion, two numbers that get thrown around frequently and sometimes interchangeably. Many people don’t realize the vast difference between the two quantities. I wanted to bring the abstract idea of “a billion” into a tangible hard copy that you could touch. It’s hard to believe, but to make a million dots, you only need five sheets of paper.


I had the 5,000 sheets printed at Kinkos. But the art installation never happened. The reams of dotted paper lived in my closet for years as I shlepped them from one apartment to another, moving through life. A few times I was tempted to throw them away. I’m glad I didn’t. This project was the inspiration for my “Visualizing the U.S. Debt” infographic that was published by Visual Capitalist in April 2023. A billion still blows my mind. Especially when you visualize it in dollars.


EARLY INFLUENCES

When I was 19 and getting ready to enter college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I wasn’t sure what my emphasis of study would be. I liked science. But I was also artsy and liked fashion. My stepdad got proactive and made an appointment with the dean of physics for a personal tour of the physics building as a prelude to orientation so that I might have a leg up on the other students and be better equipped to decide my major. Since I had been reading books on the “new physics” (as it was called in 1989), we thought perhaps I was destined to be an actual physicist. I wasn’t sure, but I was open to it. I remember enjoying the tour, seeing all the labs and apparatus. But I wasn’t convinced it was for me. It looked difficult. Later, I met some friends in the dorm who had enrolled as art majors. They were wearing cool clothes, had dyed hair and were carrying little toolboxes of art supplies as they trekked across campus. It just looked… fun. The decision was made, I was to become an art major. Interestingly, I ended up being roommates with a group of friends who were in a punk band and two of the members were physics-engineering majors. They were always studying and their coursework looked hard. I shuddered, happy to be waking up late for a day of oil painting in the art building instead of going to the physics hall.


I got the BFA in art, with an emphasis in art history and painting. But after college, I never painted again. The art history came in handy when visiting museums, but I had a hard time finding a job with my degree. So like many art school graduates, I worked odd jobs and did art as a hobby.


Around 1997, when the Apple Macintosh became affordable and the internet happened, I taught myself graphic design, using QuarkXPress and Photoshop to do record covers, logos and other small jobs for low-budget clients. As my skills grew, I became a freelancer with MacPeople and worked at firms around San Francisco. It was then that I was able to pull in some “real money,” the earthshaking pay of $25/hour. After being a minimum wage worker most of my life, I was elated to be using my skills to bring in a higher income. But I never warmed up to the 9-to-5, commute-to-work life of the office temp. Usually the work was boring and the projects consisted of realizing other people’s dreams, not mine. Whenever I could, I worked on my own projects during work hours when I had downtime. One of the projects that came out of this was “Foxy Nymphs Grab Quick-Lived Waltz Jolt”, a graphic design/art book. It was a playful survey of wordplay in the English language that doubled as a font catalog. Using inventive typography, I showcased weird word oddities of the English language. It was kind of like a Guinness Book of World Records for words and letters. The title is a pangram, a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet. I gave the book a sexy title — “Foxy Nymphs”— not what you’d expect to call a statistical survey of word and letter oddities. The words were the data and my type treatments were the visualization. Linguistic dataviz! I put together a book proposal and shopped it around to publishers in the UK and U.S. Nobody was interested enough to publish it.


After freelancing for many years in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, I landed a permanent position at the Screen Actors Guild in L.A. as a production artist/junior graphic designer. It was good experience and nice pay, but the office was gloomy and I was not the least bit interested in actors, Hollywood or labor unions. My discontent there peaked around 2007. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to do my own thing.


