• Content specialist Matt Shirley started to create a funny chart a day as a self-challenge in May 2017 but has since gained over 334,000 Instagram followers.
  • Although his charts are not usually supported by real data, he likes to implement graphic design techniques to create light-hearted posts that followers can relate to.
  • His graphics include commentary on life in an office and which states dislike each other the most.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Another day for content specialist Matt Shirley means another opportunity to design a chart based on whatever comes to mind.

But unlike most professional data visualization experts, Shirley’s daily chart is more likely to be about people blocking him in traffic or why he’d rather take the stairs than an elevator than about a heavier topic like income inequality or the monthly jobs report.

Shirley’s charts are different from typical charts that use datasets to visualize a topic or issue. He enjoys making charts and graphics that are based on his takes on everyday life.

“I think that I really try to get in the head of the person who is just the everyman on the street and what type of things annoy him or her or [what] they’re anxious about,” he said.

His ambition of creating one chart a day started in May 2017 after originally sharing funny charts for his friends to laugh at, but he has since gained an audience of over 334,000 followers on Instagram

After working as an editor in a job that he wasn’t really enjoying anymore, he wanted to try something more creative and fun. Shirley said he has always been interested in visualizations and liked that a chart can say a lot with minimal words, so he motivated himself to create a chart every day.

“It was more of a self-challenge than anything else,” Shirley said. “And I’ve always enjoyed drawing and design, I just have never been that good at it. I think doing it in a rudimentary style and then using graphic design applications has helped me do art without doing art.”

Shirley said each of his charts have a punchline or joke, comparing himself to a stand-up comic.

While a comedian might talk about how annoying traffic is at a comedy night, Shirley will create a graphic of cars on the road with a color-coded key of common bad driving practices that provides a different way of conveying the punch line:

He said although it might take someone looking at the chart or graphic some time to figure out exactly what the joke is, he said “the act of discovery helps the punchline be a little more surprising.”

Shirley said the process of designing his charts and planning how he will present his joke reminds him of his childhood.

“I used to love designing golf courses and design little maps of your dream house and stuff like that. I think that really plays into the design part of it that I really like,” he said.

Although he has previously created visualizations and worked on design, his background is mainly as an editor.

“I used to be more of a traditional writer … but it requires so much fluff, and I think this is a good way of getting rid of the fluff and get down just to the good stuff.”

Although his charts include standard visualization forms like maps, pie charts, or the occasional line chart, his designs often pivot from typical chart styles. 

For instance, he created a “Subway map of an office”. One of the “subway paths” include following the productivity line after getting off at “Coffee Central Station” where the person moves on to sends an email. Then, they move on to “that’s enough productivity for one day” before crossing over to “The Covert Ops Line” where the person sneaks out of work. It’s a fun graphic depicting the everyday silliness of office life. 

His earlier charts were often drawn on whiteboards, but he now mainly creates computerized charts. He taught himself a lot of the graphic design techniques that he now uses to get his point across and make better looking visuals.

Shirley often makes pie charts showing the reasons why people do particular things. In his “Why I take the stairs” pie chart, the biggest portion of the chart is “people try to talk to me on elevators.”

Why I take the stairs

A post shared by Matt Shirley (@mattsurelee) on Dec 11, 2019 at 3:44pm PST

Shirley also makes maps using Instagram stories, asking his followers what state they live in and their opinion on some particular question. This is a fun approach to have followers be part of the data, but it is also very much not a  definitive or scientific survey approach.

For instance, one of his recent maps shows the most re-watched TV show in every state. One can easily see that Shirley’s followers across much of the country really enjoy rewatching “The Office”.

He also created a map based on an Instagram story asking over 4,000 respondents which state their state dislikes the most — and later created which state their state likes the most. He found it interesting that a lot of people within each state listed the same state rival as other residents in their state:

Although he has a backlog of ideas for his posts, he said he prefers to create a chart based on whatever pops into his head on any given day. His charts are featured on all his social media accounts, but he said Instagram is a great place for his charts because the site is naturally visual-based.

Shirley said he hopes to spend this year expanding the kind of work he produces and potentially creating chart-making tutorials in the future.

“I found some things that work, and then I just fall into the realm of doing those things over and over as opposed to trying new stuff,” Shirley said. “So this year, I really tried to branch out in terms of the kind of content that I do.”

Recently, he created his first animated GIF, “Why I wear headphones at work”, that shows the pieces of a pie chart slowing coming together — a new way of slowly getting to the punch line.

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