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Michelle Rial: Chart Your Life


About this workshop

You may look at a pair of nail clippers and see a useful, everyday tool, not worth a second glance. Michelle Rial, illustrator, chart-maker, and author of Am I Overthinking This?, looks at the same object and sees dozens of creative possibilities and an opportunity for a productive brainstorming session. In this workshop, she gives us an insight into how examining everyday objects around us can unlock a new way of thinking and creating.

Michelle Rial, Author & Illustrator

Michelle Rial is a graphic designer who makes charts. Named by New York magazine’s Vulture as one of “The Funniest Cartoonists and Illustrators on Instagram,” her work has been featured by The New Yorker, Fast Company, USA Today, Wired, and more. She’s the author and illustrator of Am I Overthinking This? Over-answering Life’s Questions in 101 Charts, and a former senior designer at BuzzFeed News.

Full Transcript

Welcome to Charts and Crafts. I’m Michelle Rial, your socially distanced workshop instructor. Today we’re gonna make some charts in the style of my book. “Am I Overthinking This?” And hopefully we’ll learn some creative process tips along the way.

Here are some examples of some of the kinds of charts we’re going to make. One is made from birthday candles. So you can kind of see that there, the other is made from birthday hats, and both are essentially about having a sad birthday, which I am very familiar with. I’m sure you are, too. So, the backstory of this series is I started it after having to quit my graphic design job due to chronic pain. I had been making charts, graphs, and infographics as a full time job. And I, since I couldn’t be on the computer anymore for long periods of time, I started making simple analog versions. And at one point I added an object to make it easier physically. And that eventually became a series called Real Life Charts. And then eventually became this book.

What I found in that process is if you can draw three lines three, and write three words, you can make a chart. So, let’s get started. Here’s what we’re doing. We are getting our creative juices flowing, not in a gross way, making charts and learning creativity tips along the way. You will need something to write with, something to write on, and one to six found objects smaller than your piece of paper, which I’ll explain a couple of times throughout the process, as well as your camera or likely your phone.

So, look around the space you’re in. I want you to find around six objects. So you’re gonna look for something that changes shape organically as part of the way you use it. So, a few examples I brought out are these scissors, because you can see them changing form and you can kind of envision what that might be as a chart going up and down. And I have a little clock. I’m sure you have a clock. You can see that this might possibly be a pie chart later on some kind of, I like, so this is another one that changes shape and form and has interesting lines and moves and brings up some thoughts. Like I think about Tiki drinks and cocktails.

One of my favorite objects is the nail clipper because it has different lines and you could see it as kind of a slice of something and another, two different proportions if you had a circle around it. So you can kind of start to see where I’m going with these objects. I also, you might wanna find something that grows. I have my windowsill onions here. And so you can see that they’re all different sizes and some of them have onions or are they onions? I think, shooting out scallions, shooting out from this way, and then some of them have three at once, it’s amazing. I have some matches, which, they change form just by, you know, you can light them. So, multiples of different objects, I have candles, different colors, things that you look at daily, but you don’t really see like you have sunglasses on or glass on daily, but you don’t really look at them.

So, take some time to look around, look for some objects that you that are meaningful or that have interesting lines or shapes or that just something you kind of never really see. But, here’s another one. This has some fun curves. So, here are some examples of the types of charts we’ll be making. If that helps you think about your objects on the left is a tweezer in a chart about popping zits. The middle is a chart made of a coffee straw and a cocktail straw, the red and the black, and then on the right is a chart made from an Allen wrench. And that is roughly about the relationship trajectory and then furniture shopping, moving in together, going to certain furniture store.

So, I’m gonna let you look for your objects and come back when you’re ready. When you’re ready, put your objects to the side and we’ll get back to them later. We’re going to get warmed up with a brainstorm and that brainstorm is going to be categories. So, you’re gonna do, maybe get to about 10 categories. And what I mean by that is like, you’re playing like the Scattergories game. So, but you only wanna do the categories. So, examples are types of plants, things in my fridge, pet peeves, things I love, Nicolas Cage movies. So, you would not write down Face/Off. You would just write down Nicholas Cage movies. Ready? Go. I’ll brainstorm with you.

So, something that happens to me that might happen to you. I always, whenever there’s a brainstorming situation or idea generation situation, my brain always goes straight to sandwiches. And so you wanna get those out of your mind first and then you can get to like the meaty stuff. So, it’s gonna be sandwiches, it’s gonna be condiments, it’s going to be where I would go for a sandwich right now, delicious things, but I’m gonna let you brainstorm.

If you’re done or if you’re not done, you can pause and come back. But if you’re done, we are now going to branch off from those categories. We’re going to use an improv game called three things that normally you would play with other people. But since there are no other people, we’re going to write them down. And the way three things works is one person says basically a category. And so they say Nicolas Cage movies, and then three Nicolas Cage movies. And then you would say, Face/Off, Family Man, sandwiches. And so the idea and the thing that I like about the three things game is that you go really quickly and it’s okay to make a mistake. And it’s actually might be better for our brainstorm if you let yourself make that mistake for our later project.

So, if you have someone around in your household that you can play with, that would be great. But if not, just write them down. And if you want sort of the full experience of playing the game, you can say it aloud so that you can kind of blurt it out as fast as possible, and then write down three at a time. So, take the categories that you wrote down and then draw three lines for each one and then do three things. So, just go as fast as possible. They don’t have to make sense. There are some examples on the slide and let’s take around two minutes for this brainstorm.

Now we’re gonna make our first chart using the three things brainstorm. You’re gonna draw three interlocking circles, otherwise known as a Venn diagram. And you’re going to take your favorite set of three things that you wrote down. So the ones that are kind of most fun to you, or the ones that you might think will make a cool Venn diagram. You wanna write those three things down in the three circles, or you can write them down in the interlocking, the overlapping part of the circles. And that way it functions as sort of a puzzle.

So you’ve kind of made yourself this puzzle to work out and don’t use the category as the middle, because that’s too easy. Just try to think of something else for that. Try to think of it as part of your puzzle. Something I really like about going quickly in the three things game is that it gives you, it might give you two things that are part of a list and then one wacky thing. And then that could end up being a funny or unexpected thing to try to work out in your puzzle.

One example that I’ve used in a previous workshop is type of person which ended up as friend, coworker, enemy. And it can be interpreted many different ways based on who’s doing it. So, one person said that a friend, coworker, enemy, the thing that, the middle is co-founder, which I don’t have any experience with, but it seems true. This on the screen is my version of that. And the way I interpreted differently was I found that these are things that I would say to a person who is a coworker and an enemy. So I would say, I sign off my email with best. And then a coworker friend I would sign up with thanks exclamation mark, of course, and of enemy friend, frenemy I would say XOXO or XX or whatever is the cool new thing. And then for everyone, which is what they all have in common, I would be fine with saying sent from my iPhone.

So, the lesson is it could go many different ways just based on your own personal interpretation in your own life experience. Like I’ve never been a co-founder, but that seems true. Here are a couple of Venn diagrams I’ve made that might help you think about yours as well. You will notice these have objects, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Go ahead and take five minutes to draw a chart, using your ideas from the last two brainstorms.

Normally I’d be able to help you a little bit or give feedback in person. But if you want me to see it, you can tag me on the internet and I’ll do my best to get back to you. It’s time to use your objects. You’re gonna look at the objects you’ve chosen. I’ve already gone over mine a little bit, but I’ll get into it a little more. You’re going to look at it from every angle, again, this and you’re gonna, yeah, even like this, you’re gonna use it, you’re going to see what the states are.

I’ve got two of these, you know, you’re going to put things together, see where the lines are and how they are. So, some of these are closer together and these are kind of equal. You’re gonna compare them. So, this one looks like a broken umbrella, and this one looks like a Mary Poppins umbrella. You’re just gonna… Something that I find as really helpful creative practice is to just play in the space. So what happens when you adjust it? What happens when you use the fan? I mean, I’m hot. So, I’m just gonna actually use the fan. It’s warm. Yeah, is it a part of a fan? This seems like a little pie to me as does this, and then you just put it on your head or whatever, have fun with it. Take out an onion. You could eat an onion, anything you want.

You’re probably gonna wanna get started on your chart, but we’re gonna do one last brainstorm so that we don’t get stuck when we get to that stage. We’re gonna take two minutes to brainstorm all the things that come to your mind when you pick up that object. You can brainstorm a couple of different objects if you want. So, what is like a tiny story you can tell with the object? When I think of sunglasses, I think of how, like my cheap pairs of sunglasses versus my expensive pairs and how often I lose the expensive pairs and how often I don’t lose the cheap pairs and are the cheap pairs really, do they really block out the UV rays? And I think about, then I put it on my face and then I think about, you know, when it’s too hot on the subway and they slide off my face. And then I think about a person’s attractiveness when they wear sunglasses. And then I think about hats and the shape of a hat. Do I have a hat anywhere? I think about rose colored glasses when I look at these and optimism, is there anything about pessimism and putting, you know, people who put them up here, people who wear them back here, I think of Guy Fieri, and that is my brainstorm and feel free to mute me if you just wanna have your own private brainstorm without me talking about Guy Fieri.

So, when you’re ready, place the object on your paper. So you can start by just placing it there and kind of looking at it. I’m also gonna make a grid in a little bit, but I’m going to show you a few of my favorite charts that I came up with using this approach. One is, and I showed it earlier is with a cocktail straw and a coffee straw. And I made this first as a simple line chart. So I drew the chart and I’m gonna show you a couple of basic chart forms that you might wanna use, or that you may already be familiar with.

But I started with a really simple line drawing that was, as I get older, I wanna go out at night less and I wanna go out in the morning more. So I wanna wake up early on Saturday morning and go to the Costco club, whereas in the past I wanted to go to the regular club. So I made that and I put it aside and that like, that’s fine. That’s like a fine chart, fine little hand drawn chart. And then I went to a comedy show and I saw a little area with the straws, the black straws. And then I thought about the red straws. And I thought like, oh, you could actually symbolize nighttime with the black straws and morning with the red straws. So, as you get older, which time and age is the common, x-axis, this changes in that way. And so I found the cocktail straw and the coffee straw to be helpful for that. And then, so that was a chart first, object later.

And then the one on the right is an object first, chart later because I thought this was an interesting object that take out container, they’re ubiquitous, I guess you would say you see them a lot if you order food and rice. So, I looked at the object and I thought, do I wanna make it out of this top part? What is this top part or what is this fold? And then I saw this triangle and I thought, oh, I could just, it seems to me like, this is the top of a pyramid and the top of a food pyramid or hierarchy. So that’s how that one became a chart about a food pyramid and the top is ordering in or getting takeout. This is the before and after. So that’s simple chart that I made, even the colors are kind of the same.

A lot of times I just make this simple one and then putting it aside is really important to my creative process and taking a break or even coming back to it like a year later, this is one that was object first. Initially I had it as three intact hair ties. And I was just trying to do sort of a good brainstorm about what I think about when I think about hair ties. And one of them was that I just break them all the time when I’m trying to fit it around my thick hair. And so part of that is, so I broke that for the bottom part of the chart, and then I was sort of able to figure out what the theme was. And so part of that is I try not to cut anything and make it not its original form, but for me, the area where it breaks that little scene and breaking it was still part of its original form, and that still happens to those hair ties. I wasn’t just cutting it randomly to say like, oh, like I would like for this to be cut. So, it’s kind of, for me, it’s about keeping in its natural state and then adjusting it, even if that means breaking it in a way that it would be broken.

This is another one that is object first. Again, I sometimes start with a simple chart and then sometimes I start with an object. The objects for me serve as prompts. And it’s really important for me to have prompts when I have creative blocks, because it can be easier than just starting with a blank piece of paper. So for this, I found the perfect fall leaf or the perfect little fall branch. I saw it, and I kind of did what I have showed you. I turned it around on its side and vertically, and then saw that it would be a nice timeline. And so I then put it on my paper and wrote around it what that timeline would be. And then, because it’s about fall, I then thought I can remove some of the leaves because the leaves do fall off in the fall. And that sort of what I’m saying in the last one about like, you can play with that, you can cut things out of that is the natural state. And then I also use that to fit the narrative because I only had, or I only wanted to have, let’s say six or seven, however many are on there.

So now it’s really time to make your object charts. You might want to make a grid on your paper of the four common types of charts. I have put the simple chart styles that I like to use and sort of a simple interpretation of them on the screen. So one is a bar chart and it’s just a little versus a lot. So a lot of times, a little, a kind of a tiny story you can tell is an exaggeration. And so that can be told with the a little and a lot form.

So, bar chart you wanna use when it’s kind of like, if you’re not exaggerating, you wanna use a bar chart instead of a pie chart, because a pie chart can be complicated to look at because you can’t always tell what the proportion is just by looking at it, unless as you see, it’s a lot versus a little. So either you wanna be exaggerating or it’s kind of like, this is the, it’s all the same likelihood. And so then it’s kind of more of a list, but if you’re doing different values, you probably wanna do a bar chart like I have with these candles, because with a bar chart you can see very easily, which one wins, and with a pie chart, if they’re very close, then you can’t really see what the relation is.

So, with the Venn diagram, it’s really just, what do these things have in common? This, that, and this and that. And with a line chart, you want to… So, I’m gonna draw my little line chart in the quadrant, and you want to have an x-axis, which is the bottom that you wanna probably wanna start with time. Because that seems to me to be the easiest, and time can be one day, it can be one month, it can be one year, it can be March through May, it could be January through December. And so if you have trouble thinking about the correlation in a line graph, you first want to start with the x-axis. So, you wanna go slowly and say, let’s say it’s Monday. So Monday through Sunday. So Monday, you’re gonna plot how you’re feeling. Let’s say so on Monday, I feel bad. So it’s on the low end. So, you’ll see on the screen, I believe it says a lot or a little or high versus low. So, on Monday I’m low, Tuesday medium low. And then I just plot the points as I go along the x-axis. And then later on, I can figure out if it’s a smooth curve or if it’s kind of jagged, things like that. So, you are going to draw these circles like I have, and you’re gonna start placing the objects in place. So, I’m going to experiment while you’re here. And I’m gonna put this down as you probably already knew.

I find that this is kind of a pie chart. And in my brainstorm, I might’ve thought about Tiki drinks and things like that and summer. And so for the line chart, I might put the sunglasses here and move these around. So it’s like the, it’s the cost of the sunglasses versus the likelihood that I’m going to lose them. And then I’m gonna put, I’m going to go ahead and do one here so I can show you more easily. I take the scissors and scissors move. So I’m gonna say, and this might be wrong, I’m just playing around. The top might be the how trendy the hair salon is, and then money left in my bank account. So, I’m gonna show you here. So, and then it’s like not that trendy, then I’m doing fine. So, that’s what I’ve got right there.

A few other objects on the paper is where are the nail clippers? That is actually a real, okay. So, I hear the nail clippers. This could be here, not this doesn’t apply anymore, but you wanna think about where the lines are going. So what’s the correlation, what’s happening to the top line and so what’s going down and what’s staying steady? And then you can also think of it as like is this say, is this a pie chart? What is a lot and a little of nail clippers or nail clippings, or this sound of nail clippings. You also wanna think in your brainstorm or when you’re doing this about things that maybe people don’t always talk about. Like people do always talk about the whole, like clipping your nails in public. And so maybe do something that you haven’t heard someone else talk about. So like, what is the sound of the nail clipper and what kind of tiny story do you wanna tell about that?

You could also, this is really hard for me. So that could be something. So I would say don’t try this at home, but I believe everyone is at home. So just be careful, you can think about how a match changes or how, yeah. This is just another way to think about something that changes, because you wanna look beyond the object and what it does and how it changes and kind of, sometimes this would really curve, and then, so for the candle, do you wanna burn it so that it is shorter? Or do you wanna like, make a scatterplot out of wax? And what is that about? Is it about crying on your birthday like I showed earlier? So you wanna, I mean, if you are doing anything on fire, definitely put it out. And so, yeah.

See how the multiple objects compare to each other. So now that this one is burnt, what’s different about it? And how does, ’cause you’re thinking about like, this one goes up in a slope and this one stays, or this one is steady. And now I can figure out what to do with these green dots. So, once you have a chart that you’re happy with, I’m kind of happy with this one, which is fine. You want to find a light source that is not directly above because you’ll create a shadow of your phone or your camera. So you might wanna try going next to a window if that’s available to you, or going outside and holding it up like this. And then you can take a photo and then you can press down on your phone to increase, press down and then increase the brightness, take the photo.

And then you have a little real life chart slash chart with an object slash whatever you wanna call it. And then you can bring it in to Photoshop and use the curves and clean it up and make it look nice. And then you have yourself a little chart. So, now that you’ve made your first chart, you can go ahead and make more, since you have several objects, hopefully you took away some of the other creative process tips that I talked about. And if you didn’t, I will go over them. Tangents are good for me.

When we played the three things game, what happens for me is that I go in a direction that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone in, and that can make your work unexpected. So, even if you’re working on something totally different, I love just the concept of going on a tangent because you create something unexpected. Another one is letting something sit. So, when I talk about the charts that I make that are really simple first, and I put them aside, what I end up with later might be something totally different.

So, if you let it sit and you take a break or go work on something else, you are kind of letting it marinate in your brain. And it might end up sort of similar to the tangent as something totally different just by kind of the process of marinating in your brain, and like when I went to the comedy show and I saw the straws, oh, I’m just gonna add that. Taking a break is important, in general. A lot of times I have my best ideas when I’m on a walk or in the shower, or just in jury duty once I had a great idea. But as long as you have started with something, you already have an existing point in your mind to go back to and to build upon. And definitely take a break, if you need it. That sounds obvious, but it hasn’t always been to me. And it’s good for your brain and your body.

Use prompts, for me the objects are my prompts. You know, they help me brainstorm, they help me not start with an empty page and prompts in general. You know, whether they’re just an instructional thing you can find on the internet that just tells you to do something random. I often find that when I start with a prompt, I end up going in a totally different direction I wouldn’t have gone in previously, and that’s good for me creatively. And it also, if I started on a totally random project that is prompt-based, it might give me an idea for something else I’m working on.

The last thing, well, there are two last things. One is play in the space, which hopefully you have done. And I think that it can spark ideas that you might not have otherwise just like putting it on your face or putting it, you know, just use things and look at things and play with things and see where you go with that.

And the last one is that bad ideas can become good ideas if you give them time, space and love. So, have all the bad ideas you want and you can let them sit, you can add to them. And without that bad idea, you might not have the sort of tangent of the, A, to B to Z, really good idea that you never would have thought of if you didn’t have this, bad idea that you stashed away, hidden in your sketchbook.

So hopefully you enjoyed this workshop and made some fun charts since it’s usually an in-person workshop, I’d get to see what you made. So if you made something, you can tag me. I’d love to see it. Thank you.

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