The data tools all creatives need to learn and understand

4 min read
Patrick Stafford
  •  May 31, 2018
Link copied to clipboard

It’s almost a cliche at this point, but the career with the biggest growth potential in the 21st century is anything to do with data.

It can be tempting for creatives to think of “big data” as something that happens somewhere else, off in the background. To ignore the technical details of the products they’re working on.

Not only is that false, it’s an assumption that can also deal a massive blow to your career. Learning data-related skills isn’t just important for data scientists—it’s important for all of us. Higher education is now being pumped with data-related courses to fill a skills gap, and many of these courses are designed for people already in the workforce.

Not convinced? Check this out: LinkedIn publishes a yearly ranking of the most sought-after skills by employers. Data-related skills are usually at the top of the list. This isn’t about becoming a data scientist, it’s about adding to your specialization with a new set of skills that employers are looking for.

(Fun fact: You know what else is at the top of that list? Soft skills like communication. Success isn’t all about tech!)

“Learning data-related skills isn’t just for data scientists—it’s for all of us.”

Twitter Logo

Why should I care about data?

There are more than a handful of reasons why learning data skills help your career, but let’s keep it simple with two:

1. Your job is becoming more technical and you need to understand what drives it

Beyond simple website usage data, think about concepts such as product telemetry, usability data, or the troves of information coming in from connected devices. The amount of data we store is growing exponentially larger, and there are nuggets of gold hidden in there.

As a creative, it’s essential that you understand this all on background. But think about the opportunities it can provide you:

  • Understanding product telemetry can help shift your designs
  • Knowing which features users do or don’t like about your product based on that data could help shape specific messaging
  • Using a combination of data from different sources can help your team decide which concepts to pursue, or ignore

At the very least, knowing what types of data your company gathers, how they gather it, and what opportunities it provides you, is almost becoming the minimum required knowledge for you to keep on top of your game.

2. Perfecting your data skills means you will rely less on others, and become more employable in the process

You may have heard of the “t-shaped” skills philosophy. The idea is that you should have a depth of knowledge in one particular area, enough so that you can gain expertise and demand for your services. But you should also have knowledge and skills across a breadth of other areas, so you can collaborate and get the job done.

As a creative, data analysis should be in the category of a “broad” skill. Is it something you’ll ever use as your main job? Probably not. But consider all the uses it can give you:

  • Instead of having to rely on your analytics manager to get data for you, you can get it yourself
  • You can spot errors or faulty hypotheses before you waste time on a test
  • You can spend time going through data to find the right types of messages to target, relieving your team of the burden of having to spend specific time on your pet projects

Not only that, having data skills means you have another language in your toolset. Being able to understand what your data team is saying, what their problems are, and how you can help them, goes a long way in making yourself a productive member of your team.

Not to mention the critical-thinking skills it can provide.

As a freelancer, this helps too. You can ask to be put in touch with your client’s data team and specifically request information you need. Just like any other skill—like coding—you don’t need to be an expert, but it always pays to know what you’re talking about.

What data tools does a creative need to know and know well?

You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but it’s good to understand the fundamental data tools that can help you get your job done. Knowing what these are good for, and what they’re not suited for, will go a long way in helping you.


The grand-daddy of data tools, Excel is the easiest one to get your head around. It’s great for taking a specific set of data, easily editing it, and finding patterns. Add in charts, rules, visualization, etc. and you’ve got it made.

The great thing is that Excel can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. It’s easy enough to add up some sums, do some multiplication or find a median. But if you really want to get fancy with some pivot tables to explore a data set for correlations, or locate specific values with a vlookup or index-match-match formula, then you’re good to go.


SQL stands for “Structured Query Language,” and it’s really just a way to get data from a database. You’re not going to need this unless you’re trying to extract specific pieces of data from larger databases that are updated in real time, (as opposed to Excel, which uses much smaller data sets).

The best part? SQL is actually really easy to learn. It has heaps of parameters, but these three are used the most often:

  • Select
  • From
  • Where

You “select” the data you want, “from” the data table you want, and then add parameters after “where” to make it more specific.

Let’s say I run a liquor store, and I want to see how much whiskey my store sold. I might run a query like this:

SELECT * (the * means all data)

FROM store_number_01

WHERE item_sold = WHISKEY

See how easy it is? You’re not going to use this unless you’re digging around databases, but it’s good to know. Like with Excel, there are a bunch of online courses for this so check them out.


Data visualization is a huge skill, and it’s one that a lot of employers seek out specifically. The future will be dominated not by people who necessarily understand data, but by those who know how to present it in a way that promotes their agenda.

Tableau is a pretty complex data visualization tool. You can plug in sources like Excel spreadsheets, SQL databases, and more, then play around with nifty features.

Remember my liquor store? Well, let’s say I wanted to overlay my sales data on a map of the United States to get a pretty visual representation of where different products are sold, then color code them. Easy done.

This goes beyond simple bar graphs and charts. Tableau creates interactive dashboards that are great for upper-management who only want to play around with data at a high level. You want to see which stores sold more whiskey than gin in the first of the year? No problem—just create a dashboard.

It’s expensive, and it’s complex to learn, but even knowing the basics puts you at an advantage.

Google Analytics

There are plenty of analytics tools out there for web usage, but you’re probably going to be using this most of the time. Knowing how to get in deep and create custom reports will make it way easier to find what you’re looking for.

One of the most powerful features is custom dashboards, allowing you to track specific pages, specific segments, and detailed journeys for whatever project you’re working on—then get automated reports. Get your head around those features and you’re golden.

Understanding data is more important than the tools

Tools change. What we’re using in 10 years will be different than today. But what’s more important than how we gather data is how we understand—and that mindset is going to make you more valuable.

Do you understand what questions you’re asking? What data you need? Is the data accurate? Is it missing anything? What is the data actually telling you?

These are the questions that any data-savvy creative should be able to answer. It’s great to know programs like Excel—and you should learn. But in the end, the most valuable creatives will be those who can ask the right questions, make data-driven insights, and be able to back up their actions with information.

After that? The tools you learn are just a bonus.