Duncan Clark is a co-founder of the data and storytelling tool Flourish, which is now part of the Canva family. By background a data-driven author, journalist and publisher. In this week’s episode of the podcast, I talk to Duncan about the Flourish team and how they keep up with current trends, what the Canva acquisition means, and what the future looks like.
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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, I chat with Duncan Clark, one of the founders of Flourish, the online data visualization tool. I really like Flourish, I think it’s a really nice tool; I’ve seen more of my clients using it, because there’s lots of good stuff in there that they can use to create decks and handouts and all sorts of other things. Now, most importantly, for this week’s show, is the fact that the design tool Canva recently acquired Flourish. And so, I was really interested to see how that merger is going to happen, how Flourish’s data visualizations are going to be integrated into the Canva design tool. So I reached out to Duncan, he was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to chat with me. So today, you’re going to hear that interview, not just about this acquisition and what it was like and what it means, but also about Flourish and how they work and how they think about new features and new visualizations and the culture at both Canva and Flourish. So I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the show. Here’s my conversation with Duncan Clark from Flourish.
Jon Schwabish: Hey Duncan, good to see you, good morning my time, maybe evening your time. How are you? How are things?
Duncan Clark: Hi Jon. I’m very well, thank you. Yeah, it’s three in the afternoon over here, it’s a nice sunny afternoon in London and all is well.
JS: Well, it’s a rainy morning here in Virginia, so you are getting closer to cocktail hour than I am, so maybe get to sit outside a little bit. Thanks for coming on the show. There’s some exciting stuff going over there with Flourish – all the existing data visualization, the exciting stuff that you guys have going on, but maybe even more exciting is the acquisition of Flourish by the Canva design tool. So I thought we would start talking about that, and then dive into some of the details about Flourish itself. So maybe you can talk a little bit about the acquisition, how that came about, and then how do you see that integration work – I’m really curious, I use both tools, so I’m curious to see how Flourish will integrate into Canva.
DC: Sure. So yeah, so we were acquired by Canva fairly recently. We announced it just a couple of months ago. And yeah, we met Canva last year, and I got talking to the head of product, Rob, over there. And it was one of those cases where you’re having a kind of informal chat, and it’s really clear, right at the beginning that actually there’s such a sort of shared set of interests in values and kind of enthusiasms. I mean, the broad story is kind of what Canva have been trying to do is really sort of create a product, I mean, the mission is to empower the world to design, but broadly speaking, it’s about empowering everyone to do good quality visual communication, whether that’s kind of presentations or posters or whatever else. And one area of visual communication that’s quite a specialist, which they have never really attempted to crack is data visualization, and especially, the rich kind of animated storytelling based visualization that we’ve always had as our kind of core activity. So it was a kind of just a weirdly good fit, because one of the things we’d wondered about Flourish, obviously, I mean, I guess, for listeners who don’t know anything about Flourish, it’s a tool that makes it easy to make kind of rich, interactive visualizations, including kind of animated stories; and we had wondered about evolving it more in the direction of a presentation tool, because we built the v1 very much for kind of online publishing, and the core use case is that you publish something and you embed it on your website, it’s very widely used in journalism, for example. So we’d wondered about for every one person who publishes stuff online, there’s a million people who make a presentation, and we’d wondered about moving the product more in that direction for scale. And when we thought in detail about our how difficult that would be, and just what a huge project it would be, we kind of put it on pause, and then, when we got to speaking to Canva, we realized that they had this amazing drag and drop presentation tool, which is really scaling very fast, but they didn’t have kind of data visualization stuff. And so, it just became really obvious that these two, you know, everything we’d built fitted with what they hadn’t built, everything they’d built fitted with what we hadn’t built. But then, in addition to that, there was a huge amount of just collective enthusiasm about the two, about each other’s companies, so Canva is very values driven, very mission driven, the founders Mel and Cliff recently gave almost the entire equity stake that they held to charity. They’re very much driven by creating magical products and trying to get as many people to get value from them as possible, and do loads of good along the way. So it felt very different from other conversations we’ve had over the years, where companies were kind of sniffing around Flourish in a kind of maybe we’re interested in you, but we just didn’t particularly feel very excited about them. So yeah, it was all about together, and so, it happened really fast, we have now got to know everyone, personally, and it feels like a really great fit. And so, to come to the second part of your question, like, what we’re trying to do is kind of two things at once. So we’re doing a sort of light touch integration, which is already there, it’s already available, we haven’t really promoted it very much yet, but you can go and install the Flourish app now on Canva, and all your Flourish projects, once you connect your accounts, will just be there on the left. So if you’re making a presentation, you can drop in your stories and your visualizations, and they’re interactive, and it all works really nicely. But then, in addition, we are now making new features inside Canva to support native Canva visualization stuff, and so, that’s pretty exciting as well, the technical architecture is quite different, it’s quite a big new project, but it opens up a whole new world of possibility.
