Creative Lives — Emily Maguire’s unlikely route into becoming a freelance information and data visualisation designer

Posted 05 March 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

For Emily Maguire, the role of an information and data visualisation designer is not something she’d have ever imagined doing – before a self-starting move propelled her into a niche and specialist realm. Leaving education after completing an art foundation course in 2005, Emily took up her first design job at brand and communications research agency Hall & Partners in 2008. After noting how bewilderingly long the agency’s research reports for clients were, she took it upon herself to compress them into a single page of infographics, and just like that – a new skill set and job title was born. Work for Reuters, RBS and the Ministry of Justice have followed, as well as a two-year stint at the BBC – leading a team to reimagine the company’s infographic and data visualisation style. A freelancer for the past two years, we get to know Emily’s analytical approach, and learn why she wishes she’d paid more attention in maths classes at school.

Emily Maguire

Job Title

Freelance Information and Data Visualisation Designer

Based

London

Previous Employment

Freelance work as Information Designer, Consultant, Data Visualisation Designer and UX Designer for Reuters, RBS, JP Morgan Chase & Co, Ministry of Justice (2016–present)
Editorial Information and UX Designer, BBC News Visual Journalism Team (2013–2016)
Lead Designer, Infogr8 (2013) Infographics Designer, Hall & Partners (2010–2013) Presentation Designer, Hall & Partners (2008–2010)

Education

Foundation Diploma, Ravensbourne College of Design (2004–2005)

Website
Social Media

Emily

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m an information and data visualisation designer. The information design aspect exists in the form of infographics, process maps, or diagrams; whilst data visualisation covers everything from a simple bar graph to a complex visual, often involving thousands of data points.

I work with clients from a variety of industries, ranging from governments, charities, commercial brands, tech corporations and the financial sector.

What does a typical working day look like?
I start my working day at home with my French bulldog, Roux. I’ll browse the news and a selection of sites such as It’s Nice That, New Scientist, and the Public Domain Review as these often provide inspiration for new ideas.

The majority of my time is spent in workspaces near my house in East London. I’ll be sketching potential solutions to a problem, meeting with clients and developing artwork on a Mac. 

What do you like about working in London?
I was born and bred in London so naturally I’ve developed a client base here. I love this city and it’s allowed me to work with some of the biggest agencies and alongside some of the inspirational people. I also find being able to get out and meet my clients face-to-face invaluable.

Data visualisation work for the 2015 election in-situ

How does your freelance work usually come about?
These days most of my work comes via word of mouth or my website, which is wonderful. It’s always great when a successful project leads to more work and new clients.

How collaborative is your work?
Working on projects is usually fairly solitary, with me analysing the information, sketching and then working these into full designs. The main collaboration comes at the briefing stage of the project, where gleaning the relevant information plus client expectations are vital.

I’ll involve key stakeholders at regular touch points, so that they can cast their eye on each iteration, and make sure I’m creating something that is both clear and aesthetically pleasing.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love it when a client throws tonnes of information at me, especially when the goal is to help them understand their own landscape. It’s a lot of fun to work out the best way to do this, and for the client to see their information delivered back to them in a clearer more structured way.

This process is more difficult when a client provides me with initial data that is full of holes or doesn’t add up.

“Data visualisation covers everything from a simple bar graph to a complex visual, often involving thousands of data points.”

Data visualisation work for the 2015 election

Data visualisation work for the 2015 election

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The one that really stands out recently is Save the Children, as it was a really important project. The aim was to visualise where in the world it’s hardest to be a girl. For International Day of the Girl, Save The Children created an index which ranked countries according to levels of schooling, child marriage, teen pregnancy, maternal deaths and the percentage of female MPs.

I was commissioned along with my developer friend [interactive developer] Richard Bangay to design an interactive data visualisation and print layout, using their dataset for 144 countries across the world.   

What skills are essential to your job?
Ironically, although I wasn’t very good at maths while at school, it’s now essential to my data visualisation work. I have to validate and analyse data I’m given to make sure of its integrity. Being able to then communicate this information with clear and concise graphics is vital. 

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I’m working on a learning platform for primary school-aged children which focuses on their emotional development and empowerment, rather than curriculum-based learning. I’m also creating a visualisation based on Fritz Kahn’s work, which will be similar to my Flavour Thesaurus poster – a highly illustrative infographic (based on the book by Niki Segnit), which was a joy to create.

What tools do you use most for your work?
I use sketchbooks, Excel, Illustrator and a few other applications from Adobe Creative Suite, along with prototyping tools such as Sketch for interactive work.

“Having a fairly specialised role within the creative world meant at the beginning there were fewer people to learn from.”

Work for Save the Choildren

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A vampire-witch hybrid, and later on an illustrator or architect, as I loved the schematics. I tended to lean towards art and design in school over more academic subjects. These passions were amplified by some great teachers who helped me develop my abilities and in turn get my foot on the professional ladder.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied for my Art Foundation Diploma at Ravensbourne, specialising in visual communication, specifically illustration. The course honed my ability to take relatively dry subject matter and transform it into something more engaging and playful.

What were your first jobs?
My first job was working as a procurement assistant at a Libyan oil company. Whilst not directly useful, I think it got me used to working with numbers every day, and seeing how people struggle when these aren’t communicated clearly or effectively.

My first foray into the design world was whilst working as a PA at [brand and communications research agency] Hall & Partners. I would sit in meeting as clients were presented long quantitative research reports. These reports understandably left clients confused and fatigued, so I proactively created one-page infographics to showcase the key insights. These graphics quickly became the preferred option for researchers to present big information, and led to a new role being created for me as in-house information designer at the agency. 

Emily’s self-initiated Flavour Thesaurus poster

A details of Emily’s Flavour Thesaurus poster

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
Information designer Stef Bayley was a fantastic mentor who believed in my abilities from the beginning. He showed me that it’s important to know the rules of design, but also how to break them!

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Designing an interactive experience for the 2015 election helped develop my UX skills. It taught me to understand how people absorb information across multiple screens, and how to tailor design outputs for each of those. Keeping users’ needs at the centre of my process is now vital.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
You learn early on that collaboration is key. Being able to work alongside people from all sorts of disciplines, understanding what they are trying to convey and how they work is important to an end result that everyone is happy and proud of.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Having a fairly specialised role within the creative world meant at the beginning there were fewer people to learn from. That led me to being relatively self-taught, both in how to interpret information, but also how to most effectively communicate through graphics.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
No, but I love that! 

“Academia doesn’t necessarily determine your success (I didn’t go to uni); it’s a huge cliché, but if you’re passionate and it seems right, the chances are it will work out.”

Work for the BBC

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
To continue to work on the learning platform and eventually roll this out across the UK as a subscription-based service.

Could you do this job forever?
Yes, because all aspects of it are so incredibly varied. From the people I get to work with and the nature of the projects I work on. It’s very rare that one day looks like the next, so I feel very blessed being able to do what I do.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’d love to start a collective with my friends, so we could collaborate on projects.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Never be too proud to ask for feedback, and listen to people you respect and admire. Even if people don’t think your work’s that great, implementing their feedback on your next project will mean you’ll improve that much faster. Also, look outside of your line of work for inspiration.

Finally, academia doesn’t necessarily determine your success (I didn’t go to uni); it’s a huge cliché, but trust your gut – if you’re passionate and it seems right, the chances are it will work out. 

Posted 05 March 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Illustration
Mentions: Emily Maguire, BBC, Reuters, Save the Children, Government Digital Service
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