At the time, I was moonlighting on the side as a web designer for friends and indie record labels. I also enjoyed watching videos about black holes and cosmology and thinking about the smallest things in the universe — photons, quarks and other subatomic particles. One night I had an idea to make plush toy characters of subatomic particles. It was late 2007 and the DIY craft scene was burgeoning. Etsy wasn’t yet a household word, but craft fairs were starting to pop up across America and crafty, handmade creations were about to have their moment. I borrowed a sewing machine, taught myself how to use it, and within a month designed a few primitive toys. A week later, I uploaded a quick website and named it “The Particle Zoo.” It was an experiment and an expression of my true self, something I had never gotten to do in the workplace. Facebook had barely gained traction and the social media landscape of today was in its infancy, so I relied on science blogs for exposure and sharing.


My site’s traffic quickly grew as it was shared by scientists, students and teachers around the world. Orders and requests started pouring in. Soon I was able to quit my Screen Actors Guild job and work full time from home, fulfilling and shipping orders while designing more and more toys, day and night. I created a brand identity, trademarked it and added more products to my site. With one simple concept — visualizing what we can never see — I had found a rarefied niche. It was the perfect marriage of science and art. I was ecstatic in my new role as the Particle Zookeeper. I had created my own ideal job position and worked 7 days a week to grow my business. Often I sat outside in Griffith Park making the toys under a canopy of trees amongst chirping birds and mischievous squirrels, so grateful to finally be my own boss. Every day felt like a wondrous dream.


For the next 10 years I continued to manufacture the subatomic particle toys from my apartment in L.A. I never really realized it then, but this was a sort of dataviz in plush form. The collection of 36 toys, with their different weights, colors and shapes helped people visualize something that was intrinsic to the universe, but vaguely understood. I brought clarity to abstract concepts in physics, translating difficult science into plush whimsy for anyone who wanted to understand it and even for those who didn’t. It was nerdy in the best way. People who were not interested in particle physics still wanted the toys. My handmade creations reached the upper echelon of scientific academia and educational institutions worldwide. Many parents wrote to me to say their child begged for the toys and they were their favorites under the Christmas tree. Some parents ordered the Whole Zoo for their children which cost $349. I sewed each and every particle toy myself.


Julie Peasley gifting a bag of quark toys to physicist Murray Gell-Mann at CalTech, the discoverer of quarks.
Me (left) gifting a bag of quark toys to physicist Murray Gell-Mann at CalTech, the discoverer of quarks.

One of my toys accompanied ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang aboard the space shuttle for a mission in 2009:

That same year I made friends with physicists at Fermilab, visiting their offices and particle laboratories in Illinois. Soon after, I had a personal meeting with the director of CERN in Geneva, and accepted an invitation to visit the underground particle collider as a special guest. I gave a talk in the CERN library. They carried my toys in the gift shop. Along with particle physicists worldwide, I was riding the exciting wave of anticipation as they got closer to discovering the Higgs boson, or as the media like to call it, “the God particle.” My Higgs toys were selling like crazy. Even Professor Higgs himself had one.


Professor Peter Higgs holding a Higgs boson toy from the Particle Zoo
Professor Peter Higgs holding a Higgs Boson toy from The Particle Zoo


I took it as far as I could. But after the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012, business ever so gradually declined. It finally petered out (for me personally, at least) by the end of 2017. I had given a decade of my life to The Particle Zoo but I was getting older and needed financial stability. In 2018 I sold the business to a nice family in Minnesota (who still run it) and went back to doing graphic design as a freelancer, working in windowless offices on tedious projects I wasn’t the least bit interested in. Finally I had reliable income but I wasn’t fulfilled. I knew I could do better.


I have found that when you are looking for something, a new apartment, for example, it’s better to go to the neighborhood you want to live and see what’s available rather than sit at home scan the listings of apartments in general. Go to where you want to live and see what’s there. Applying this principle to the job search, one day I did a random search for the type of design I wanted to be doing: precise, scientific, modern; design that satisfied my curious mind and made the world a better place at the same time. I discovered a website that published a different beautiful infographic every day, parsing out the world’s cluttered data into a fascinating and visually appealing nugget of insight. I knew immediately this was what I wanted to be doing for a living and with my skills, I could actually do it. It had a specific name that was new to me: data visualization. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night.