JS: So that would be, you know, when you go into Canva, and you insert an icon, for example, there’ll be a new tab or whatever, a new menu where you can insert a bar chart or some sort of data chart.
DC: Yeah, exactly, and, in fact, when we joined Canva, there was already a charts team, making there’s really nice basic charts already there in Canva, but what we’re now adding is the next generation stuff, so complete with customization and animation and interaction, all that stuff. So yeah, that will become richer and richer over time. And in the meantime, you can make everything in Flourish and just drop it into Canva.
JS: And so what happens, there’s a question on behalf of folks who have subscriptions to either or products, so what happens to their account, so are your Flourish accounts now being migrated to Canva, like, when I go into Canva, do I see my Flourish account, like how’s that working out?
DC: Oh no, it’s a bit more arm’s length than that, so your private account is unchanged, your Canva account is unchanged, but you can, when you hit the Flourish app inside Canva, you just link the accounts, and then all your Flourish stuff appears. So there’s no change to the logins or anything like that.
JS: Okay, that’s cool. I wanted to ask, you had mentioned Canva’s philosophy is democratizing design, and, in some ways, Flourish has a similar philosophy, it’s relatively easy for anyone to sort of go in and make things. And I wonder, I don’t really know how to phrase this question, well, I’ll phrase the question this way, I know some designer friends who get mad when they see people using Canva, because they’re like, design is not just about click and drag, there’s a skill to it; and the same thing with data visualization, like, you have to understand something about data, and there is a possibility of danger of people just being able to make things without knowing best practices, or this and that. And so, I just wonder what your thoughts are on this democratization of both of these areas, the design piece and the DataViz piece.
DC: Yeah, it’s interesting, I mean, and the parallel that you point to is definitely there. I mean, one of the many things that we realized was kind of in common between Flourish and Canva when we started chatting about it was that it’s kind of template driven. So Flourish, the model has always been you start with a working visualization, and then, you can go in and change the data in the settings and kind of make your own, and that’s kind of how Canva is, you start with a template and you customize. So that kind of approach has always been there in Flourish, and that has been central to how we’ve seen that democratization aim, because when we were kind of chatting to people in the early days of Flourish product development, one of the things they always said about DataViz tools is you kind of put your data in, and then you kind of struggle to get from there to anything that works. And often, especially if you’re going to try and make something more advanced, like, network diagram or a Sankey or whatever, you almost need to kind of get your head around the input data structure, and a useful way to do that is to start with a working thing. So we took the decision really early on that you should always be able to click on something and see something that works, and then make it your own, but then, I guess, the route we’ve taken is to try and add really rich customization options, so that even though you’re starting with that, and you can go a long way towards kind of deep customization. And these days, a lot of the rich charts you’ll see on things like the Financial Times are actually made with Flourish, but you wouldn’t necessarily know by looking at them. And, I mean, I think there is certainly a kind of school of thought that says the problem with any template oriented approach is that you’re kind of constraining the user’s freedom, and therefore, I mean, Mike Bostock, who is a very brilliant person, the founder of Observable, and the creator of D3, talks about code being the ultimate sort of expressive medium, that if you learn to do visualization with code, then you can express yourself in a very powerful way. And I think that’s absolutely right, but there’s just a flip side, which is really hard, and…
JS: Yeah, no, there’s a big but to that, right?
DC: There is, yeah.
JS: I mean, I always think about like, it’s just because of the space I’m in, I always think about the nonprofit organization that has six people, and there’s one data person who’s kind of like, they’re now the data person, and they don’t have background in coding, they’re not going to have the time to learn how to code, they have all these demands on their time, and so, I think it’s a worthy goal and a worthy idea, and there’s a lot to learn from coding. I’m not sure it’s practically feasible in the real world.
