Visual.ly Is the New Powerpoint

There is a new promising service looking to alter the media landscape. Visual.ly tries to bring visualization to the masses. Content creation that was once the realm of specialists is now accessible to everyone, or so the service claims.

This prosumer trend of empowering consumers to become creators themselves is older than hardware stores and not restricted to design circles, but certain professions seemed to hold much less public appeal to DIY than others, crunching data being one of them. And yet time and time again new tools have changed the way we interact with information. Looking at visually I was immediately reminded of one particular tool that forever changed the lives of office workers across all professions.

That tool is Powerpoint.

A comparison with the infamous software is not necessarily a coveted one because Powerpoint does have a bad reputation for obscuring rather than helping communication in many cases. For all the good things Powerpoint has done (more on that later) it did open Pandora’s box of bullet point hell and was just too much for most users to handle responsibly.

The problem with Powerpoint is not that it is a bad tool. The problem is that albeit created for the purpose of empowering users to create visually enriched presentations the tool did nothing to promote thusly augmented communication. Quite on the contrary.

Chances are you suffered through more than one bullet point riddled snooze fest. Be it in college or the workspace, slides are everywhere and they are still proliferating at an accelerating pace. In a sense the tool has become the product. Send me the powerpoint by tomorrow, will you?

Today everyone can build slides. And everyone uses bullet points. The templates that were built in to Powerpoint set the example after which the unsuspecting office worker builds her slides. These unfortunate examples of slide design have in turn entered the mental model of presentations for the average customer. Thus popular practice of presentation design today is riddled with unhelpful and even detrimental standards.

Before Powerpoint and its templates there was no popular presentation design standard. There were people doodling away on chalk boards, overhead projectors and flip charts. And then there were a few specialist designers crafting slides by hand for expensive presentation equipment.

The world of information design and visualization currently resembles this divide between experts and consumers before powerpoint. Granted, visualization is more salient as a popular concept than slide design was, but prosumers are still few and far between. And lest you wonder what all this entails for visual.ly bear in mind the picture I painted of how Powerpoint proliferated its standards among newly empowered users. 

Now, please look at the promotional infographic that visual.ly lets you create with just a handful of mouse clicks and keyboard entries. How much information is encoded in these 500x2103 pixels? 

500x2103px worth of information

The assertion that my tweets bear zero interestingness stings, but I suspect that there was a technical problem with the twitter API to resolve my data. I do use twitter several times a day and tweet about communication resources, cognitive science and the occasional pop culture reference. However, visual.ly’s failure to recognize me as the bestest twitterer of them all is not my concern.

I do take issue with the fact that this infographic is the standard they are setting. With all respect to the talented designers at visual.ly, the terrible, terrible signal to noise ratio of the piece goes against everything I am trying to accomplish as a communication architect. How much information about me did you gather from this infographic? Did any of the embellishments and design choices help you grasp the information or make it more accessible to digest at least?

This is a far cry from a helpful visualization. Heck, it’s almost a poster child for everything that is wrong with lazy, uninformed information design and it is promoted as the example for do-it-yourself visualization? Are you kidding me?

Contrary to what my vitriol might have you think I don’t actually mean to bash the folks at visual.ly but rather hope to partake in a debate of how to improve communication standards. The toxic influence of bad standards released into the public, as demonstrated by the Powerpoint example, is something I would like help prevent to happen again. And I do think that visual.ly can play a decisive role in this.

We can see how public perception of visualizations is shifting now that web poster art has turned into the latest hype to generate clicks. While users get to see much more visual display of information (much of it of a fast food standard, mind you) they don’t get to learn what constitutes good practice or what tools are needed to create good infographics.

The outline of a hurtful mental model is already showing: Venture Beat quotes the co-founder of visual.ly:

Photoshop not required.

Please take a gander at this wonderful series on essential visualization resources and try to find Photoshop. Infographics are not about pixel manipulation and Photoshop is not even a great tool for creating art work from scratch. And yet, in the public eye infographics are something a designer creates with photoshop. Data is conspicuously absent.

Visual.ly could change all that. There are some great things about visual.ly that are likely to provide beneficial impact to the world of infographic design. One is that it transforms the medium of infographics by giving it a platform where peers, amateurs and professionals alike, share their work and thus their ideas. Think of what slideshare did to the public perception of presentations.

This is perhaps the best thing powerpoint has done: It has propelled the medium of presentations into popularity and paved the way for other services to build upon it. Powerpoint has become a great tool for the skilled user to create amazing content both to accompany speeches or to be used in exaptations of powerpoint, like poster design in academia or the presentation spin off of online slide shows.

The one thing we must make sure is to empower users to create meaningful content. To do so we must protect them from mental models that would limit their design choices to bad eye candy. If the folks at visual.ly are with me on this, their platform would be a boon to educate and inspire, while providing a unique tool that helps users create their own visualizations.

Is Robert Kosara of EagerEyes right that

the current website shows the least interesting part of visual.ly?

I certainly hope so.

  1. jochmann posted this
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