Halfway into 2014, Pop Chart Lab has released more than a dozen new posters. We’ve covered many of them here on Co.Design: a compendium of sentence diagrams, a guide to the world of whiskey, maps of wineries in Napa, and cocktail bars in New York City, to name a few. The studio's latest project, released yesterday, is a series of city maps available in laser-cut hardboard, oak, walnut, or cherry. For a tiny operation tucked away in Brooklyn, Pop Chart Lab is remarkably industrious—a veritable infographics factory.
How did Patrick Mulligan and Ben Gibson get here? Since launching four years ago, the company’s founders quickly parlayed their knack for fun, punchy, eminently shareable graphics into a full-fledged store that has increased revenue 50% year over year. Their formula for success: Pair good design with an editorial sense of what people want to click on.
In 2010, Gibson and Mulligan both worked at Penguin Books, as a designer and editor, respectively. A collection of tongue-in-cheek charts, called Graph Out Loud, landed on Mulligan’s desk. This was somewhat early in the era of sophisticated infographic design. German artist Fritz Kahn pioneered infographic design in the 1920s and 1930s, but highly sharable graphics (and the many, many tools to create them) were still gaining traction.
The two started collaborating on creating charts for the book. Right off the bat, "we started making really complicated charts, and taking it to the ridiculous extreme," Gibson says. "Our goal was to make them into these awesome works of art."
With more ideas than they had pages for the book, the duo decided to make infographics on the side, after work. With no intention of turning the project into a full-time job, Gibson and Mulligan had a friend code a simple website for placing orders, and kicked things off with two posters—one for rap artist names, and one for beer. In the early days, the pair would meet up at night at Gibson’s shared workspace, copy and paste addresses into a label printer, and hoof it to the Brooklyn post office with big bags of poster tubes. Sales fluctuated. On some days, they sold 15 posters. On other days, they sold 80.
Then came The Today Show’s special on Black Friday. The hosts featured Pop Chart Lab’s beer poster on a gifts-for-guys list, and sales took off. "It was on screen for 15 seconds, and we got like 300 orders that day," Gibson says.
In the four years since, Gibson and Mulligan have hired designers, copy editors, and an operations staff of 15. They opened up a warehouse facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they build their own frames, which they sell with the posters. And significantly, in 2013, they both left their publishing jobs to work full-time on Pop Chart Lab.
The company’s order of operations has, naturally, changed over the years. After all, their office space and the number of employees have grown. But lists and Excel sheets have been a constant. "We keep a running list of ideas," Mulligan says. Everything is charted and planned three months ahead. Topics always stem from the simple question of: What are people into?
"We have to think about subject areas where there’s an overlap in what people are interested in, have on their wall, and what has a lot of data." They say it takes only a few hours of research and time on Excel to know if an idea is rich enough for an entire poster. (For a deep dive into Pop Chart Lab's process, go here and here.)
Besides appealing to the boozehound (or shoe hound, or cheese hound) in all of us, Gibson and Mulligan figured out early that their posters play well because they are, in essence, pieces of editorial—web-friendly editorial, at that. The microscopic charts and connecting lines begged to be zoomed in on and lingered over. That let them design with readers in mind: "If we’re going to do a chart of basketball jerseys," for instance, "we think about this or that blog, and certain landing places for it," Gibson says of their (savvy) process of feeding their work to readers online.
Pop Chart Lab has recently started to branch out more into other merchandise—a move simplified by owning their own small-scale manufacturing facility for producing glassware, coasters, aprons, and other giftable home goods. The pie-in-the-sky goal, Mulligan says, is to launch more housewares, "like a mini-West Elm of infographics of pop culture."
At its core, however, Pop Chart Lab is a hit because they're good at selling posters. As Gibson puts it: "There are a lot of walls in America."
Check out the store here.