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How much does good design in Tableau rely on natural talent versus deliberate practice? If asked, I expect there would be a lack of consensus in the Tableau Community.

Like many interesting blog topics, this idea stemmed from a friendly argument. My counterpart started the debate by questioning the value of teaching design. She argued that design can’t be taught to people who aren’t naturally talented.

At the time, I respectfully disagreed. The suggestion that people who naturally lack creative talent cannot improve their design skills frustrated me.  Our competing viewpoints are shown below.

Natural Talent View

The creative process is messy and requires unique talent to thrive. You either have it or you don’t. People very rarely make the leap to being a great designer if they lack innate creative ability.

Obviously, people can improve their design skills, but this journey is a personal one. It requires an understanding of your strengths when engaging in new projects or ideas. It’s one thing to mimic other people’s techniques, but influencing a community with novel designs requires an extraordinary aptitude.

Many Tableau specialists are talented, and hold a diversity of skills across the data spectrum. Some people are gifted with rare analytical abilities, which allow them to excel at advanced calculation or custom programming. Others are notable influencers and networkers, who can convincingly articulate the need for Tableau to grow and adapt in even the most rigid of environments.

Unfortunately, many of these otherwise talented people still lack the necessary creative skills. Without this foundation of natural talent, more advanced designs are too difficult for them to produce. It’s dishonest and counterproductive to insist that anyone can be creative if they choose to be, so we should focus instead on self-awareness. You might be destined for a creative life, but don’t expect to arrive there without having a natural ability for it.

Nurture Talent View

Indeed, the creative process is messy, and yes, it’s a personal journey. But we should support and encourage people to pursue their goals with enthusiasm. Believing someone cannot be creative enough to be a good designer is an assumption that should never be made.

Learning is also messy, and those assumed to be destined for mediocrity can surprise you in what they are capable of.  When a student understands the theory of an idea, which often requires instruction, he/she can quickly expand on this knowledge through personal practice.  In my experience, I’ve found that my learning from other people and individual effort can often overcome significant talent gaps. Maybe we should expand our thinking, and move from focusing on what we are good at, to what motivates us and what we are passionate about.

The deliberate practice and instruction needed to master a skill requires an immense amount of motivation and determination. Those who are truly driven will continue to improve despite minor setbacks.  Clearly, effective teaching cannot make up for people that are unwilling or not motivated to learn.

Undoubtedly, design is a difficult skill to use when it comes to predicting success. Even with thousands of hours of practice, there’s no guarantee your ideas will catch on within the Tableau Community. However, we have solid evidence that people have the ability to improve their design skills, so it would be a shame to discourage someone with a hidden talent.

#MakeoverMonday, a Tableau Community event on Twitter, has helped a great many people in sharing their work, receiving feedback, and being inspired by others. Looking at the portfolios of regular contributors, anyone can see not only a progression of skills, but also a progression in design decision-making.  I believe people can develop and improve their design skills by learning the fundamentals and gaining more confidence.  A person in the process of learning their full potential relies much more on the sacrifices and effort he/she is willing to make each day versus the natural talent they started with.

The Design Debate Continues

The question remains: Is everyone capable of significantly improving their design skills through instruction and practice? Or is design an inherent talent possessed by only a select group of creative people?

Clearly, if someone wants to be a top performer in any field, then he/she must rely on both natural talent and deliberate practice.  However, I still want to know your thoughts on which is more important.  Please add your perspective below in the comments section or by replying to me on Twitter @DavidAKrupp.


Nature vs Nurture Tableau Design Debate Title

  • Author
    Mike Moore

    This reminds me of arguments I’d have with the professor for an art class I took in college. He didn’t feel the need to teach technical drawing and painting skills and he shunned representational art. He said to just be creative and paint what I feel. And my reply was “I’d be a lot more creative if I had a better set of skills in my tool belt”. I think that argument applies here. I’m not a great designer, I’m not an innovative designer but I think am a capable designer because by observing others and adding what I’ve learned from them to my tool belt make me so.

    Go to Tableau Public and find any author with a fair body of work posted and look at their first workbooks compared to more recent workbooks. I guarantee that you’ll see improvement in their design skills. That shows people are learning design.

    Interesting post.

    • Author
      David A Krupp

      I agree Mike! The more technical skills that you have in both data engineering and Tableau, then the more you can actually build to what is imagined from a more creative perspective. If you have the confidence that you can build anything, then you just get really excited about developing new ideas.

      Yes, the Tableau Public profiles are powerful examples of how much effort and enthusiasm can drive personal and professional improvement in data visualization design.