by “Tech Talk” Editor Ellie Dworak
I have always had an affinity for the useful. When we learned origami in grade school, I was the one making little boxes, one of which I believe my father still uses to store paper clips on his desk. I suspect that many in the library profession feel the same way. And so I am happy to announce The Idaho Librarian’s new Tech Tools column, which is devoted to informal discussion of practical technologies and their application to a library setting. I hope that you’ll join the conversation by adding your own ideas, questions, tips, and experiences as comments; by letting me know what you want to know more about (and what you don’t); and perhaps even by guest authoring.
And so, without further ado, welcome!
Infographics: Free and Easy
Whether it’s a budget report, results of a survey, or trends in reference desk statistics, data is often better received when it’s presented in graphical form. Numbers come to life, trends can be clearly visualized, and survey results are shown with context. Even processes and ideas sometimes lend themselves to pictures, and of course no librarian is complete without the ability to generate an occasional Venn diagram! [nb. I’m totally kidding – most of us would survive].
The term “infographic” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a visual image such as a chart or diagram used to represent information or data in an easily understandable form.”1 That definition encompasses a number of everyday objects such as maps and the instructions that come with Ikea furniture. To me, though, the word implies a certain amount of flair – more than a lone graph sitting on a spreadsheet or a diagram showing which screw to put in which hole.
There are a lot of options for creating graphs, charts, and other visuals. Microsoft ™ products such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all have tools built into them, for example, and of course there are pro tools for those who have the skills and the budget. All of those options have their place, but for those of us who want to create awesome visuals on the fly, there are a number of free online products designed specifically for the purpose of making it easy to present information graphically – and to do so with panache. Rather than writing “a number of online products,” should write “an overwhelming number.” Some of them are specialized, such as vizualize.me, which will generate an infographic based on your resumé and timeline JS, which specializes in graphical timelines (big surprise, I know). Others tools focus more on the “info” than the “graphics.”
Since I can’t cover them all, I’ve chosen two of my favorite general purpose, online infographics tools (which is to say, no download is required), both of which are easy to use, so that you can get in, get out, and get on with your job! Both of these tools allow you to sign up for a free account or you can sign in with Facebook or Google account.
Ease.lly – http://www.easel.ly/
Easel.ly has one of those silly names with a dot in it, but I’ll forgive that because this is a great tool for creating infographics. In fact, it’s so great that it won an American Association of School Librarians Best Websites for Teaching and Learning award in 2013. Easel.ly is completely free, and is not just a toolkit, but also a site where creator’s infographic are posted. These examples be used for inspiration or as templates (aka vhemes). Just a few of these are shown in the screenshot below.
I recently used one of these templates to create a quick flowchart to guide staff from another library unit who help cover our email and text message reference services. I pulled this together in approximately 20 minutes (shown, slightly modified to protect the innocent, below) and it would have been quicker were I not a little OCD about the color and placement of every “yes” and “no.”
Though it’s fastest to use a vheme, you can also start from scratch. Menu choices are selected by dragging and dropping an item on to your work area. The screenshot (above) shows the menu options for background colors and patterns. Below you’ll see the lovely beige reptilian print that I’ve chosen for my new infographic, along with menu options for objects in the “music” category. On the left side of the screenshot a popup menu lists the other object menus. In addition to a plethora of background, object, shape, and text choices, images can be uploaded and used as objects.
Once completed, save your Infographic project, then click the ‘share’ link to get a custom URL or download your project as a jpeg file. In addition, your projects can be set to private or public.
As with any software, it’s important to review the Terms of Service (you all do that for every iTunes update, right?). I saw nothing particularly alarming about Easel.ly’s legalese, but sent them an email to clarify the legality of my use of screenshots in this article as well as any copyright restrictions on graphics created using the software. I received a response within the hour which read:
So you can use your creations in anyway that you please, we don’t restrict you in anyway. We do always like our users spread the word about our tool so that we can continue to grow.
Thanks for the opportunity!
