Electronic Eye April 2015
Making Information Into a Visual Story: Piktochart and PowToons
A recent technology trend to hit the information world is infographics. An infographic is a visual image that represents information in a simplified way. While older style infographics can be thought of as simple charts and diagrams, new infographics are now spiced up with icons and more creative ways to represent information, like a map with spots of varying sizes to represent population in different areas or groups of stick figures to show how many people agree with a certain opinion. Once relegated to the sidebars of newspapers and Web sites and the backgrounds behind news anchors, the infographic has become something that more young adults are capable of making. Pikochart and Powtoons are two tools that make infographic creation much more accessible.
The big question that I have is whether these tools also help increase understanding of the information for the creator as well as for the viewer. I think that this could be the case. When creating a Piktochart or a PowToon, the creator is being asked to consider what data to present and how. They learn what ideas to emphasize and how to make sure that the explanation flows from one thought to another. They also need to decide what icons and symbols will best represent their ideas.
Both Web based tools can be accessed for free and both have premium content that users can use to pay for. PowToons also has a portal for educators so that teachers can access student work and collaborate with them. Piktochart also has special pricing for educators and students as well as non-profit organizations.
PIktochart is Web-based software that allows people with not a lot of design experience to create attractive infographics. There are four basic types of Piktocharts for users to choose from: infographics, reports, banners, and presentations. Each one of these types has several themes that a user can start with and revise to add their own information and ideas. Several of these themes are free. Others happen to be professional themes that require a user to pay extra for a subscription. One can also just start with a blank canvas.
Starting with a blank canvas was a relatively easy thing to do since the tool bars are so intuitive and the backgrounds and icons are so attractive. A user starts by choosing a background for both the top half of their page as well as the bottom half of their page. Then they start layering elements over this background including icons from their large database, images, text boxes, shapes and lines, photos, and even photo frames to surround images that the user uploads.
But the thing that I am most excited about is the chart wizard. There are no less than fourteen chart types that can be employed in the interests of making data comprehensible, including ones called gauge, donut, and swatch. The chart wizard allows users to input their data directly into an embedded spreadsheet or they can also upload their data from an already existing spreadsheet. Like many other parts of Piktochart, they try to make learning how to use the tool easy by leaving sample data in the spreadsheet so all that a user has to do is change the values and change the headings. For the next research project in my library where students have to create a graph, we will be coming to Piktochart. This will be so much easier for my students to understand and they will enjoy the process of graph creation so much more.
The Map Wizard works along the same lines as well. Currently all of the continents are represented and a spreadsheet for each continent is filled in with the names of the countries in that continent. A United States map with all of the states represented in the attached spreadsheet is also present. The sample values have been left there to help users recognize the possibilities in population data, but you can change the labels and values to represent many other possibilities. It is also possible to change the colors of countries and states. One can highlight a particular state or country in this way.
What I like best about Piktochart is the fact that it lets users really work with data and information in a way that engages their minds and promotes a deeper understanding. It is one thing to find a population chart of a certain location on the World Wide Web and place it into a presentation without a user giving it much reflection. It is a completely different thing to find the raw data and create something from it in a supported and visually appealing environment.
At the end of the creation period, users can download the infographic as a jpg. If they have purchased a PRO account, they can download it in pdf form. PRO account holders can also download higher resolution jpgs. Users can also publish their infographic to the Web. The Piktochart site generates an embed code for a user to place somewhere.
The PowToon Web interface like to say that they bring “awesomeness” to presentations and that isn’t too much of an overstatement. A PowToon is an online tool that people can use to create presentations. These presentations have a much more lively and engaging look than do more traditional presentations created in Microsoft Power Point or Google Slides. In a PowToon, images and text appear and disappear with a variety of different visual effects. For instance, words get written on the screen with a giant hand and then get swiped off the page. Background music can also be added with ease. Powtoons get published as a video that can be uploaded to YouTube or another Web video hosting site called Wistia.
There are currently two types of PowToons. A slide-based presentation is being offered in beta. The other is the PowToon Studio which allows users to create videos. Using both studios are relatively intuitive, with icon-based tool bars stretching over the top of the canvas space in the center of the screen.
In the PowToons Studio, a sidebar on the right of the screen allows users to search for icons and transitions to add. A choice of several themes is also available on the side bar, allowing the user to easily create a presentation that has a unified look. A sidebar on the left is a slide sorter. The most important part of the PowToon interface and the one that is often overlooked by novice users is the bottom of the screen where there is a timeline. The timeline shows the exit and entry points of the different elements in the presentation. Entry and exit points for the different elements can be dragged around. The amount of time a slide appears on the screen can also be changed by adding seconds on the timeline. It can be initially tricky to understand the timeline when so many elements have been added.
Users can add elements from the sidebar on the right by simply dragging and dropping them onto the slide. Text boxes can be clicked on in order for text to be added and fonts, font sizes, and colors to be changed. All of this is something that most users can grasp without even viewing a tutorial.
Users will be surprised by the fact that they can’t simply copy and paste images from the rest of the Web. A user has to go through a upload process or can do a media search from Flickr, the photo sharing Web site. The cool thing about this is that PowToons searches only images whose authors allow their work to be reused just so long as they are given proper credit as part of the Creative Commons licensing agreement. This is an important educational reminder for young adults.
Adding voice overs to a PowToon should also be a straightforward process but there are some tricks that make the process easier. The voice over has to be recorded as one file for the entire PowToon rather than audio clips for each slide. This means that it is a really good idea to write a script, record the audio, and then start building the slides so that a user can specify how long to make each slide so that it times well with the voice over. I had trouble using the embedded voice over tool and the microphones that I had at my disposal. I couldn’t seem to make the sound quality work so I recorded the file using an iPhone and then uploading it to PowToons. PowToons also recommends that users create sound files using Audacity, the free audio recorder, or spring for a voiceover company to make your file for you, either with VoiceBunny or Fiverr.
Music can also be added as background and there are several good musical clips that are free. There’s also the chance to buy a song if the free stuff doesn’t sound quite right.
PowToons Slides is still in beta but it already has some good potential to be another good way to create a Web-based slide presentation. It has completely different themes than the ones that everyone is already quite used to because they are so wonderfully overused in Microsoft Power Point or Google Slides. The themes in PowToons Slides are deluxe. Who wouldn’t want to create presentation using a theme called Burberry which was inspired by the well-known British fashion house?
And there’s no plaid on it either.
Kathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.