chart of types of infographics by Edward Tufte
types of infographics by Edward Tufte

DataViz. Data storytelling. Infographic journalism. How had I missed this?I hadn’t realized it was an actual profession, a discipline, a community of designers, programmers, data scientists and journalists. I was so excited to get to work. I started right away creating visualizations in Illustrator, focusing all my free time and attention to getting good at it. I devoured as many books as I could on the topic and found the Information is Beautiful community. Marveling at the pure beauty and art that data could generate, I schooled myself in the different types of charts: Sankey, Voronoi, bubble chart, heat map, stacked bar, treemap. I gave myself assignments, immersed myself in dataviz program tutorials. But as I thought about my life and how I could have missed this, I realized I actually had always been interested dataviz but didn’t know it. Looking back, I remembered some very early influences, long before The Particle Zoo and the history of the world timeline in the garage.

One of my earliest childhood memories was being fascinated with the artist M.C. Escher. My single mother had a book of his artwork on our bookshelf at home and I would study it for hours, sometimes writing poems to accompany the pieces that really moved me. I was in love with the impossible geometry and the idea of visual paradox, all the mind-bending transformations and illusions that seemed to bend space. It was like no art I had ever seen.



Waterfall by M.C. Escher
Waterfall by M.C. Escher


COLLEGE YEARS: THE EARLY 1990's


Later, in college I was captivated by the 1994 book Material World by photographer Peter Menzel. The concept is simple: he travels the world and photographs an average family from every country with all of their possessions arranged neatly outside their home, usually in the front yard. Some impoverished families had next to nothing. Other families had immense wealth. Viewed through this same metric, the formula of family + possessions + dwelling, one could understand so much about the economy, culture and social structure of a country. It was ingenious and satisfying; a way to understand at one glance the discrepancies of wealth, health and demographics across the globe.



Material World by Peter Menzel, 1994
Material World by Peter Menzel, 1994

But the book that really stands out to me was a colorful paperback published in 1984 called The State of the World Atlas. It was a collection of world map data visualizations comparing wealth, diet, unemployment, poverty and other diverse subjects, all displayed through tantalizingly colorful charts. As a 16-year-old, I couldn’t put it down.



The New State of the World Atlas, Michael Kidron & Ronald Segal, 1984
The New State of the World Atlas, Michael Kidron & Ronald Segal, 1984

One particular graphic stands out in my mind. It was a distorted map of the world where the countries are sized according to their national income. (I now know this type of chart is called a cartigram). The giant rectangle of the U.S. looms over the world. Central and South America are tiny in comparison. Some countries are invisible. I think that graphic planted a seed in my mind that data could be visualized in a certain way that told a larger story, in just a few seconds. And data could be art.



spread from The New State of the World Atlas, 1984
spread from The New State of the World Atlas, 1984

In 2021, just before I discovered the current world of dataviz, a friend randomly gifted me a book he thought I might like. It was The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless of Information is Beautiful fame. I was mesmerized.



The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless
The Visual Miscellaneum by David McCandless

I knew this type of design was going to be my future. If I could wake up every morning and make the world a better place, enjoy doing it and get paid, then I have achieved my ikigai. I think it’s quite apropos to end with a Venn diagram. In case you aren’t familiar with the now-famous ikigai concept, it’s a Japanese idea of personal fulfillment and meaning in your life through keeping busy with what you are most passionate about. It was popularized by two journalists who were studying the Blue Zones and centenarians. Directly translated, it means “the happiness of keeping busy.” To find your ikigai is to check all the boxes of a satisfying and productive life: do what you love, do what the world needs, do what you are good at and get paid doing it. It’s what want to jump out of bed in the morning and do every day. As of this writing, I can’t say I have acheived it yet, but I am so much closer than I was a year ago.


[This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 May, 2023)



A philosophy for living: the ikigai Venn diagram
A philosophy for living: the ikigai Venn diagram



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