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Home » Data Visualization

6 Tips for Data Visualization from a Floral Designer

Submitted by on 2015-03-26 – 7:35 AM

You never know where you will find inspiration. This past weekend I attended the NC Museum of Art Art in Bloom Festival.  The idea is that local floral designers use a museum masterpiece to draw inspiration for a floral design. [More: WRAL video about event] It was incredible to see how someone could paint with flowers. Turns out there are many Art in Bloom events like this across the country.


On Sunday I attended a lecture by a Jody McLeod and Stephanie Garrett, local floral designers about creating beautiful floral designs for the spring. As the lecture started, McLeod was talking about how nice it is when the spring sun emerges and flowers start to bloom. He pointed to his floral design and explained how the design was meant to tell a story about spring. Yes, floral designers are storytellers.

Where have I heard this same theme before I thought to myself … probably in every data visualization book I’ve ever read. Here’s the other tips the pair shared about floral design that also apply to data visualization.

Tip 1: You are the Sculptor of the Design

Garrett showed an arrangement where she had sculpted the flowers. Tulips are the easiest to use for this process because they become pliable. She quipped “You know what’s good about a tulip? No one can tell a tulip what to do.” This is true for data as well. You have to shape the data to make it more pliable for your design but the data says what it says.  No one can tell data what the story is – it tells the story to us.


Don’t be afraid to spend time getting the data into the shape that you need – many people don’t realize that only a small portion of the data tells the story.

This artist recreated an impressionist painting – Monet’s. The flower choice mimics how the impressionist created the art. It’s layer after layer of small brush strokes. If this designer can paint with flowers – surely you can paint with data!


Tip 2: Just Show the Important Parts

The designer noted that many times you have to edit a flower or plant. He was referring to removing extra leaves so the beauty of the flower was more apparent. This is true for data visualizations as well.  When you try to show all of the values then none of the values seem important.


Imagine if the designer had left all the leaves on these flowers – you would quickly lose a lot of the beauty. This one did a good job bringing forward the white and pink in the painting. I must admit – I’m partial to pink so I’m easy sell.


It’s simple but your eye understands immediately what is important.  It’s like the techniques from Stephen Few’s book Now Your See It.


Tip 3: One Color Highlights Importance

I really love arrangements that feature multiple flowers and colors. In a flower arrangement the variation is what creates the overall beauty. Sometimes if you use one color it allows the eye to concentrate on what is really important. In many of the arrangements the designer used a single flower color and it was like using a paintbrush to bring the eye right where she wanted it. The same is true with data visualization. Using one color helps the viewer compare the values instead of focus on colors.

The bird’s nest tells a story of spring and yellow flowers suggest little birds. It’s really the simple color that directs your attention.


With the artwork being blue, did you pay more attention to its shape?


Tip 4: Negative Space Has Value

In this arrangement, the designer wanted to use the negative space. The branches reach out toward the sky but it really just gives an illusion of height. It was referred to as selling the “air” in the design. However the designer made the point that negative space had value in the overall design. Your data visualizations also need space to assist with highlighting what is important. With your next data visualization, allow more space for the negative and watch how your data becomes the focus.

This arrangement seems larger than it is because the artist used negative space to give it a longer feeling. I like that the shape matches the artwork behind it.



It’s hard to see but the blue rods extend from the arrangement causing it to use more space.


Tip 5: Keep it Simple

The designer poked fun at herself by saying that her first few designs were a “hot mess” because they used so much going on. In this case, the viewer doesn’t understand where to look or even time to see the individual beauty in the flowers.

Does this artwork make you a little nervous? I’m not sure where I’m supposed to look. The flower arrangement maybe does a better job – I understand to focus on the middle flowers.


You really want your data visualizations to focus on one message not draw attention to itself. This point cannot be overstated – it’s easy to find a busy design but difficult to find something attractive that communicates well.  David McCandless does a good job making data interesting and eye-catching.

Tip 6: Color Theory is Important for Designers

When you are painting with flowers, it is important to understand how color works. McLeod started adding some greenery to his arrangement to show how the pink flowers became more prominent from this paleness of the green. He spent hours learning how colors mixed and didn’t. He noted it was a continual learning process that takes years to master.

Color theory is important for all designers to understand. We’ve all seen a data visualization that featured odd colors choices. It’s strange because it makes you feel uncomfortable and you don’t understand why at first. As in the painting of three ladies above that is busy, I think the color choices don’t really go together. In the painting the artist may have done it on purpose to make the viewer uncomfortable.

It’s another issue where the focus goes away from the data and turns to the design. It’s not the result you want. If you check out the color wheel you’ll probably find a data visualization that contains colors that are not analogous or complementary.  Consider the colors in all of the following pictures:



dataviz_floral_09      IMG_8265

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Tricia Aanderud

Director of Data Visualization at Zencos Consulting
Tricia Aanderud is a SAS Business Intelligence and Visual Analytics consultant based in Raleigh, NC who works for Zencos Consulting. She has written several books about SAS, presented papers at many SAS conferences, and has been using SAS since 2001. Contact her for assistance with your next project.
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