DC: I think that’s exactly right, and I think the other thing that is easy to forget is that if your visualizations are kind of for storytelling and publishing rather than for kind of insight, and that’s, again, another thing that cuts across Flourish and Canva is we’re very much kind of visual communication tools. And then, the stuff that matters is not just the kind of nuts and bolts of how the internal code of the chart itself is working, it’s all the more complicated stuff like how does the responsive embed code work, how does the font size resize so it’s still legible as you get down to a mobile screen, how does it work if you want to connect that visualization into a Scrollytelling story. So even if you can code, it becomes kind of spectacularly difficult to produce really production level visualizations if you’re doing everything from scratch. And so, actually, I mean, this is part of Flourish, that we haven’t really promoted as much as we meant to at the beginning, but we saw Flourish as being a, in the early days especially, as being a kind of a thing in between the developer code writer on the one hand, and the visualization creator on the other. So what a lot of people don’t realize about Flourish is that all the templates we put into the system, they’re made with a code SDK that anyone can download, so you can code your own template and whack it into Flourish, and so, we see it as a tool that hopefully amplifies the software engineer so that rather than writing a one-off visualization, with all that fine tuning I just talked about, they can make a software tool that anyone can use that does all that stuff.
JS: Right. Yeah, that’s really interesting. I want to peel back a little bit, because you talked about sort of in the early days, and there are a few things about Flourish that I always found interesting, the biggest one being that it seemed like you and your team were able to keep up with trends in the DataViz field really quickly. I always think about like bar chart races, like, we had the little splash of bar chart races, and you all were able to like drop that in pretty quickly; and same thing with the New York Times did at the Olympics, they did it last time, they did it most recently with the little swim diagrams where you can sort of have little icon.
JS: And I’m just wondering, what was the philosophy there, were you were all just like, we need to keep up with what the most current thing is, what was the thinking about that?
DC: So the background, I mean, the big picture background, and so, we started out, Robin and I, Robin being the other cofounder, and the kind of technical lead on Flourish. We started out as a sort of specialist micro agency making Bespoke projects for people like the Guardian, where I used to work. And so, we started out from the basis of, when we make this tool, we want it to be able to do all this fancy Bespoke stuff, you know, you should be able to make anything as a Flourish template was the sort of founding idea. One of the first templates we ever made was to take a really complicated 3D globe visualization we’d made and turn that into a template, and as a result of that thinking, we ended up with a highly sort of modular, highly flexible, technical architecture, which meant that using that SDK I just mentioned, you can just as easily as making a one-off visualization, you can make a Flourish template. So whereas in most tools, like, it took years and years and years for Tableau to support network diagrams, whatever, because if you’ve got a big monolithic architecture, then making any change is kind of difficult and risky, but the way that Flourish works is that when the bar chart race thing started flying, John Burn-Murdoch made that nice example on Observable, we were like, oh cool, let’s make one of those. And so, we were able to spin that out in a couple of weeks and publish it, and then if that does well, and people use it a lot, we can worry about adding extra features easily over time. So it’s very modular, and that’s the same with the Olympics thing, we thought it would be cool to make something like that for the Olympics, so we pushed that out. We did one the other day on the draw the line templates, which the New York Times kind of pioneered, they called them you draw it. And that’s a really nice example actually of what I was trying to say before, like, if you’re a competent coder, it’s really easy to make a not very good one in a couple of days, and then, the more you use it, the more you realize that actually, if the person’s line finger moves too fast, you miss out some data points, or if the data is too dense, it doesn’t work. And so, actually, doing that as a template, even if it only takes a couple of weeks, it’s so much more effective than trying to do one from scratch, which is just a bit too hard to make it worthwhile.
JS: Right. Yeah, I hadn’t seen the draw the line one, so I’m excited about that, because I’ve had ideas to do something like that, and there is the added challenge of collecting people’s data, you know, the Times does it, or they have done it, where you draw, and then they collect everybody’s data, and then you sort of scroll down and it’s like here’s all the results, and that adds a whole other layer of data collection and storage and real time push me back at all…
DC: Yeah, that’s true, we decided not to try and bite that off for now, so like, similarly…
JS: Yeah, that’s a hard one.
