Decoding Design

New data-visualization tools promise to democratize infographic design

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Visually, a start-up that began as a social-media platform for infographic designers, is now offering do-it-yourself data visualization tools for anyone to create eye-catching, stat-based charts.

"BIG NEWS," the email said, in capital letters just like that. "THE WAIT IS OVER. INFOGRAPHIC CREATION TOOLS ARE HERE." This is the message that those of us who signed up for updates from Visually, a start-up that began as a social-media platform for data-visualization designers, got on the morning of March 12--slightly behind attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, where the news was announced live. Now, as Visually has declared, the company aims to make anyone and everyone into a data-visualization designer with do-it-yourself, automated online infographic software.

Nearly a year ago, Visually got a lot of attention for its pre-launch partnerships with high-profile media sites such as CNN and The Huffington Post, as well as for standing out on the demo day of 500 Startups, a tech incubator and seed fund.  (See coverage on this April 2011 event on AllThingsD and TechCrunch). Back then, Visually was basically a Web site where people could browse through and share data visualizations, as well as a service meant to match up designers with publishers and advertisers seeking cool graphs and charts. But the company aspired to doing more.

“Social media is really just the first step in what we’re trying to accomplish,” Stew Langille, co-founder and CEO of Visual.ly (and former director of marketing at Mint.com, post Intuit acquisition) told VentureBeat. “Increasingly, there will be more tools for people to use for free," he added.

The first one is its new DIY visualization tools. Yes, Visually has competition, such as IBM's Many Eyes site, which has a similar premise, as well as numerous graphic designers themselves. However, there are thousands of freelance designers that are part of the existing Visually community online--meaning Visually can be considered to expose them, or at least their template designs, to new markets.

"We hear a huge influx of people saying, 'How can I get someone to help me create an infographic or a dashboard or an interactive visualization?'" Langille said in an interview with Austin Carr, published on Fast Company's Co.Design site.

"People can’t afford it: It’s $5,000 to $7,000 for a graphic, and prices are going up," Langille said. "But now, if you want data-viz, you don’t have to start by wondering, 'Where am I going to get the data? And where can I find a designer?'"

The new Visually tools take data that's already available publicly via sources such as Twitter, Facebook Insight, or Data.gov, which users can plop into templates and themes (similar to those of Tumblr's or WordPress's pre-made blogs)--and voila!--they're transformed into nice, neat infographics.

Because Visually wisely launched with its social-media platform, it was able to stockpile many pretty designs and nurture the talent base that would fuel the new tools. Not to mention create a community that would likely use the tools themselves, even as research.

But could there be infographic overkill now that anyone can create snazzy visualizations?

Langille doesn't think so. People want more data viz, he believes--and he has the stats to back up his point. He told TechCrunch that since the beta launch of the new tools, more than 11,000 infographics have been made, and Visually has seen 2 million site visitors per month. Major corporations are teaming up with the start-up to create graphs (from Cisco to Smirnoff) or provide data (ESPN), too, and the company has raised $4.4 million to date, reported TechCrunch.

“There’s a reason why we’re seeing so many infographics,” he said to TechCrunch's Ingrid Luden. “It’s because it’s just a better way of telling a story.”

It will be fascinating to see whether (and how) the increase in visual, data-based stories likely to occur will be measured by Visually's community and beyond--hopefully more by quality, and not just sheer quantity.

[via VentureBeat, Co.DesignTechCrunch]

Image: screen shot of recent data visualizations posted on Visual.ly

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure