Taking your design skills to the next level in Tableau

This writing was originally posted on VizArtPandey.

What’s to know about me?

As a dataviz expert, I think that there are only a few original ideas out there, but there’s nothing wrong with stealing with pride and using other people’s ideas. The two principles to follow is to keep crediting and restrain from copying. Using an idea means inspiration, only the twist you add on it can make it yours. I keep a close watch on what’s happening in UI / UX and graphic design, because the trends in these areas are the trends that can make your dashboards sexy. Here are some ideas that I’ve stolen with pride:

Sources of inspiration

Let me just list a couple of sources worth taking a look at to boost your work! I use Pinterest as a starting point when I’m working on a viz. I have mood boards for dataviz design, UI / UX, color palettes, flat design, illustrations and anything related to arts. This is a really good platform and by only adding a few pins, it gives you great suggestions for more ideas. Dribble and Behance are equally good sources of inspo.

My Pinterest UI inspiration board

If I use icons and I decide not to draw them, I turn to either Flaticons or Font Awesome. Both have an SVG download option, so this way you can customize icons to have a unified color palette – that is a crucial part of good design.

When it is time to think about color choices, there are tons of options. My personal favorite is the Adobe Explore function, which has a lot of great palettes and it can be downloaded straight into Illustrator (or any other Adobe software) through the Creative Cloud. Another favorite of mine is an Instagram account called mr.pugo – go check him out, he’s the coloring god!

I’m also really into gradients recently, maybe it’s just that 90s’ nostalgia, but I think they give a cool effect. I usually hop on to Grabient for the dopest options, but I just saw, there’s a new gradient maker tool added in Adobe Color, watch how awesome this is:

Adobe Color – Extract Gradients

What I use the most for generating color palettes, is the Eyedropper tool in Illustrator. If you look at a picture and it looks amazing, it will be a great color choice too. I had a Makeover Monday submission a couple of weeks ago about the correlation of money and happiness, where the whole color palette was based on this main image:

Fonts also a huge part of great design, too bad that Tableau offers only a few web-safe choices. You can get around this issue by adding your texts to a canvas and putting it back to Tableau as a background image. I’m completely in love with the Futura font family, but Open Sans, Montserrat, Roboto or Playfair Display are modern and upbeat options as well. Just make sure not to use more than two types of fonts in one viz, because it can spoil your looks. I’d recommend using Google Fonts, while FontPair can tell you which ones go well with each other.

When I use images for a dashboard design, Pexels turned out to be my safest option. There are plenty of free stock images there in any topics you can imagine, just make sure to credit the photographer on the viz. Pro tip: I always add this info on a tooltip on a blank page, so that if you hover over the image, you can see who made it.

Always start by sketching

I have my weirdest dataviz ideas when riding a bike or waking up in the middle of the night because something just came to my mind. My first rule is, that if I’m doing a visualization for fun or Makeover Monday and I can’t make anything original out of it, then I just won’t do it. It’s no good forcing it, there will be plenty of other options that will come naturally.

But if I decide on making it, I always start sketching before jumping into any software. This can save a lot of time and energy in your design process. I have sketchbooks around the house everywhere and I’m a messy sketcher, but that’s the whole point of it. You just have to have the rough ideas on paper, regardless of how awful they look. Only when I have the draft ready, I start working in Illustrator and when I’m done with the full design, I’m adding it to Tableau as a background image. Let me show you some examples of how my design process looks like (paper – Illustrator – Tableau).

Tools I use in Illustrator

Good thing is, that you only need to know 5% of Illustrator to make good designs in Tableau, and fortunately, these are the easiest ones. Here’s a list that will get you started:

  • Artboard tool: This is where you add your board to the canvas. You can do it in millimeters, pixels, points… But there are also some predefined options for the most popular web, mobile, and print designs. Don’t worry if you need to modify or convert the size, you can always do it later on in the process.
  • Rectangle / Ellipse / Line Segment tool: You can use these tools to draw shapes and outlines
  • Eyedropper tool: This is for stealing colors from pictures, shapes, types and anything that is on your canvas. This is like the copy formatting option in Microsoft products.
  • Type tool: With this tool, you can type and transform text objects.
  • Gradient tool: You can create cool color effects with this one.
  • Shape builder tool: This is for combining shapes. Chanches are, that you will never use this one, but it comes in handy when I’m creating custom icons or infographics.
  • Pen / Curvature tool: These are some advanced features for drawing custom shapes.
  • Layers: This is not a tool, but a technique. If you export your dashboard from Tableau, you can but it back to Illustrator to draw on it (as I did with my It All Ends With Us viz).
Using layers in Illustrator

Tableau + Illustrator = Design

Let’s see some examples of what’s in Tableau and what’s in Illustrator that adds up to the final design. You’ll be surprised how little I use Tableau to have the desired outcome.

Is it necessary to use Illustrator for cool design? No, it’s not. There are plenty of tools out there, that you can achieve the same or similar result with (even PowerPoint). The best free tool for this purpose is Figma, it’s easy to use and has a steep learning curve.


    1. Maybe you feel that you’re not enough now. Trust me, we’ve all been there. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and only very recently it started giving me back. So just hang in there and keep pushing. 😉
      Let me know if I can help!


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