No Shame, No Blame: Laugh at Your Past Data Visualization Mistakes, and Then Move On

Feb 19th, 2019 / Data Visualization /

I always begin my presentations by making fun of myself and my past projects.

I show one of my dreadful graphs, reports, or slideshows from ten years ago, before I knew better, and then show participants how I’d edit that graph today to make it more effective.

I want to set the tone immediately that everyone makes mistakes and it’s no big deal. Laugh at yourself and move on. Even the supposed guru in front of you has used 3D distortions, red-green color palettes that are illegible for people with color vision deficiencies, and tiny Times New Roman text in barely-understandable technical gibberish.

I have five different examples that I cycle through depending on the audience: I might show a past peer-reviewed journal article disaster for an academic audience, or an evaluation disaster for an evaluation audience, or a foundation disaster for a foundation audience, and so on.

Regardless of the specific example I choose to share with each audience, the message is the same: No shame, no blame. Laugh at your past data visualization mistakes, and then move on and just focus on making improvements to the projects you’re currently working on.

I’m not the only data visualization designer with skeletons in my closet. We’ve alllll made mistakes. In this post, I pulled some of my friends together and asked them to share their past work, too. They were great sports and had fun laughing at themselves along the way, too.

And more importantly–look how far they’ve come!!! What a difference a few years of practice (or ten) can make in your own learning journey.

Kylie Hutchinson

Kylie says, “This was fun looking back at my files… Both are from 2009.”


“The first is a table, one of 10 in a report. I can’t believe I didn’t make a chart instead. I didn’t even order the magnitude of responses, sigh.”
A screenshot of Kylie Hutchinson's "before" table with survey data.
“The second is, of course, a bad pie chart…  I also have a very vague memory of having trouble getting the slices to orient the way I wanted them to and I think I eventually said, forget it.”
A screenshot of Kylie Hutchinson's "before" data visualization from 2009--a pie-within-pie chart.


Kylie is so humble that she initially only shared her “before” examples with me. I knew her work had evolved significantly, so I asked for her “after” visualizations. You’ll be happy to see that Kylie traded in her pie charts for slope graphs that use dark/light contrast and storytelling titles!
A screenshot of Kylie Hutchinson's "after" graph, an intentionally-formatted slope graph.
Want to learn more from Kylie? She literally wrote THE book on failures, along with another guide on program sustainability that I’ve heard is great. Not an affiliate, just a fan.

Echo Rivera

Each says, “That time I thought SmartArt was the best design option…”


“This is my masters thesis defense from 2010. I think this was the first time I tried to make my own slide template, which involved adding some speech bubbles to a square and pasting it on all the slides. And, as you can see, I was a huge fan of SmartArt back then. It also has an enormous amount of text on the slides and, generally, does not look all that visually appealing.”

A screenshot of Echo Rivera's "before" slideshow from years ago. Lots of SmartArt and default settings.


“Luckily, I didn’t stop there! I continued to experiment and learn how to design highly visual presentations. This is a section of a workshop I created in January 2019—it’s one of my most recent presentations. As you can see, it’s much more visual and has significantly less text on each slide. It also has built-in moments for audience engagement and is, generally, a lot of fun to deliver and a blast for my audience. I now love designing presentations so much that I have a website and courses to help others make the same transformation in their slides.”

A screenshot of Echo Rivera's "after" slides, which are intentional and customized.

“For more of my old slides, and to check out my website, please see the original article, Blasts From the Pasts: My Old Slides (LOL).”

Sheila B. Robinson

Sheila says, “I found a good (meaning bad, of course) slide for you and I promise, this is the original and it’s from 2009!”


“Unfortunately, I did no doctoring to make it worse for this purpose. Funny, this is probably one of my last really bad slides. By 2006 or 2007 or so, I knew to limit text (no complete sentences) and use larger fonts on each slide, but not much else. It was 2010 when I started really paying attention to design and learning at a much deeper level. Enjoy! :-)”

A screenshot of Sheila B. Robinsons "before" slide from 2009 with nutshell clip-art.

Jon Schwabish

Jon shared a 3D area chart disaster…



Jon’s blog is one of my favorite resources for data visualization best practices and advanced Excel how-tos. You can read more at For example, he just published an article about developing a tile grid map for Washington, D.C. zip codes at

Jon's blog is one of my favorite resources for data visualization best practices and advanced Excel how-tos. You can read more at For example, he just published an article about developing a tile grid map for Washington, D.C. zip codes at


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