What do cobblers, vinyl record manufacturers and blacksmiths have in common? Technological progress has frequently usurped once-mighty industries. Will skilled workers be the next to suffer, as inexpensive artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated?
Maybe starting with the microcosm. Visual.ly has launched a set of tools for creating free infographics — those large, web-styled images used to convey data visually that have exploded in popularity during the last few years.
But graphic design professionals aren’t too worried yet.
Veteran designer and CEO of design firm Rocksauce Q Manning downplayed the relevance of the service to serious clients, noting its limited number of customization options and the lack of an experienced eye. He also wondered whether a WordPress-style model, with the option to hire a human designer in addition to free tools, might offer the best of both worlds.
“A service like Visual.ly, particularly in its rudimentary state, is a great asset for casual folks but is still far from being a threat or a great service to anyone needing to create custom infographics,” Manning told Tech.li in an email message. “While the results can be beautiful… such a limited amount of options visually or contextually makes the current offering feel more like a gimmick than anything else.”
For now, at least, Manning’s statements run true. Some infographics in Visual.ly’s gallery show distracting graphical errors; others are dominated by empty space.
Co-founder and CEO of Column Five Media Jason Lankow takes a long view, noting that while algorithms may eventually rival human artistry, that time has not yet here — and that many information technology breakthroughs, including the printing press, have initially been met with resistance. With today’s technology, at least, he thinks the two can coexist.
“The creative aspect and ability to craft a story are still very dependent on the human mind, at least until machine learning increases dramatically,” he wrote. “The difference between a template-based design and one concepted and crafted by a skilled designer is easily identifiable, but there may be demand for both.”
And the notion of the infographic is evolving swiftly, he said, forcing everybody to push the envelope to make their designs stand out in the face of more competition.
“As the novelty factor of infographics has worn off, the industry is forced to mature, especially in the case of infographics created for marketing purposes where it takes an ever-increasing standard of quality to stand out from the pack,” wrote Lankow.
Visual.ly, which has partnered with big names including National Geographic and CNN Money, did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Here’s a sample from the site: