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Talking with… Jason Lankow

One of the founders of Column Five Media and Visage talks about infographics and data visualization

October 7, 2014

Vitruvian_Visage_72

It’s seems hard to believe, nowadays, but there was a time when only a handful of companies were offering information graphics and data visualization solutions and services. In recent years, the market exploded, with new players – agencies and freelance designers-, and free tools appearing out of nowhere – a phenomena that can be seen as both positive and toxic, as we all know.

Even so, there’s always room for quality products, and among the hundreds available out there, only a few manage to gain some momentum, and get enough exposure to survive in such a competitive scenario. And today we’ll talk about one of such products, that first caught our attention back in March.

(photo: Jason Lankow)

The winner of this year’s SXSW ReleaseIt, Visage is a Web-based platform developed by the folks at Column Five “that transforms the uninspired data in your reports into beautiful, branded visualizations that make your message more impactful—and make your work look good.” Coming out of Column Five – one of our all-time favorite agencies, in terms of overall visual communication solutions -, this tool seemed definitively promising.

Now, six months after, we reached out to Jason Lankow, the CEO/Cofounder of Visage and previously CEO/Cofounder of Column Five to chat about data visualization tools, how Visage came to live and much more. Jason also co-authored Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling and teaches Visualization of Information at Columbia University, so the issue of education and visual literacy is among the topics we discuss in the following interview.

Visual Loop (VL) – Jason, back in March you presented Visage.co, at SXSW – congratulations, by the way, for winning the SXSW Releaseit competition. How was the response?

Jason Lankow (JL) – That was a cool win for our team just after launching the site and finishing v2 of our product. While it’s always good to get external validation on what we’re building, the real value was in energizing our team and the discussions that ensued about dedicating even more resources to building. We took the time away from the office in Austin and skipped the parties to spend time expanding and articulating our vision and honed our focus at the leadership level to set a good foundation for success in years to come.

VL – You’ve obviously put a lot of effort in developing this tool. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea of creating Visage.co came up, and what steps you had to take to make it happen?

JL – We had a lot of marketing and design experience on our team back in 2011, but we didn’t have much technical perspective in the mix. Visage Cofounder Jake Burkett, a close friend of mine, brought the efforts of a small interactive development shop he was running with (fellow Visage Cofounder) Sean Parent to us, creating Column Five Labs. Our initial thinking was inspired by Google’s 20% time; we thought we would just run experiments here and there. Ultimately, we put all of the Labs’ focus on tackling a bigger problem of empowering people without design or development skills to create on-brand, beautiful reports and other pieces of business communication.

We started early on by validating the proof of concept with existing Column Five customers. We had a really awesome early response from LinkedIn, who became the first customer to license the Visage platform. The fact that such a reputable company was willing to pay money for the early prototype was really encouraging.

VL – With so many data visualization tools coming out in the last couple of years – both for personal and business use -, what are the key features that you believe set Visage.co apart from the rest?

JL – Many existing tools serve the data analyst, who does a great job of finding insights and delivering clean data to colleagues, but often can’t (and shouldn’t) spend time on the aesthetic presentation of the information—even if he or she wanted to.

The people who start with data first in building product often think about other people like them (which makes sense, as we often do the same thing with designers and marketers). They consider what they might want or need in terms of writing more powerful code to bring data to life and explore it or, at the deeper level, doing actual data combining and cleaning.

Visage places equal value on data and design in powering business communication to customers, partners and colleagues. We join the highest level of design quality with a connection to any data source on the planet. Historically speaking, aesthetics have often been an afterthought or even viewed derisively in many of these products. The conversation around the importance (and challenges) of marrying the ability to handle the complexity of data with the business value of engaging your audience through good design is going to be with us for years to come. Of course, good design is about preserving the integrity of the information, as well as making it beautiful. It’s not about putting lipstick on a pig.

In this example Visage report, you can see the marriage of a brand’s unique visual language with quantitative data and qualitative analysis to weave together a compelling narrative.

 

VL – And who’s been using the platform so far? Do you have some data about the users that you can share with us?

JL – We’ve had a few key use cases that are working well. The reporting functionality is used by a range of professionals, including teams in Account Management, Customer Success, Brand Management, Investor Relations, and Corporate Communications. Team sizes range from 2 to 100+ people. We ultimately envision serving the entire enterprise in using effective visualization in day-to-day business communication.

Visage places equal value on data and design in powering business communication to customers, partners and colleagues. We join the highest level of design quality with a connection to any data source on the planet.

 

VL – Visual literacy, when it comes to data visualization, is still a big handicap for many individuals and organizations. You tackled that issue with the release of “A Business guide to visual communication“, a free pdf manual with guidelines, references and advises regarding the creation of graphics and visualizations. Was this a one-time project, or are you planning to develop other initiatives?

When creating educational content, consider finding a great partner to help expand your reach and put your message in front of new people, shown in part in this example from a Visage ebook in partnership with Hubspot (http://visage.co/check-free-ebook-business-guide-visual-communication/)

 

JL – Education is in our DNA; it is really important to us, both in our content marketing and in our product onboarding. We wrote a book (Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling; Wiley, 2012) and just finished our third year of teaching Visualization of Information at Columbia University. For us, customer success is about empowerment, and to get to that ideal state requires some initial education and confidence-building. We will continue to put out content to educate people who want to get better at visualizing things that are important to them!

Another educational example from a Visage ebook with Hubspot (http://offers.hubspot.com/data-visualization-guide).

 

VL – Column Five was one of the first companies dedicated to produce infographics and data visualization, in a market that has grown at an impressive rate, both in the U.S. and abroad. What developments/changes impressed you the most, during that time, in the data visualization field?

JL – It has been really cool to see how the field has expanded. The growth was initially fueled by marketers adopting the format as a tool in the communication arsenal. Like text, video, and any other media format to come, the plethora of people creating content in a specific format results in a wide and varied range of quality. As part of this trend, we have seen a much higher standard of quality across the board. Although, as you mentioned, limited visual literacy can often still hinder individuals and organizations, it’s come a long way in the past few years. In fact, the data literacy of the public commenter on blog posts has served to make us a lot better. You only need to be called out for messing up data a few times before you start building strong processes for sourcing and fact-checking.

The data literacy of the public commenter on blog posts has served to make us a lot better. You only need to be called out for messing up data a few times before you start building strong processes for sourcing and fact-checking.

 

VL- And what’s your ‘secret recipe’ for managing to stay on the top, handling all the new trends and the fearless competition?

JL – Essentially, we prioritized defining and sharing our vision and purpose (our “why”), then worked through our mission/values to define how we would fulfill this. With this cultural foundation, we can work through a very logical strategic framework periodically, identifying things like where we are playing, how we can win that game, and what resources are needed to accomplish that. This provides focus and clarity to our entire team, as this process not only helps us choose what to do next but also makes it easier to say “no” to certain things that we can’t be the best at doing.

We have made a lot of mistakes, though. Ultimately, we just gather ourselves and look again to who we are and what we have done well as a foundation for guiding the way forward. This process isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, but it’s extremely potent. The real work begins after the expression of this thinking as we are called as leaders to act in alignment with our word.

For us, customer success is about empowerment, and to get to that ideal state requires some initial education and confidence-building.

 

VL – To close, can we expect to see further announcements related to Visage.co in the near future? What can you share about your plans for the platform, for the next six months?

JL – Yes, we continue to gather outstanding feedback from our enterprise customers on the product, with a good mix of wins and candid feedback for improvement (which we value like gold). The problems we are solving are not easy; part of our ongoing decision-making revolves around which ones to focus on first in the product, while keeping in mind the stepping stones towards the next addressable use cases that are interesting to us and our long-term vision. Right now, we are doing a lot of our best work empowering our customers to create more effective communication with their customers.

VL – Thank you so much, Jason, and keep up the excellent work!

JL – Thanks so much! We really appreciate your friendship and would love to hear from other people in the data visualization community. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn and/or Twitter.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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