What I Learned About Data Visualization from the International Design Foundation

I can’t say my inbox is overflowing with people asking me how to learn data visualization, but it does happen from time to time. And when I do get the chance I am happy to recommend the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF). They won’t be for everyone, but keep reading to find out how I have benefited and what you might gain from their courses.

The challenge I have found in teaching data visualization is the multi-disciplinary nature of the subject. You can’t just learn SQL, Javascript, Illustrator, or Tableau and be ready to go. No, to be good at data visualization I feel it’s important to have true mastery of a least one tool in the stack and leverage that skill to gain experience designing useful solutions exposing you to more areas of interest.

That’s why I find IDF so useful. IDF doesn’t teach you a single skill but rather helps bridge the gap between the tools and the professional application of those tools. IDF does this by taking a look at the past as well as contemporary designs. Depending on the course, you might learn history, psychology, or human-computer interaction. At the end of each lesson, you are presented with a question or two forcing you to think critically about what you just read to make sure the information sinks in.

Every question and exercise is reviewed and graded by an IDF course instructor. The principles shared go deep into the subject matter to help you build an unshakable foundation of knowledge. IDF also has a massive community of other learners you can connect with online or in person through their local group MeetUps.

I had the pleasure of running the IDF community in Brisbane in August 2017 where I was able to meet the designer of an impressive census visualization that had just aired on the news! If IDFs content wasn’t enough of a testament to the quality of their content, then meeting notable designers in person put the icing on the cake.

Besides getting the chance to meet other students in your city, you will receive a globally recognized certificate upon successful completion of an IDF course that you easily add to your LinkedIn profile.

Your journey into data visualization doesn’t have to be difficult

Whether you are getting ready to graduate or are transitioning between jobs you likely have many of the questions I have stumbled upon answers to over the years. I graduated from college with a degree in supply chain management, not design, or information technology. To say there was a skills gap when I landed a position in Supply Chain Optimization is an understatement.

Fortunately for you, there have never been more, high-quality ways to continue learning then there are today. Before I share more about IDF I should give you some context.

My post-college track began by watching just about every ExcelIsFun video ever created, religiously following Chandoo, and attending MeetUps around Data Science in Atlanta, Georgia. While I was learning how to make the most out of Excel I was using MS Access to transform data into the specific structures needed for our optimization models.

I like to say I was a part of Shadow IT before Shadow IT was a thing. Good times!

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Credit: WinShuttle

Eventually, I made the business department uncomfortable enough to that they had to move me to a proper IT organization that used MS SQL Server. While working in the IT team I poured over every book on SQL I could. I also dove deeply into PowerPivot before PowerBI was a product and even had the privilege of taking a course taught by Itzik Ben-Gan, a god in the SQL world.

Throughout my days as a professional data munger I was also using Tableau. Tableau was not yet Enterprise grade. Coke was still on the fence about the tool and I led the charge internally at the 36k person giant where I worked. Thankfully though, Tableau has always based what they do around principles. Tableau has also shared their principled learning with their community since the start.

The principles of visual perception Tableau shared in their early whitepapers sparked another interest of mine, design. As this spark grew into a flame to improve the aesthetics of the dashboards I developed.

Credit: Instagram

I could go on and on about all the ways I have approached learning data visualization, but the point I am trying to make is that I have covered a decent amount of ground, especially when it comes to MOOCs. In optimization terms, we’d say I have thoroughly explored the feasible region. If I could do it over again I would welcome IDF’s guided approach.

Why I wish I had known of IDF sooner

While I am grateful for the broad exposure I was able to gain in the path I took, but the same objectives could have been met much sooner. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure of my direction all I knew was that I had  A LOT to learn.

Today all you have to do is browse IDFs various learning paths where you are presented with multiple paths that might resonate.

Of course, you don’t HAVE to pursue a full path. You could simply take a single course like their exceptional course on Gestalt Principles. No need to scour Lifehacker looking for the latest curriculum cobbled together from disparate courses.

The benefits I have realized already

IDF, in many ways, has saved my sanity. Constantly questioning whether or not your efforts are going to amount to anything worthwhile is taxing! Learning on your own is hard enough, much less alone on a trail you are making up aimlessly.

Besides gaining the comfort of knowing my time is being invested well, I have been surprised by how many more whys behind designs I now understand. IDF does a great job of researching these subjects!

Learning the reasons why certain designs work while others flop has made me a more confident consultant. This confidence translates into more trust and business won. Besides the financial rewards, I know my work is built from a more solid foundation enabling me to better serve those clients.

If you want to build a strong foundation of knowledge around data visualization, to connect with other like-minded learners, and earn certifications showcasing your efforts I would highly recommend giving IDF a go.

Shrink your learning curve for less

Your design education doesn’t have to break the bank. IDF has given me a link to share with you to for 3 months off their annual membership.


This is plenty of time to get through a couple intro courses or tackle a bigger topic like The Ultimate Guide to Visual Perception and Design. Regardless of the course you choose, it’s sure to deepen your knowledge.

Have fun and enjoy the journey!