Information graphics are a big and growing business, but the tools that are used for making them are little better than paper and pencil. That is particularly problematic when it comes to infographics that are heavy on data, which not only require a lot of work, but also many repeating steps that could be handled by a machine. Visual.ly's recently launched Create tool takes care of some of this work to create better and more flexible information graphics.
Infographics today are meticulously made by hand, each one being unique like a precious snowflake. That's perfectly valid, but there are recurring structures, approaches that have worked well for different kinds of content, etc. There is very little automation to make it easier to reuse ideas and structures, and in particular to work with data. Who wants to draw a bar chart by hand?
This is where Visual.ly comes in. Their idea is not only to connect designers with companies looking for information graphics, but also to provide the tools to make creating them easier and more flexible.
I have talked to several people recently who were confused by what Visual.ly is trying to do. Is it an infographics directory? A marketplace? A Facebook and Twitter visualizer? Something else? The answer is: all of that. The reason this is confusing is not only that Visual.ly is doing more than one thing, but that at least one of them has never been done before.
The idea behind Visual.ly Create is quite simple: separate the tasks of collecting data and designing the graphics. The data might have to be scraped or otherwise collected, or it may just come from an API. The designer can focus on the visual side of things and on telling a compelling story. Crucially, the design work is done in the tool most designers spend their entire lives in: Adobe Illustrator.
The two components are then merged through some custom magic by the templar. The result of that process is a first information graphic. But unlike a traditional infographic, its components can still be changed: the data can be updated or replaced, and the design can be swapped for a different one. Stew Langille, Visual.ly's CEO, compares the latter to themes for blogging engines like Wordpress.
An important practical issue with information graphics are their cost. Creating one is a lot of work, and so the cost to the client is significant. Given an existing structure, a designer can create a new theme, and thus create graphics at a much lower cost. This also allows different people with different focus to work together and do what each does best.
Finally, information graphics don't have to be static. Visual.ly's Twitter and Facebook graphics show how you can easily swap the numbers each is based on to personalize them. This is not limited to social networking by any means: any source of data can be plugged into a suitable information graphic to make it fit a particular purpose, at least in principle. Whether the design and structure fit is a different question, but given a large library of templates, it's easy to imagine being able to pick one, do some customization, feed in some data, and being done with it.
Beyond Twitter and Facebook
Being able to create things more easily, and separating the different types of work, is not simply about cost. By increasing efficiency and enabling reuse, designers are able to explore the design space and try new things, rather than spend their time on mechanical tasks that a machine can do much better. How many hours are lost tweaking a few lines to fit some numbers, only to be given updated numbers that require going back and doing it all over again? How much painstaking work can be avoided and spent with actual creative work? Ask a designer and they will tell you that it's a lot.
Visual.ly Create is a good step in the right direction. It is a bit less ambitious than what I wrote about last summer, but also much more concrete and usable without requiring both designers and data wranglers to abandon their existing tools. Turning data into understandable, graphical communication is a difficult task, and one that can benefit from better tools than the status quo. Visual.ly is building some of those tools.
Disclosure: I am an advisor for Visual.ly. I have brokered a partnership between Visual.ly and Tableau that has led to some interesting first results.
Posted by Robert Kosara on April 17, 2012.