Data Visualization Basics: Color Palettes

Color Palette Basics | ProjectsHalfDone.jpg

In the last few weeks I have gone over a few aspects of data visualization that help craft the foundations of visualizing your assessment data, but in my opinion none are more critical than color. Color takes a plain microsoft excel graph from generic to representative of your organization or institution. It’s the foundation of branding in most organizations, especially when those organizations are universities. If you’re from Virginia as I am, you know the difference between Virginia Tech orange and Tennessee Volunteers orange. Moreover, if you’re a Tennessee fan you know that there is only one correct orange and you will correct everyone in an off-color.

Before we get into the specifics of applying these colors to your graphics, let’s do a bit of an experiment. If you carefully look over your university’s page, you’ll notice the main colors but you will also see some that you do not recognize as your university colors, however those colors are most likely still a part of your universities color palette and were carefully selected to go with the main colors. Let’s look at my institution, Iowa State University.

Here is our main homepage. You clearly see our university red and yellow colors, complimented with some white accents in font and line choices. These are all part of what everyone in the midwest will recognize as ISU colors.

Data Viz Secondary Palettes | ProjectsHalfDone.png

Then if we move over to the library’s home page we see the ISU red banner, but then the tabs here are blue, green, and yellow. Yellow is an ISU color but not THAT yellow…and blue and green aren’t anywhere in a traditional ISU logo.

Data Viz Color Palettes | ProjectsHalfDone.png

What’s that about? Well, those colors are actually still part of the university color scheme, from the “secondary color palette”. All universities I’ve ever interacted with have at least one if not two color palettes. Here you can see ISU’s primary and then secondary color palette.

Primary Colors.png

Secondary Colors.png


Now we can see where those blues and greens come from. And seeing the colors all together really allows us to understand how these colors work together. Someone designed this for us. Our job is halfway done thanks to them!  Try searching your university followed by the words “color palette” and see what you find. I’ve yet to find a major institution without some type of color guidelines easily searchable on the internet. If you can’t find your colors, but your university does have a logo you can still get the colors with a bit of work. Feel free to drop me a line if you want some help or stay tuned as I will cover that in a future blog post!

Along with a general sense of the colors associated with our universities, we can also often find other “brand guidelines” that we are supposed to adhere to when representing our institution. How many of us have messed that up at conferences? For example at ISU we are never to use purple with any of our colors or in any presentations. If you’re at Virginia Tech as I once was, you know better than to use blue with any orange, lest you look like those hoo-vians from up north. (Kidding, UVA) If we are using the microsoft default palette…what are the first two colors to come up? Yes, blue and orange. Blue and orange doesn’t represent ISU and it certainly doesn’t represent Virginia Tech. So why are we putting those basic blue graphs on our assessment reports?? Let’s do a better job at representing our data AND our institutions in our reporting practices!

So go find your color palettes. In my next post we will learn how to get those exact colors into your data visualizations!

Other posts in the Data Visualization Basics Series can be found here:


Data Visualization Basics: Chart Variety

Chart Variety | ProjectsHalfDone.jpg

Welcome to the third installment in my Data Visualization Basics series. We touched on this topic a bit in the last post but I wanted to cover it a little more in-depth today. While there are several great chart choosers out there, and I highly recommend a few, I do think it’s worth a more in-depth exploration of the different types of charts we could use for the same types of data.

Last time we looked at choosing the right data and finding those key points, but now we have to determine the best way to present that data. I’m going to start with percentages from categorical data as this is something fairly common in my assessment practice.

Let’s start with some categories.

Attendance Table | ProjectsHalfDone.png

Here we have a table that tells us a little bit about where our students are from. This is a nice, neat, straightforward data set. Two categories. Easy. You might be tempted to use a pie chart….but I will echo just about every other data visualization person out there and say PLEASE, NO. Unless these numbers were 75% and 25% or something similar, a pie chart is just too hard for us to interpret effectively. There are better ways.

