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10/4/2019
Remembering Kelly Martin


This past Monday we lost a beautiful soul when Kelly Martin passed away. She had been battling cancer for a long time and this past Monday she passed away in her home. For those who are new to the Tableau community or the broader data visualization community in the last few years, you may not have had the opportunity to meet her. Today, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and I think it’s important to recognize the leaders that have come before us. For me, Kelly was one of those people.

Let’s start with the obvious. She was very skilled at Tableau. Kelly was a four-time Tableau Zen Master. She was selected in 2013 in the second year of the Zen Master program (there were twenty Zen Masters at the time) and this selection continued through 2016/2017. I had the honor of standing on the stage with her for a few of those years.

In 2013, Kelly competed in the Tableau Iron Viz Competition, winning one of the feeder competitions earlier that year with her viz on Game of Thrones.

Beyond her mad Tableau skills, she had an instinctive sense of design. Kelly’s “When planes and animals collide”, also known as her “Bird Strikes” viz, is by far my favorite Tableau visualization. Note, this was created in Tableau Version 8 when floating tiles were first introduced. In honor of Kelly, it was the Tableau Viz of the Day this past Tuesday. Her visualization is iconic. For a number of years it was used by Tableau in their marketing campaigns. It sparked a design movement in the community, showing what was possible on the Tableau canvas. Take a close look at the design of her viz. What do you notice about it?

I would describe her work in two words, “simple” and “elegant”. There is nothing complex about this visualization. It’s a scatter plot and a map. There is very little color. There are a few key numbers to show what’s important and the filtering is very simple. Yet, this visualization captured the attention of the community (the original has been viewed on Tableau Public 167,289 times as of today).

This is a great example of her style. Just last week in my data visualization class, when talking specifically about influence and good design in data visualization, I mentioned Kelly and showed a few of her visualizations. Here is another example of her work that I always show in my classes.

Again, it’s beautifully designed, but simple in form.

Thinking back, I think I first met Kelly in person at the 2014 Tableau conference. I had messaged with her a number of times prior to that, as she had offered her advice on preparing for the Iron Viz. At TC14 she was featured on the big screen during the Keynote presentation by the founder, and then CEO of Tableau, Christian Chabot. Two days later, I distinctly remember her sitting in the audience watching me on stage in the 2014 IronViz competition and thinking to myself, “she was competing last year, and now she’s watching me viz!”.

In 2015, Kelly came to Cincinnati to present at the 2015 Analytics Summit hosted by the University of Cincinnati Center for Business Analytics. Her presentation was spectacular. Check out her session description. This description alone is sage advice:

“For far too long, business dashboards seem to have been designed to purposely abuse and confuse their users. The recent explosion of ‘beautiful’ web data visualizations has the pendulum swinging widely in the other direction…beautifully designed, but not necessarily informative or useful for business. Our job as dashboard builders is to create a cohesive and accurate information message that can stand alone in a room without us there to interpret. In this session we’ll explore how to apply meaningful design to dashboards in a way that effectively communicates the data, highlights the insights and also provides enough beauty to draw the user in.”


What a great description and her presentation was just as captivating as her visualizations. I have fond memories of that day, talking with Kelly throughout the day, and then enjoying a lovely dinner that evening together along with Ryan Sleeper and Stephen Few.

Throughout 2015, I was in regular contact with Kelly. Steve Wexler had reached out to Kelly and me about writing a book together. We embarked on this journey together and I remember having long conversations with Kelly and Steve about the book over several months. We discussed data visualization, dashboard design, we began outlining the book, and we even began some initial dashboard creation. A few months in, Kelly had a contract with a very big client in her consulting practice and she ultimately bowed out from the book project (and we then coerced Andy Cotgreave into joining us).

Later that year, I saw Kelly again at the 2015 Tableau Conference. At the end of the conference there was a Zen Summit where we met with the Tableau development team and executives. This was my second conference and my first year as a Zen Master. I was asked to present alongside Kelly at the Zen Summit on dashboard formatting, and so Kelly and I presented together. We discussed what we loved and what we hoped to have in the future of dashboard design. Incidentally, many of the things we asked for that night are now built in Tableau, such as more formatting options and some design-to-grid functionality.

At that same conference (TC15), I collaborated with Anya A’Hearn and Allan Walker on a presentation called “Minority Report in Tableau”. As part of that presentation, I wanted to feature Kelly’s Bird Strike Viz, to which she responded, “I would be honored”. So I created a version of her Bird Strikes viz that could be controlled with voice commands through the Tableau JavaScript API. Her response to all of this was “Terrific!! Amazing work Jeffrey!” Kelly was always encouraging and supportive. I remember her sending me a note when I was selected as a Tableau Ambassador and a Tableau Zen Master. I remember she couldn’t attend my presentations at TC15, but she sent me a note after the presentations asking about them, in her own Kelly-stlye, “By the way- never got a chance to ask … How awesome were you?” That was Kelly, she genuinely cared.

I have fond memories of our time together and those hours of conversations about data visualization. Her design style will forever be an influence on and inspiration for my work.

To close, I want to write a public thank you to her dear friend Bridget Cogley, who was alongside Kelly for a very long journey. Yesterday, Bridget posted this beautiful piece talking about that journey. Thank you Bridget for the care and friendship you provided to Kelly.

In addition, Kelly wrote her last blog post (with Bridget’s help) and I would encourage you to read it.

Rest in peace Kelly.

Jeff

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