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Data Visualisation Templates

In de gastbijdrage van deze week vraag Jorrit Schaap zich af wat de waarde is van datavisualisatie templates: versterken ze een verhaal, of bepalen ze het? Jorrit werd 2012 geselecteerd als talentvolle jonge professional bij de Hot100, en combineert zijn academische achtergrond met praktijkkennis als grafisch- en webdesigner.

In the world of graphic design, web design and motion graphic design, the use of templates is widely spread. Templates are ready-made project files that can be customized and used as the basis for various types of media content. Though discussions have evolved around the pros and cons of their use, templates have permeated all aforementioned fields of design. Hollywood blockbusters and popular music videos use the same Trapcode Form effects, website builders use the same WordPress templates and the same graphic elements keep appearing in logo designs. These templates can be bought from websites that function as marketplaces for authors and buyers of ready-made content. Some of these websites such as iStockPhoto and VideoHive feature millions of items in lots of different categories. Stock photographs are widely used on websites and in editorials, so much even that various lists exist of images that have become too popular to use. And new builders of websites hardly ever start a project from scratch any more. But what is the state of templates in the world of data visualization?

A good starting point would be the websites selling templates and stock footage. A search for items tagged with “data visualization” on VideoHive yields only six results of which only two seem relevant. Together however, these templates have been sold 714 times. The same search on GraphicRiver yields 86 items with the top result alone selling more than 1500 copies. Though tagged with the words “data visualization”, most of these items are closer to the description of “infographics” as they are mostly static, non interactive, manually designed visualizations. In a similar fashion, searching for “data visualization” on iStockPhoto returns no relevant results, but changing the query to “infographics” immediately returns large sets of infographic templates. Extending the search to programming websites CodeCanyon and ActiveDen reveals a collection of templates for interactive visualizations. These are actual customizable data visualization applications that can dynamically load different data sets.

When reviewing the description texts for the items on offer, a common idea can be noted. All the descriptions focus on the idea of visually appealing visualizations, that are clear, simple, quick and jazz up “boring” information. Furthermore, there seems to be a sharing of the idea that these design elements can be used to communicate any type of data.

The use of data visualization templates raises potential risks and benefits. Similar to discussions over the use of (web) design templates, more appealing visualizations through the use of templates can empower creators to create visualizations that reach bigger audiences. When certain templates become popular and widely used they may even help audiences understand the story of a visualization better. Through repetition they may more readily understand the meaning of design elements. Practically, templates may decrease the time needed to make data visualizations, saving money and valuable resources.

However, a real danger lies in the tendency of the existing templates to focus on being visually appealing rather than being the best match for data, story and audience. This has historically been a risk in data visualization and for example 3D bar charts that are often criticized by data visualization practitioners and scholars are quite common in the available templates. A template with great aesthetics can be the icing on the cake for data visualizations when the data, story and presentation match, but when the template becomes the cake problems arise. The presentation should fit the data and it should fit the target audience so the story can be understood. Certain templates may cater to certain audiences and in that sense be good matches, but it seems unlikely that a certain template will fit all types of data and be understandable for all audiences. Generally speaking, data visualization templates seem to be focused on just being visually pleasing and risk losing the connection with the data, story and audience.

Even though the number of data visualization templates that are available online is still relatively small their existence should not go unnoticed. The spectrum can be widened by including popular websites such as Google Public Data Explorer and Many Eyes that offer limited visualization options – templates one might say – for their online data visualization software. A further increase of the number of templates and standardized visualization tools online seems inevitable, as the economic gains of offering data visualization elements and software combined with the ever growing number of users and producers probably will prove appealing to smart entrepreneurs jumping on the data visualization bandwagon. In the end, hopefully creators of data visualizations that contemplate the buying of a template will ask the important question: will this template really match the data, story and audience? If not, do not let the template become the cake and continue to create your own visualizations that support your efforts. If it does match? Buy the template and save the time and resources so that you can work on other more innovative data visualization projects. Maybe your innovative project itself can even become a great template someday, doing justice to its data, story and audience.

Deze blog is geschreven door Jorrit Schaap, http://about.me/jorritschaap, contact@jorritschaap.com