One of my favorite methods is the icon array. I will cover how to make an icon array using a free online program in an upcoming post after this series. You can utilize these in several fashions but the basic gist is you’ve got 100 dots/blocks/images in 10 rows by 10 columns. I use these for up to 3 different categories, but no more. More than that and it gets hard to interpret.

Rounding Chart | ProjectsHalfDone.png

Another thing I like about icon arrays is that you can get fairly specific with your significant figures. Here I’ve changed the 37.25% to more accurately reflect those partial points.

Icon Array Filling | ProjectsHalfDone.png

This is my personal preference, but it’s not entirely accurate. It’s more accurate than the first example where I used rounding, but it’s still done by eye on my part, and therefore not mathematically 25%. We can fix this by…..putting a pie chart in your icon array (if you’re using circles)

Icon Array with Pie | ProjectsHalfDone.png

It hurt me a little to make a pie chart but I think it’s worth making an exception in this case. My preference is still for the partially filled circle or icon, but this is also an option.

Another common way to show these dichotomous percentages would be a standard bar chart.

Regular Bar | ProjectsHalfDone.png

Or even a stacked bar chart.

Stacked Bar | Projects Half Done.png

While this may seem boring, I would point out that if your report has several dichotomous variables, then I prefer to use a variety of chart types to show these percentages in different ways. It gets a little boring and redundant to have icon array after icon array, however at the same time, perhaps you should consider if those items are truly your key points. Remember, not everything needs a visual.

Next time we are going to talk about my favorite thing, color! And stay tuned for the post on how to make icon arrays!

Other posts in the Data Visualization Basics Series can be found here:


Data Visualization Basics: Choosing your data wisely

Choosing Data Wisely | ProjectsHalfDone.jpg


Welcome back to the second post in my Data Visualization Basics series. Today I want to chat about what data will best serve you for visuals.

With assessment data we often have mountains of excel spreadsheets filled mostly with quantitative data. A multitude of options exists for the purposes of visualizations, but sifting through these options is critical for effective visualization.

Before you create your visual, consider the key points of your message. What is the purpose of this assessment? What do you want your audience to focus on? Find those 3-5 main messages and focus on visualizing those. Too many visuals and graphics can be just as overwhelming as too much text. Find the balance.

Additionally, it is important to consider what facts are often overlooked. As someone working in assessment, we know our data well. We know what stands out and often we also know what important points are hidden in the reports we spend hours creating. Find the points that are hidden or muddy and see if a visual will help bring these to light.

When thinking about the types of data, some options for visuals are as follows:

  • Quantitative
    • Percentages
    • Likert scale data
    • Ranges with medians
    • Basic counts
    • Financial data
    • Zip codes
  • Qualitative
    • Quotes
    • Pictures
    • Pathways/Mind maps
    • Logic models
    • Comments sections
    • Timelines

With each of these, a wide range of visualizing options exist. Depending on what I am trying to do, I will consult a chart chooser to help guide my process. For qualitative data, Stephanie Evergreen has an excellent resource here. Ann K. Emery has an essential chart chooser that has great quantitative options, found here.

Once your data is selected and you’ve found your key points, utilizing the chart choosers can help ensure your message is presented in the most straightforward way possible. It also may help to play around with a few different charts and test them out on colleagues to make sure your message is getting across. The right data and chart are the first steps in quality visualizations of assessment data. Next post we will talk about color which to me is the critical element of many visualizations. Be sure and stay tuned!

Other posts in the Data Visualization Basics Series can be found here:

Data Visualization Basics: Applying Deiter Ram’s Principles of Design to Assessment Data

Applying Deiter Ram's Principles of Design to Assessment Data | ProjectsHalfDone.jpg

This is the first in a series of Data Visualization Basics blog posts focused on visualizing academic assessment data. Before we begin I should also mention I am not a graphic designer. I’m an assessment person and a social scientist by training and I’ve often been frustrated by the lack of attention our reports get. I find that data visualization can greatly impact our messaging so I hope you find this useful for your work as well.

