With New Tool, Visual.ly Wants To Replace PowerPoint With Infographics

"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?'"

"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.)

A snippet from one of Visual.ly’s templates

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.

Another template

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."

Click here to try Visual.ly’s new tool.

[Image: Kinetic Imagery/Shutterstock]

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11 Comments

  • Matteo de Franceschi

    I'm agree with AL.. nice way to show some kind of data but, at this stage, nothing more. I was expecting something different but I know won't be easy to make totally new info graphs using any kind of data and graphics..

  • Al

    Is nobody else disappointed? I was expecting Visual.ly Create to be an actual way to create infographics. Instead, the site I see is just a showcase for interactive infographics with switchable themes and a box to put your own social media account in.

    "You can create any infographic you want. So long as it's this one. And uses as it uses this Facebook data, and presents that data like this, and turns it into a cute monster we drew that like this guy"

    It's not creating infographics. It's a showcase of (pretty good, fun, potentially useful) interactive infographics that have already been created. 

    Or is everyone else looking at a different site to me?

  • piktochart

    Great app, very fun to play with. With their automated tool, cannot help but wonder how it compares with a visual editor like Piktochart that allows many layers of customization for an infographic.

  • Guest

    Very useful tool, not only for infographics, but also for data visualisation. Don't think it replaces PowerPoint as a whole, but rather complements it.

  • JanBergman

    Interesting tool worth checking out. However I can not resist pointing out the incorrect top example where the color red represent storytellers but in the chart its explained as viral readers(a mixup between the blue and red) ;-) 

  • Sentori

    Do infographics allow you to make meaningful analysis of data? No. Are they cute and engaging? Yes, and that's important in its own way.

    Let's not confuse infographics with the work of actual data analysis or the role played by data viz software like Tableau. 

    I don't particularly see an overlap with PowerPoint, either. Most infographics are so dense with information that they would not be an appropriate equivalent of a slide -- way too much noise to make a succinct point. Infographics need to be studied, which is absolutely the opposite of what you want from PowerPoint slides.

  • Ryan Pratt

    I have been looking forward to create.visual.ly for months now! Not only a goodbye to PowerPoint, farewell to Tableau Public, Inkscape, Gapminder, Hohli, and Many Eyes as well!

  • moritz_stefaner

    Ahm - have you actually looked at what the tool offers? I honestly can't see how you would make any of these applications obsolete.

  • alicemthornton

    I've been trying to log into Visual.ly all day.  I tried so many times that I got locked out and requested a password reset from them, but no response yet.  EVERYBODY must be trying out Visual.ly Create.