Talking Tableau: Former Vice President Jock Mackinlay on Data Visualization

Powerful visuals unlock collaborative potential

As a lecturer in the Master of Science in Business Analytics program, I continuously seek out innovative leaders to share their perspectives with students. This year, we were once again privileged to host the legendary Jock Mackinlay.

Mackinlay was one of the original minds behind Tableau and his Ph.D. research fundamentally shaped the field of data visualization.

Although he is officially retired, he graciously accepted my invitation to speak with our Data Visualization class via Zoom.

He offered insights stemming from decades of experience envisioning how visual encodings of data could empower human analysis.

I'd like to share these key takeaways from his talk with students: 

graphic depicting rankings of encodings by data type
One of the original minds behind Tableau, Mackinlay stressed the need to know a graphical vocabulary in leveraging the human visual system.
  • On leveraging the remarkable human visual system:
    “You need a graphical vocabulary to encode the data into...Position is the most accurate way to encode quantitative data, followed by length, angle, slope, size, and finally color.”
  • On enabling understanding through thoughtfully designed interactivity:
    “Use interactivity and multiple coordinated views to enable understanding of large, multidimensional data rather than packing complexity into a single view.”
  • >On the collaborative potential unlocked by data visualization:
    “Encoding data visually fosters collaboration because everyone has powerful visual systems. Most data work should involve teams with diverse skillsets.”
  • On the importance of continuous improvement and learning:
    “Passion for your data matters. Then seek editorial feedback on data stories from others to improve.”

I’m tremendously grateful that Jock Mackinlay imparted decades of wisdom to inspire our next generation of business analysts and data scientists. By selflessly guiding those who follow to new heights, he epitomizes the pioneering ethos that lives on through all he has taught.