Retrospective 2020

Francis Gagnon
December 31, 2020

The Holidays put me in a reflective mood. Or maybe it’s one month of John Lennon singing in my ears “So this is Christmas. And what have you done?” So here goes.

Two new hires

Obviously, new personnel is on top of the highlights reel. In the spring, it became clear that the growth of the company and its projects would quickly overwhelm our small team, and make it especially hard for me to manage clients, projets, team members, admin stuff, and work-life balance. So we found Chloé Cousin, our project and client coordinator. She has brought order to our house and professionalism to our client relations. It’s like a fairy descended upon us. Her presence allows us to work with more zen, take on more projects and to plan our growth.

In the fall, we were going to lose our first full-time collaborator, Erica Bugden, who was preparing to go on new projects after a year with us. We set out to hire a new information designer and found Olivia Gélinas. She brought us a new high-demand skill: programming. Everything we imagine with pen and paper, Olivia seems capable of translating it into D3 shapes and movements. It’s magical. We have just completed our first interactive for a client and we’ll show it to you when it is released in January. We’re quite pleased with the result.

We also worked with some collaborators and we are grateful to Sophie Ouch and Etienne Rochon for doing work that make us proud.

Launch of the new website

While our identity was redone in the summer of 2019, we only launched the new website in March 2020, for the simple reason that it’s a lot of work. From design to development, we also had to create new entries in the portfolio and update old ones. This is an especially rewarding process though, as we discard projects that no longer reflect our level of work. I’m proud that were are now publishing everything in French and English, reflecting our market and life in Montreal. I had some concerns, but it turns out to add maybe 10-15% to the workload, which is very reasonable.

Surviving the pandemic

On March 12th, we closed the office for an undetermined period of time. It happened in the middle of the day, without much warning. Nine months later, we still live in this new world and we let go of our lease. We’ve had various personal experiences with working from home. As a work arrangement, I would say that it’s been a relative success. I especially appreciate how videoconferences allow us to all be at the front row of any meeting. Also, no need to manage meeting rooms, private spaces, noise or silence from colleagues.

We have been growing our business every year since 2013, but this year it was special given the uncertainty brought by the pandemic. There were weeks at the beginning where I didn’t know if the slowdown dominoes would reach us, and thankfully they haven’t yet. With the vaccination having started, it looks like we will weather this crisis. I’m very, very grateful to the whole team because I know we’ve all had our personal challenges during this weird year.

Outreach galore

I’m especially proud of our newsletter, launched this year. Starting from nothing and with little reach, we now have a few hundred subscribers (and you?). I’m especially happy because each newsletter is the sign that we had something to say. We published six of them from April to November.

We published 11 blog posts by three authors. Our most popular post was The best visualizations and charts (so far) to understand the coronavirus (COVID-19) published in April. It’s not surprising given the immense interest in visualizations that the pandemic has brought. Perhaps if I have a tinge of regret is not to have engaged with it, by excess of prudence, while many no more equipped than we are were much less restrained.

We have also reinforced our local network with dataviz students. At Polytechnique Montréal, we spoke in the data visualization class of Thomas Hurtut and provided guidance to a team of his students, leading to the publication of their project on our blog. At Université de Montréal, just before Christmas, Olivia and I provided feedback on the final projects of a dozen students in the data visualization class of Luis Trépanier, at the École de Design. If you teach a data visualization class in Montréal (or Québec or Canada?), get in touch, we love it. Our goal is to know and be known by people who love data visualization.

Better work

The two projects that we have added to our portfolio this year are both significant. I’m proud of the leaflets with alluvial charts that we did for the City of Montreal, on their effort to help new immigrants integrate society. It was a most significant team work at the time, the first moment where the company fired on all cylinders for the same project. It was something to see and the result turned out beautifully.

The guide for farmers that we designed for SeedChange was also a high point for us, as we showed that information design goes beyond data visualization. We developed and refined many diagrams, but also we made suggestions on layout and how to organize the guide, and even proposed new contents so the this practical tool be easier to use.

We have done some fantastic work at the end of 2020 and I can’t wait for it to be public. It was breaking new ground for us, bringing the team together, adopting new approches, testing our processes and showing off our skills. It gives this pleasant feeling of moving forward, of getting better.

What’s up for 2021?

The team will have to grow further. We are often stretched thin by the workload and the pace is increasing. Most likely, we will be looking for an “Excel artist,” a visual thinker, someone who can make survey data sing in simple charts, redesign a diagram in a meaningful way, etc. Now is a good time to get in touch if you want to be at the front of the line.

We would also like to grow our network of collaborators. It happens sometimes that we need some ad hoc help or an expertise that is adjacent to ours. We will be looking for editors, translators, technology specialists (Tableau, PowerBI, etc), trainers, and graphic designers. We will issue a more formal call for candidates, but you can contact us already.

I hope to restart Visualisation Montréal, the Meetup group that a bunch of us created in 2014. It has been dormant for two years by now and I deserve a lot of the blame for this. Confinement is actually a great opportunity as it reduces the logistical burden of organizing talks (right?). If you are in Montreal and would like to be part of the organizing committee, get in touch.

In the same vein, I would like to communicate more with the public. It means more blog posts, perhaps a talk or two if conference organizers think of me, another interview dare I wish, perhaps an opinion letter in a local media, who knows. I greatly enjoy making information design more widely known, and the interactions that come with these interventions.

Of course, I hope the business will grow too. Mostly, I’m grateful that we have been able to keep our focus on issues that matter to us. I like to say that we are a sustainable development business first, and information design second.

Mostly, I expect surprises and hope for good ones.

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon

Francis Gagnon is the founder of Voilà: (2013), an information design company specializing in sustainable development.
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