I want to start this series with some principles of design. These tenants were developed by the German industrial designer Dieter Rams. His products and designs have withstood the test of time because of his sense of design and attention to detail. He developed his method of design in to ten basic principles of that focus on the product.

I have taken these principles and translated them slightly for data visualization because although we are not creating a physical product, the end result is still something that must be well designed and useful if we are going to get the most out of our data.

Good (data visualization) design:


Is innovative

How you’re visualizing data now is very different than the 3-D graphs of the 90’s. We will continue to innovate and develop better design to tell the story of our data.

Makes a product data useful

Data was collected to be used. It was analyzed to be used. This is one of the biggest reasons to engage in data visualization. Our goal is for our assessment data to be useful. Well designed visuals allow us that platform.

Is aesthetic

We want our visuals to be aesthetically pleasing. We want people to do more than glance over them. We want them to engage with them and really understand the meaning. By utilizing an eye-catching visual we can engage the reader much more than with a typical paragraph or data table.

Makes a product data understandable

Sometimes all of those spreadsheets and rows and columns are a headache. Sometimes we miss connections. Good design helps us understand our data. It also helps others understand our key points for programmatic decision making purposes.

Is unobtrusive

Good visuals are unobtrusive. They don’t distract you with unnecessary 3-D images or animations or loud colors. They are a microphone, not a megaphone, for your data.

Is honest

Your visual should be an honest representation of your data. Don’t use a visual to make your data something it isn’t. Don’t dissolve whole categories just to make the visual fit. That’s not good design.

Is long-lasting

10 years from now we should still be able to look at the same report and understand it. Visuals aren’t fashion, they are tools that stand the test of time.

Is thorough down to the last detail

This means every aspect of a graphic is considered. The shape, the balance, the color, the font, the size and the data should all work together to provide the reader with your key points. Font is very often overlooked in so many reports.

Is environmentally economically friendly 

Given that many of our reports go online, or in email via PDF our designs are typically environmentally friendly.. It is important to note that our design efforts also be economical. This should be something you can find the time to do with minimal expense.

Involves as little design as possible

Less is more. You don’t need to overdesign, over color, or overthink your visuals. Only the essentials should go in to your visualizations.

When we engage in data visualization considering these principles can help guide our process and ensure that our end result has improved our data reporting process. By considering these factors we can create useful, honest, and clear designed visuals to showcase our data and drive home our critical message.

Do you have any other principles that you consider when doing data visualizations or when working with assessment data? Let me know in the comments!

Five quick tips for a new semester



It’s that time again.

The Targets and Walmarts of the country are filled with shoppers holding lists of school supplies, once vacant college towns are jammed with traffic, and summer research projects are coming to a close. It’s time to get in gear for the 2017-2018 school year.

Are you ready?

Like many academics and teachers….I’m a back to school nerd. I love shopping for office supplies, I love pencils, I love new notebooks and I love fresh starts. I think this is one of the most beautiful things about life in academia, while in most jobs you keep moving forward, there’s often not a clear delineation, there’s often not the excitement of a new year, new faces, new starts. I appreciate that I get that excitement at least once a year.

But back to school means more than shiny new office supplies. It means a new chance to be your best self. Your best research self, your best teacher self, your best academic self. Here are some quick tips on how I try to start the semester off to reach my goals.

Five tips for a new semester:

  1. Get organized – Get a paper planner, use Evernote, use Trello, something. Make sure you have a way to organize your day, your week, your semester. Something beyond post-it notes. Make sure you’re able to look ahead, and go ahead and outline what is coming up for the next month. The more organized you can make things, the less stress you will have later in the semester.
  2. Make a schedule – More on how I write my schedule in this blog post, but overall, it’s good to have a plan, even if most of your day is devoted to research or devoted to teaching, plan to protect your research/writing time, plan some time for moving around during the day, plan some time for project work, and then stick to the plan.
  3. Make a reading plan – Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega has some great tips on how to keep up with the reading that is important for your class and your career. Check out his blog here.
  4. Set a student-related goal – If you are in academia, you’re here because of and for students. At the end of the day, no matter your research agenda, research dollars, role as an administrator or as a maintenance worker, you’re here for the students. What’s your goal for students this year? If you’re in the classroom, that’s easy, set a goal of learning everyone’s name by the end of the month. If you’re an administrator, or a researcher or someone who doesn’t often interface with students, make a goal to say hi to students in the hallway, make a goal to meet 3 students this semester. Build bridges with someone new. Welcome the students to our institution. It’s theirs now too. Set at least one goal devoted towards them.
  5. Clean your office – I know this seems simple but when is the last time you cleaned out that filing cabinet, or cleaned off that shelf? What is even up there on top of the book case? Take some time during the day, or maybe come in on the weekend if you don’t want to be seen standing on your chair in the middle of the day, but take an hour and some disinfecting wipes…and clean things off. You’ll feel better in a clean and organized space and it’s better for your health too.

Good luck with the new semester, your research goals, and the traffic! I hope these tips help you have a productive and less stressful start to the new school year.


5 Tips for a New Semester | ProjectsHalfDone.jpg

What are your tips for heading back for a new semester? Are you a back to school junkie or do you dread this time of year? Let me know in the comments.

What’s Your Googleability?

No, we aren’t talking about your ability to use google to find a local restaurant. I’m talking about how googleable are you?

ProjectsHalfDone | Googleability Blog

Professional friends – When is the last time you searched yourself on google?

As a former high school teacher, I’ve searched my first and last name many times. Why? Because you KNOW your students will. And students? We search you too. Same goes for college students that you teach, and potential employers. These days, it’s highly likely that employers will not only google your name, but also specifically search for you on social media to see how you have been presenting yourself in public.

That’s right, folks. The internet is public. In case you have forgotten.

I try to stress the importance of searching yourself to my students, but it’s worth a mention to colleagues as well. Think about how you would want that perspective employer, colleague, student, person you meet at a conference, etc to see you? What do you NOT want them to see? What are you doing in public (i.e., social media) that you maybe should not be doing? Are you advancing your career with your public image, or are you doing more harm than good?

Personally, I want my blog, my university affiliation, and my LinkedIn to be what people see. I’m proud of those things, I’m comfortable with those things, and I don’t care who sees them. In fact, I would like it if potential employers saw these pages, because I feel like I am demonstrating professionalism and capability in these venues.

Thankfully, when I google, these things do come up. (I always google both with quotes around my name, and without. Taking the quotes out doubles my search results but also makes the results much more inaccurate) 

ProjectsHalfDone | Googleability 1

Scrolling further down, all still things I would be fine with other professionals seeing.

ProjectsHalfDone | Googleability 2

I happen to be one of those (un)lucky individuals with a rather uncommon name. Most of what comes up, is truly me. Or related to me somehow. If you have a name like “John Smith”, well then, unless you are the most famous John Smith, you will probably have tens of thousands of google results, and none will actually be you. For myself, I’ve only got about 10 pages. It’s pretty easy to click through a few and make sure there’s nothing I wouldn’t want anyone to see. The worst thing that comes up is a negative review I left for a restaurant when I was displeased with their service. I’m fine with that.

What wouldn’t I want someone to see? Well, thankfully there isn’t much about my life, even college life, that I wouldn’t want someone to see. Now I’m sure there are posts (opinions) out there that I have written and probably regretted later, but they are few and far between. I’m sure someone somewhere has an embarrassing photo of me, in fact, I know there are some less-than-flattering photos of me running in races, but again, I’m ok with those being public. I don’t love the idea, but I’m proud of my running accomplishments, so the photos are fine too.

Speaking of pictures, DO NOT forget about pictures. I hadn’t thought about this much, but I did a google image search for myself. It was a little odd. Somewhat creepy. But still, good to look through and make sure there isn’t anything that shouldn’t be there.

ProjectsHalfDone | Googleability Images

Mostly, these are pictures of me, and then some pictures of people who clearly are not me. These mostly appear to be professional contacts. I think those are popping up from my university affiliation and from LinkedIn. Which, again, I’m fine with. As for the random picture of garlic….no idea, but that’s fine too.

