“Before PowerPoint, you had to go find a designer to create a custom presentation,” says Stew Langille. “Even though everyone hates PowerPoint now, it was really helpful when it first came out.”
Now Langille’s startup, Visual.ly, is attempting to do for infographics what Microsoft did for presentations. Today, the company launched a new platform to allow virtually anyone to create data visualizations. By tapping into data APIs–from Facebook Insights, Twitter, Data.gov, and so forth–Visual.ly enables users to plug predetermined datasets into premade designs, offering a stable of templates and themes that will continue to grow thanks to the startup’s in-house team and community of roughly 4,000 freelance designers.
“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 says. “People can’t afford it: It’s $5,000 to $7,000 for a graphic, and prices are going up. 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 startup, which has raised $2 million in VC funding to date, unveiled the self-service platform at SXSW today. With just a few clicks, users can choose a theme, select a dataset from a drop-down menu, and create an infographic with little or no effort. For example, plug in a Twitter hashtag or Facebook account, and you can watch Visual.ly spit out various metrics represented visually–basic statistics about growth, location, demographics, engagement, and so on. “If I’m a marketing manager, and want to go present [this data] to my boss, all I have to do is authenticate [with Facebook or Twitter],” Langille says. “I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to find a designer. If I don’t like a theme, I can just swap it out in one click.”
Currently, Visual.ly offers a small range of what Langille calls “WordPress-like themes,” and a short list of datasets. But the startup imagines adding more templates as time goes on, and more datasets to import, such as Gallup polls or Pew reports. (The startup used to accept user-uploaded data from Microsoft Excel, but it became too difficult to import such data in any uniform way.)
The service is free, though Visual.ly does offer premium accounts. The startup imagines brands, ad agencies, and publishers will be interested in taking advantage of the platform, and connecting with the community of designers who contribute to the site. In turn, Visual.ly expects designers will want to contribute free themes to the public in hope of catching the attention of potential premium clients. “If you want something totally new, we’re servicing that too,” Langille says. “We will be charging for the premium accounts, so if someone wants a premium theme, they pay the designer for that, and then we collect a small percentage.”
The company is already working with The Economist to service its infographics; additionally, it envisions brands such as Louis Vuitton or Virgin will want to create sponsored themes for public consumption.
There is both a strong downside and upside to automating infographics. On the one hand, by automating the technique of data visualization, a skill few possess, do well, or can afford, Visual.ly risks causing infographic genericide. Infographics are meant to represent the beautiful marriage of data and visualization–to tell a unique story visually, in a way that no numbers or statistics could capture on their own. Automating this process almost defeats the purpose of an infographic–such a tool seems more intent on making data look pretty than accessible; cool and colorful versus necessary and effective.
On the other hand, Visual.ly does help democratize data-viz, for better or for worse, just as Microsoft had done before with presentations and spreadsheets. Though Langille does acknowledge that not all of the startup’s generic themes will be as powerful as a totally custom-built infographic, he believes it serves a need–for both users and publishers alike–and will be satisfying enough.
“It makes the process so much easier and faster than if you do it from scratch,” he says. “You don’t have to have that wow factor with everything you publish.”