Ai Ching is a lover of information, and of representing it through infographics—visual representations that simplify complex data. She’s the head of her own start-up, Picktochart. Piktochart is a web-based application that lets users create DIY graphics from their own data sets. Ai Ching was in Beijing to attend the Chinaaccelorator conference, which helps gives start-ups in China a boost. Jordan Thomas Mitchell caught up with Ai Ching for a casual conversation about infographics and the Internet.
How long have you been in China?
Well, I only just got here recently. I’ve been before for tourism purposes, but I’ve not actually worked here.
How do you find it?
It’s been great for business-to-business relationships.
On Twitter, Piktochart describes itself as, “An application to magically turn data into something more alive and understandable.” What does that mean?
Piktochart is a DIY application to turn raw data into infographics. What people usually do is to turn data into excel spreadsheets, graphs, or charts, but that can often complicate things by creating confusing data visualizations. We’re creating a template that makes that data into something understandable and lively. When you use the site to create an infographic, it will also be HTML interactive so that it can be integrated with your website or blog.
How does it work?
“People often have data and charts and information but don’t know how to organize it into an infographic. They’re actually not easy to create and organize.”
People want the fastest way possible to accomplish things and we want to help them do that. So we give them all of these infographics templates to choose from. Infographics come in many forms. One example is a milestone… “Google was like this in 1990 and now it’s like this in 2011.” There are many different ways to organize and visualize the data. We have all of these templates built into the website.
If you have that data in a program like excel, you can import it into Piktochart and choose a template to display it, whether it’s a graph, a chart, a histogram, or whatever visualization is relevant to that data set. You can add text, titles, and so on, then export and save it. Pretty simple. There is a lo-res jpeg format and a hi-res jpeg format. It can also be embedded via HTML.
What is Piktochart’s business model? Where does its profit come from?
Picktochart is initially free, but limited to basic templates and data visualizations. The free account will only offer lo-res files and each file will be watermarked, carrying the Picktochart branding. That’s the catch. The account is upgradable, on a pay-monthly basis, to an account that allows for much more customization, non -watermarked graphics, and hi-res and HTML formats. We want people to try it out and get addicted to the ability to produce something of quality, with ease and in a short amount of time.
How original will each infographic look?
That’s a good question! My team was just talking about that. The plan is to have a marketplace, which will be a place for people to submit new templates and sell them. We don’t want to be the only people designing the templates, as we have a limited number of designers. If we open it up for anyone to design templates, there’s potential for a lot of original templates to be shared. But when we’re doing business-to-business partnerships, we will be creating customized templates for certain companies that we work with.
What is your background, that made you so in love with infographics?
Statistics, actually. As well as experimental psychology. And after that, web design. But I’m not a designer; I’m just the face. (laughs) Eclectic!
How could infographics be used and integrated with social media platforms?
At the moment, we’re working on real-time calculators that collect information from the Internet in real time and create an infographic that is constantly being updated. We’re also collecting information about people who are reading infographics. At the moment, the extent of the interaction is something like tweeting it if you think it’s cool. But we’re working on building poles into the graphics so that information and feedback can be collected instantaneously.
Are you finding any resistance to using infographics?
People are not always happy to switch to another form of presentation. Many of us are fascinated with infographics and what they can communicate, but the whole world is not.
Do you think infographics will become the standard way to communicate information online?
People re-tweet and Facebook share infographics three times more often than they do an ordinary piece of information. I think people who read infographics gain and remember much more knowledge; they’ll also remember it for much longer. There are my psychology studies again…
Do you ever think that making information so pretty and colorful can actually distract from the information itself?
Good question, and it’s a valid point. I’ve seen data visualizations that are just too much… huge charts with suns and bursts of color, and it’s just too much.
“But I saw a pie chart about how many people have been infected by STDs from toilet seats and the pie chart was actually situated in the middle of a toilet seat.”
I know it’s not a pretty picture, but that visualization has a very powerful and effective means of associating information with a particular image. Meaning, you can get the idea, without reading any text, which is what information should be—an instantaneous understanding.
But we’ve check with our PhD friends to see if they would use infographics in academic presentations and they told us that because of the type of data sets they were using, it’s just not possible to use such graphic based visualizations. They’re just not open to it.
Should they be open to it?
The people that I’ve spoken to in biology and chemistry are opposed. If they represented their data that way, they think their colleagues would take it as a joke. It seems like they don’t really believe that science and art can coexist in the same forum and I’m not really trying to change their mind.
The entire world is apparently storing about 600 Billion Gigabytes of data. Is it necessary or even practical to try to communicate this information through data visualizations?
No, I don’t think so. Can you imagine a children’s storybook that was totally based on infographics? Probably not. And even if you could, you probably wouldn’t buy it. Certain things should stay as text and other things are better suited to graphic representation.
Can you define that difference?
Marketing material works great as infographics, as does any complex material that could be simplified through graphic representation to help people make the connection.
Is there a difference between how you would make infographics in Chinese versus English?
Nope. Just the language itself and the fonts. The images are mostly universally understood. A girl is a girl. Guess which country searches for the most infographics?
Nope! That’s what I thought too. It’s the Netherlands. But they’re still in English. Infographics in Chinese haven’t caught on yet.
What’s Yet Another Studio?
That’s my former web design company. My designers run it now. They’re amazing. It operates from a nice island in the north of Malaysia.
What’s your favorite technology app, website, or piece of hardware at the moment?
Probably Paper.li. It’s a website that allows you to take Tweets, Facebook shares, and RSS feeds and turn them into an online newspaper. It’s amazing and I use it all the time.