Now, what didn’t come up in my search was also interesting. My “real” Facebook page did not come up. The one that did appear, was a highly searchable one that I made specifically for interacting with my students. This way, no friends could post things that I wouldn’t want my students to see. I kept all adult humor, politics, and opinions off this page. Also, my personal blog and instagram does not come up. That’s fine. I wouldn’t be upset if anyone saw either of those. I think the reason they do not come up is that I am somewhat careful not to use my name on those sites.

Overall, my google search is pretty accurate. You find my professional web presence, some of my local race results (and to be honest, I need to run more so these come up more. It’s a point of running pride to have a lot of race results pop up), and then some sites that clearly are not related to me, random “phone lookup” sites and the like.

If you’ve never googled yourself, here’s an article that might persuade you to consider it, if my suggestion is not good enough. Also, Google does provide some resources on editing your search results.

What about your search results? How often do you check google for yourself? Are you an employer, do you have tips for potential employees? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Social Media Tips and Tricks

SoMe [That’s Social Media, folks!] Tips and Tricks

Tanya Halliday (@NutritionNerd) and Courtney Vengrin (@ProjectHalfDone) Virginia Tech

This blog is posted in conjunction with our poster at the NACTA conference.

ProjectsHalfDone | SoMe Tips and Tricks

Tanya and I are in the CALS GTS program together and have a mutual love for teaching excellence, (me in Ag Ed, her in Nutrition), social media (need to track us down? Check our Twitter feed, blogs and email, info linked at the bottom), lifting weights, and coffee!

So without further ado, here are some of our favorite Social Media tips!

  • Check the #!
    • Ok guys. I’m (Courtney) going to own up to this one. I was posting a picture to Instagram of my awesome tomatoes that I grew in my container garden. I was super proud of them and naturally I wanted to add some #’s and share the gardening love! I used #’s like #virginiagardens #gardening #containergarden and…. #growyourown. FYI…one of those is not for vegetables…I’ll just leave it at that. But the point is, check the hashtag. If you’re going to engage with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media that uses a tagging system make sure your tag is representative of what you intend it to be. You will probably be fine with hashtags you generate for your specific course like #ENG2040 for an English class, but still it would be a good idea to check first! It’s possible another tech-savvy educator is already out there and tweeting away!
  • Write SoMe objectives using Blooms Taxonomy.
    • Want to assess understanding, while also having students work on being concise? Have them summarize a journal article in a 140-character tweet. It’s certainly not an easy task to do!
    • Need a refresher or Bloom’s Taxonomy Action verb cheat sheet? Several exist, but to help you get started, here is a link to one:
    • For some really amazing tips, check out Techbytes who makes AMAZING graphics like the one seen here

TechBytes | Projectshalfdone

  • Don’t assume your students are familiar with the SoMe platform(s) you are asking them to use. Take the time to walk them through setting up an account, learning the lingo, and posting to the platform before the official “grading” period begins.
  • Post regularly
    • Before taking your social media in to the classroom you need to be able to commit to engaging with social media on a regular basis. Lead by example for your students. If you’re having trouble remembering to post, set a reminder in your calendar or write it in your planner. Set a goal for how often you should post.
    • Next, consider how often you expect students to post. Is it twice a semester, twice a unit, or twice a week? Set realistic expectations based on how influential you expect social media to be in your course.
  • Post relevant articles or popular press
    • If you’re not sure what to post, find an article or news release that relates to your course. Comment on an article you read recently. Find a blogger who discusses your topic and follow them. They certainly won’t mind you promoting their blog to your class!

