Data Visualization Expert Dona Wong Discusses Graphics for Marketers

Molly Soat
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways

​​WHAT? Dona Wong chats with the AMA ahead of her keynote presentation at the Analytics with Purpose Conference.

SO WHAT? As a data visualization expert, Wong says that visualizing data is more important than ever for marketers, but they must not sacrifice utility for frilly design.

NOW WHAT? Make sure your marketing team knows the basics of data visualization before designing charts and graphs, to ensure applicable insights from the data. ​

​​Infographics and visual design can help marketers tell stories in ad campaigns, and in the board room. Here's what you need to know.​

Dona Wong has a unique set of skills, not unlike many successful marketers. She’s an artist and mathematician, economist and journalist, designer and civil servant. Under the mentorship of famed statistician Edward Tufte, Wong studied data visualization (at the time, an unchartered major) at Yale University before moving on to roles at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Siegel + Gale and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Wong is also the author of The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics

Prior to presenting her keynote presentation at the AMA’s 2016 Analytics with Purpose Conference in Scottsdale, Az., Wong sat down with the AMA to chat about how infographics and visual design can help marketers tell stories in ad campaigns, as well as the board room. 

Q. How does visualization of data help marketers, and other professionals who aren’t statisticians or data scientists, understand what they’re looking at?

A. If a piece is done correctly, it should be completely obvious to the viewer and you shouldn’t need someone to explain it. ... Many charts today are made for decoration: 'I have to give a presentation and I need a chart on pages five, 10, 15 and 20,' as opposed to truly providing business insights. That’s the key: How do you do data analytics, understand the data and present it in a way that’s immediately obvious to people? 

Q. How have you seen the role that marketers have in data visualization evolve throughout your time as a data analyst?

A. It’s only in recent time that many business people have started to use the data in a way that actually provides insights. Even now, data visualization can be very superficial. It’s just more visually pleasing but it doesn’t really give insights. Insights is a big part of it. How would you get the data to give you a better marketing campaign, not just a chart that looks pretty? 

Q. How is data visualization best used within a marketing department?

There are two ways to look at data visualization: One is data visualization as an end in itself. Sometimes marketers do that. Does it look pretty? Does it fly across the screen? I see lots of 3D data visualization and motion graphics. That’s almost an end in itself. The other way to look at data visualization is when it’s a means to an end. How do you actually use data visualization to present the data in a way that provides insights to me so that I can modify and change my marketing campaign? There’s nothing wrong with having a pretty model to help you sell something, but you have to have facts, since the most important part is accuracy and clarity. Even in thinking about the use of color, it’s not just about branding. Color is used to differentiate a hierarchy of information. That’s the big difference there. 

Q. When a marketer is interested in creating an infographic to help team members understand campaign performance, for example, where should they start?

A. When you do data visualization, the first thing is to understand the content. That’s so important. People tend to try to visualize something without understanding what it truly means. You have to be able to distill a lot of complex information, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, and distill it into something concise so people can digest it. That’s the essence of data visualization: Distilling a massive amount of data into a digestible amount of data, and then presenting it visually. 

Q. Data visualization is all the rage right now, and more and more marketers are being tasked with incorporating it into internal and public-facing communications. Where do you see the practice moving in the next year or two?

A. I hope that, moving forward, the fad of visualization will go away. It shouldn’t be a trendy thing. As I was writing my book, I realized that I could easily fill a coffee table book with pretty images of data visualization examples. But what’s important to do is get back to the basic grammar of graphics. The SATs are now including how to read charts as a core competency. Knowing the basic grammar of graphics is the most important thing. When do you use a line chart versus a bar chart? There is a difference, and people think they should use whatever they feel like that day. 

We don’t all start out writing editorials. We start by learning the alphabet. And, unfortunately, today we are all trying to write an editorial about everything. The creation of graphics is the same as writing. In writing there are two components: First you need to know your story, then you need to know your grammar. In graphics it’s the same thing, and unfortunately right now, the state that we are in, people use it as a form of self-expression and that leads to very low utility. What we have to strive for high utility, high function and [for it to] still be pretty.  

... At the end of the day, you have to know what story you’re trying to tell, not what tool you’ll use to create the work. You have to know your message. Know what you’re trying to say.

The views expressed here are Wong's own and do not necessarily represent those of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Author Bio:
Molly Soat
Molly Soat is the senior staff writer for the AMA. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @MollySoat.
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