Years ago, the hardest part of a data visualization designer’s job was explaining what he did and why it was worthwhile. Today, organizations ranging from the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to the World Bank seek out data visualization specialists. Business is good. Most design studios I talked to had recently turned down work. A few years ago, they said, companies engaged in complex financial negotiations to get a visualization done; now it’s a standard, budgeted line item. GE counts among the companies that have made major investments in data visualization.
The upshot is that some of the best data visualization work is going unseen, as Fortune 500 companies hire data visualization designers for NDA work or snatch them up for full-time work. Before we spoke, the Portland-based firm Periscopic had just met with Nike to help the company assemble an internal data visualization team, while Jer Thorp—whose work has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to New York’s Museum of Modern Art—lamented to me that one of his interns had recently left for Apple. “We’re never going to see anything he makes, and he’s one of my most talented students over the last decade,” Thorp says. “It’s interesting to think, maybe he’s making crazy, revolutionary things, but we don’t see them.”