After a few minutes of fumbling around, I found Easel.ly to be both intuitive and feature-rich enough to be fun and functional. The main limitation is that it’s not set up to manage data sets, so any charts or other representations of data have to be added in as graphical elements. This is no problem for static data that is relatively simple to demonstrate. In addition, the canvas size cannot be increased, so larger infographics will best be managed elsewhere.
Ellie’s almost scientific learning curve ranking for Easel.ly
Ellie’s very nearly precision creativity ranking for Easel.ly
Piktochart – https://magic.piktochart.com/
Piktochart is, like many free online tools, also available in a pro version for a fee ($39.99 a year for students and educators). I’ll cover the free version, with a few notes about the pro version.
Like Easel.ly, Piktochart’s main page displays a pleasing array of themes, which are templates to use as starting points. However, unlike Easel.ly, most of the awesome themes in Piktochart are only available to pro users. Still, there are a few themes available to free users, and they’re helpful for beginners. In the image below, I’ve used a theme called “Minimalist Presentation” as a starting point. It is also possible to begin with a blank slate, but I recommend trying out a template first unless you’ve used similar tools.
Piktochart is based on “chunks,” each of which represents a content area. Upon clicking on a “chunk,” a popup window offers canvas size and placement options, shown above in the center left. In addition, chunks can be resized and moved using your mouse to drag them. In this regard, Piktochart offers some creative flexibility over Easel.ly, since not only can chunks be resized or added, they can vary in background color or image.
Other elements such as text, graphics, charts, and maps are added to chunks by selecting them from menus. Like Easel.ly, each menu provides a number of options (and another invitation to “go pro” and retrieve more). In addition, a separate menu across the top of the screen offers file choices such as “undo,” “redo,” and “delete.” Below, the menus are shown along with some of the options for background.
Where Piktograph really shines is in the ability to add data and have it display within your graphic. To do this, select “tools” from the menu and either add data to the spreadsheet that pops up or import data from a file on your computer. In addition, Piktochart offers a dynamic data option, but I am not that into data, so if you need to use this option, you’ll need to look elsewhere for insight. Below I’ve created a simple spreadsheet with a doughnut chart.
Along the left side of the chart area you will see other chart types, which you can click on to see how your data looks in a variety of representations. Additionally, colors and other look and feel options are available in the “settings” menu. Below is the same data represented in an icon matrix made of hearts. You’re welcome.
When you’re done with your customizations, save and choose a sharing method (image download, web, or email) and you’re on your way! Below you can see the Infographic that I created for this demo in whole.
Though I had not (at the time of this writing), hear back from Piktograph asking for clarification of any copyright restrictions that they place on work produced using their software, note that the free version of Piktograph does insert a small attribution at the bottom. It is my assumption that the company would like the attribution to remain in place for the free version of their software – in my view, a small price to pay for free. At any rate, I once again recommend reviewing the Terms and Conditions information.
While Piktochart has some additional features which add a level of complexity, I found the menus to be very usable. I prefer selecting items by clicking instead rather than dragging and found the prominent edit icons along the top to be a handy feature. In terms of creative flexibility, Piktograph offers some features that Easel.ly does not, but the free version does not come with the range of built in themes or objects.
Ellie’s almost scientific learning curve ranking for Piktograph
Ellie’s very nearly precision creativity ranking for Piktograph
I love Easel.ly and Piktograph equally, and for different reasons.
Easel.ly is free, robust, and super easy, plus they have great support. There are hundreds (thousands?) of themes that can be used as starting points, and it comes with a full set of icons and other objects. Overall, it’s a great tool if you’re seeking an quick and easy way to demonstrate fairly straightforward information visually.
I recommend Piktograph for tech-comfy users who want the added flexibility of a chunked canvas and/or who prefer to add data in a spreadsheet format – and who aren’t put off by the attribution. For those who have reason to create infographics regularly, the pro version appears to be well worth $40/year.
So . . . what did you think?