Twitter Tips | ProjectsHalfDone

  • Be an example for your students
    • In all that you do on social media, remember that you are an example for your students. You are also putting yourself in public, so consider your social media account to be an extension of your professional presence online. Show your students what it looks like to be a professional. You can even incorporate appropriate social media behavior in to class discussion, highlighting appropriate posts and emphasizing how many potential employers WILL look at your online presence and make a judgment accordingly.
    • To help keep the posts and conversations professional, while also respecting your students’ privacy, we feel it is best to develop a social media policy up front. Create this document with your students. If your school has a code of conduct, use that as a starting point!
    • Finally, we will all make mistakes as we interact on Social Media platforms. Your students may tweet inappropriately. You may publish an inaccurate blog post. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes keep you – and your students – out of the conversation. Acknowledge these errors, lapses in judgement, etc; learn from them; and move on!
  • Network with other professionals
    • Follow other people in your field! Follow The Chronicle and other academic accounts. Share their posts to your account! You can make some really amazing connections just by spending a few minutes a day on social media
    • Tanya here: I have to admit, I was very anti-social media for quite a while. At one point I even deleted my personal FaceBook page because I just didn’t see the relevance. However, after getting annoyed with all of the misinformation on-line related to nutrition and exercise, I decided to start my own blog. From there, I began writing a nutrition column for a popular running blog and was quickly “encouraged” to GET ON TWITTER! So, I did. Reluctantly. However, this has been one of the best decisions I have made for my professional life. I have made connections with other dietitians, graduate students, and even some of the TOP researchers in my field simply by putting myself out there on social media. In 2012, my on-line presence resulted in an invitation to the Gatorade Sports Science (GSSI) Satellite Lab in Bradenton, FL as part of their Sports Fuel Expert Summit. Not a bad way to spend a few days! [Link to that post here:]
  • Promote your own work
    • What else is social media other than self-promotion? Don’t be shy! Promote your blog. Tell people that you’re excited about your conference presentation. Let everyone know your article is going to be published in the Journal of Awesome Educators!
  • Maintain an online presence – Control what is out there
    • The biggest thing for you as a growing professional and for your students is to control what is out there!
    • Your on-line presence is going to build itself anyway. Deliberate and purposeful engagement on SoMe platforms lets YOU drive it. I remember as an undergrad when FaceBook first came out, administrators, faculty, coaches, all told us “Make sure nothing bad comes up when your name is “Googled”. I don’t think that’s enough anymore. Now, I think it is imperative that you be easily located on on-line searches, and are known as having a positive and professional presence!
    • I’ll be doing a post soon about Google-ability. Stay tuned for more on this!
  • Should social media use be mandatory in your course?
    • Great question – and one you can probably answer better than us! Know that the likelihood of having students engage as much as you would like if it is NOT mandatory is slim. You’ll perhaps have some adopters, but don’t expect your students to automatically create a dynamic online community without incentive (e.g.- a grade) from you. That being said, think about the time you can devote to reviewing the SoMe contributions. If it is an integral portion of your class, then go ahead and devote the time to it and make it mandatory. If you’re just dabbling, or it’s ‘just for fun’, then spend less time with it and make it an option. With your purpose in mind, along with the realities of the associated time cost, you can then think about organization, tracking, and assessment
  • Organizing, Tracking, and Assessing SoMe in your course
    • Organization: Consider how you will organize your requirements for students, how the social media will be organized in the context of your course, and how you will utilize all of the data generated through these communications!
    • Tracking: If you’re utilizing a platform with hashtags (Instagram or Twitter) several options exist for tracking that hashtag. (Here’s one example). If you’re having students blog, you may not have time to read all of their blog posts every week. This could be a chance to grade based on the bigger picture. Each week, browse the comments – if you see a student post that they are confused about another student’s post, go in and see what that student wrote about. Offer guidance as needed. If a student was particularly engaged in class, check out their blog post. Chances are they wrote something phenomenal, and you can comment as such – and share as an example with the rest of the class. Using Pinterest? This one may be better assessed at distinct time points throughout the semester.
    • Assessment: Just like you have criteria –and perhaps a rubric – for other assignments in your course, create one that is specific to your purpose and platform of choosing so you can more objectively assess student’s use.

Want to get in touch with us? Here’s the info one last time:

  •  Tanya Halliday

Happy tweeting!!