The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

Catherine Mulbrandon

Catherine Mulbrandon

Designer (Visualizing Economics)

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Catherine Mulbrandon and I'm a designer. Economic data is scattered over many websites like the IRS, the Census Bureau, the Congressional Budget Office and in academic journals. Over the years, I have taken this data and tried to make it accessible through clear, easy to understand data graphics which I post to my site, Visualizing Economics.

In 2009, I started consulting for clients who need my expertise creating static data-heavy graphics about financial/economic subjects or designing interactive dashboards for startups. In 2011, I used Kickstarter to raise funds for my book, An Illustrated Guide to Income in the United States, which was published last year.

What hardware do you use?

My digital home is a 2011 MacBook Pro. It's starting to slow down and I hope to replace it in the next year or two. At home, I connect it to my 23" Apple Cinema Display set up on Ikea IVAR shelves, but a lot of my work is done at a co-working space in Hoboken, where I connect to whatever PC monitor is available. I can often be found at a standing desk - even at a cafe you'll find me at the counter, standing up. Too many years in bad office chairs have taken their toll.

I have an iPad 2 mostly for Twitter, online reading, or just wasting time, and an iPhone 4 for my camera, my phone, my music player, my email checker, and my directions-giver when I'm away from my computer. There's a Canon PIXMA MX330 and a laser printer at my co-working space if I need to print a design to review; I often catch mistakes or sketch new ideas when I review the design on paper.

My older white Macbook from 2006 has been repurposed as my "entertainment center" for watching movies and TV online. I've attached it to a small flat-screen TV (Samsung) and 20-year-old Cambridge SoundWorks speakers along with 10-year old AKG K 240 Studio headphones.

I recently bought an eBags eTech 2.0 Downloader Laptop backpack to be my portable office (my 20-year-old backpack is still around for everything else.)

And what software?

My starting point for most visualizations is MS Excel 2011 for Mac, where I clean/reformat the data tables (I used to run Parallels on my Mac so I could have the Windows version of Excel, but it was slow and awkward and most software now has a Mac version). When I want to sketch out an idea I often copy the data into OmniGraphSketcher, which is now open source and very useful for simple data tables. If the data set is large or a more complex visualization is needed I can open R or the new Tableau for Mac. After I get comfortable with the data, I sketch ideas with any pens and graphing paper I have available. My sketches are just for me, so I can get an idea out of my head quickly then back into the software again.

Illustrator is where I often end up for my design process. However, when creating my book, InDesign was indispensable. The MAPublisher plugin for Illustrator is how I create my maps, but my most important mapping tool is my brother (an urban geographer who runs Design & Geography). He uses a combination of open source mapping tools (Python and the GeoPandas library) to create the shape files and data files I need. I have a library of icons I bought from DutchIcon but will sometime jump on The Noun Project if I need something quick.

Squarespace for hosting my web site. I use to have a self-hosted Wordpress site but I got tired of having to be my own site admin, and Squarespace is a simple and cheap alternative to hosting services that provide a lot of support for Wordpress blogs.

Preview, which comes with Mac OS X, is good for my basic photo editor and making PNG files for the web. Dropbox is my main document directory, so I always have access to my files on other devices or can easily share files. TextMate for my basic writing needs, from long emails to simple coding. Chrome is my preferred web browser on my laptop but these days I'm likely to be browsing the web on my iPad with Safari. Pandora for music on my iPhone and Spotify for my laptop. I was never a big purchaser of music, but these days I can't remember the last time I paid for it. Harvest for time tracking and invoices. Fantastical displays my calendar on all my Apple devices but Google Calendar is the underlining service.

New additions to my software library include Unibox (used with my Gmail accounts, because it groups my email by person, not just by time), Mailbox for my iPhone and iPad and finally Evernote for Mac. This is the third time I've tried Evernote, and hopefully this time it will stick.

While I have many free apps on my iPhone and iPad, most go unused. What I'm using often: Fantastical, Tweetbot, Safari, Downcast for podcasts, Google Maps, and occasionally Paper for Facebook, and Feedly for my RSS feeds. However, RSS has become less interesting to me the more I use Twitter.

What would be your dream setup?

I want a laptop that's very lightweight but very fast, since I carry it everywhere and I normally connect to a monitor so it doesn't need a large screen. While I can code if I need to, I prefer to spend my time either looking at the numbers or looking at my design. I'm not happy when I'm debugging code or trying to figure out a workaround in a software package. What I want is a WYSIWYG editor where I can view and design a visualization while simultaneously edit its underlining logic in real time, but still take a peek at the data used in the graphic.

I can see just a hint of this future with high-end software like Tableau or open source projects (like RAW, built on top of D3), but there's still a long way to go.

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