In my life and practice, nature and consulting are interconnected. My work is about emergence, and that requires me to remain grounded in my senses and the environment. I find an abundance of joy, creativity, and inspiration in nature. I do my best thinking in the mountains and near water, and I surround myself with images of my adventures. So when I was reflecting on a recent hiking journey, it just made sense that I would honor the experience through a data visualization.

First, Some Context

Last year I finished hiking the 48 New Hampshire 4000 footers (NH48). This is a highly coveted achievement for New England hikers, and one that I started by accident. I signed up for a women’s hiking trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club and quickly found myself summiting four peaks in one weekend. I probably should have realized what I had signed up for with “4000 footer weekend” in the name of the event. But I’m not from New England and I had never heard of the 4000 footers. I was just excited to explore the mountains with other nature lovers.

During the trip orientation, I quickly became immersed in the language and culture of New Hampshire hiking. I listened in awe as more experienced hikers talked about their journey to some of the remote peaks. Twenty miles of hiking in one day?! That felt impossible. This was certainly a feat only for extreme athletes. Not to mention, the mountains are not exactly in my backyard.

Fast-forward a few more years, hundreds of miles, and many thousands of feet of elevation gain. I had tears in my eyes as I touched the trail marker sign at the top of my 48th peak – Mount Adams.

Visualizing the Journey

This journey into longer and more challenging hikes feels similar to my path into data visualization. What felt both daunting and exhilarating at the beginning has become more familiar and accessible with practice. So in true nerdy evaluation fashion, I wanted to honor my experience with a visual.

Using the same techniques we can apply to one-pagers and infographics, I visualized my hiking journey by:

    • Incorporating icons
    • Using color intentionally
    • Labeling directly

I find an abundance of joy, creativity, and inspiration in nature.
Step 1: Incorporate Icons

To get the official patch for hiking the NH48, you have to document and submit a record of your journey. So during the process I recorded data such as the name of the mountain, date hiked, and other notes in an Excel spreadsheet. This information was overwhelming to look at in a table, and wasn’t giving the hiking vibes that I desired. I definitely did not want to hang this list on my wall.

To move from a text heavy table to a more visually engaging document, I selected icons that represent hiking and nature:

    • Mountains to visualize each peak
    • Trees as spacers to group the mountains that I hiked together
    • Dots to represent the start of a new calendar year
Step 2: Use Color Intentionally

Next, I coded each season of the year as a different color. Using your branding guidelines is a great way to create visual consistency for colors across products.

By using color intentionally, I realized that I had actually hiked more in the spring and summer, rather than my recollection of the summer and fall.

Step 3: Label Directly

Lastly, I labeled each mountain directly so that I could immediately know where each peak fit in my journey, without having to reference an external table. I considered adding the corresponding number (1 through 48) and/or specific date for when I hiked each mountain. Ultimately, I chose to not include that level of detail here since I was more focused on the overall journey.

Knowing what story we are trying to tell helps us to recognize what level of detail and nuance we need in our visuals.

I also included my logo and a legend at the bottom of the page to provide a guide for what each symbol and color means.

Before and after images. On the left is a tabular list of all of the names of the mountains and related data. On the right is the final icon array showing a mountain icon for each peak, color coded by season.
Your Turn!

You can create visually engaging materials with the technology you already have! I made this using icons from the Noun Project, and a heavy reliance on the “align” function in PowerPoint. 

How are you applying these data visualization techniques in your work?

What personal projects could you translate into an infographic or visual one-pager for practice?