DC: Similarly, we have a quiz template, but we don’t aggregate the results and show you what other people…
DC: It’s something we might do in the future, but it’d be fun to do a thing.
JS: Yeah, the other feature of Flourish I wanted to talk about was the Cards feature, and I want to talk about both of the feature and how it will integrate with Canva, because I could see how it can be really interesting. So in Flourish, for those who don’t know, it sort of works like either a Scrollytelling or a little stepper, I have a bunch of clients who really like it, because it’s kind of replacing their PowerPoint summary or pitch decks, because they could just send a link as opposed to trying to get you this big PDF that maybe you have to put up in Dropbox or something. So I wanted to get your take on the Cards feature, in general, but also with respect to Canva, like, I can see a lot of opportunity there to integrate that particular piece into Canva.
DC: Yeah, it’s really interesting. So for those who haven’t used it, what the Cards template does is it takes an input data sheet, which would typically be, you know, maybe it’s got like a name and an image and a description or something, and then, it renders a kind of grid of what we call Cards with the info laid out, or you can have them more like a carousel. And this very much comes back to this thing of Flourish in its early days growing out of interactive journalism, and one thing you see in interactive news articles sometimes is things like you sometimes call them face wall, so like, here are all the candidates in this particular primary or whatever, and it’ll just be 20 cards with a couple of data points on each, like net worth, and kind of number of percentage of the vote or whatever, and a picture. So it’s not really a data visualization, but it’s like a visual expression of this simple dataset, maybe with some imagery. And so, because we kind of came out of that background, it felt very natural for us with Flourish’s very sort of flexible architecture to say, well, let’s not limit ourselves to data visualizations, let’s do all the stuff that interactive news desks do. So let’s have a cards template, for example, but other examples would include things like we said, well, let’s make a photo slider, so you can do a kind of before and after pair of images or things like that, or the quiz that I just mentioned before. So that’s where it kind of came from that desire to say sometimes your dataset isn’t really highly sort of quantitative, it’s more just like a collection of entities that you want to lay out nicely on a grid. And what we found is that if you’re doing online publishing with data, actually, that’s often a really nice thing to mix in, like, it might be that you start with a chart, and then halfway down, you’ve got a nice grid showing all the different countries and then further down, you’ve got a map or whatever. But also, what we wanted to do is over time, support putting visualizations inside other visualization. So again, this is something that we don’t really heavily promote, but you can make a Cards visualization, which might just be a list of, you know, might be a card for country with a little map and a couple of sentences, but you can then make it where you click on one of those, and that opens a panel, and then you can embed another Flourish visualization in that panel, so you could have a kind of a dig deep about this particular country. So that at the moment requires a certain amount of manual setup, but it can work really nicely, and over time, we want to make that kind of thing easier and easier. And, I guess, in the Canva context, yeah, it’s interesting, because Canva, you know, that feels like it overlaps with Canva a bit more than other things we do. So I guess, we’re very much focusing on the kind of data visualization storytelling for now, and, I guess, we’ll see where the rest of that kind of interactive content goes.
JS: Yeah, it’ll be really interesting, because you can imagine creating that sort of carousel with a graphic and an icon or a photograph or any of the designs features in Canva, and all those tools that you can sort of arrange and align that, it’s not that Flourish is not good at it, but Canva is more of like that design tool, so you can start out really [inaudible 00:20:14]. And so, I can see a lot of advantage there of merging the two together, because you really can create something, and again, online, which is so much easier to share than a 300-megabyte PDF file, that’s just sort of hard to do.
DC: Totally, and I think that thing of kind of sharing big PowerPoints or PDFs of PowerPoints is definitely a kind of thing that the world is moving on from. And what you said before about people like being able to create a Flourish story, and then share that as a presentation, it was exactly that kind of feedback from users, which made us so excited about the Canva integration, because what people would say to us, we love this, what we want to do as well is we want to be able to drag a couple of bits of text there, and do this and that, make it like you would expect to be able to doing the drag and drop presentation editor. And now you could do that, you could make your Flourish story with all the rich graphics, you can just embed it in Canva, and then you can drag and drop all the stuff you want over the top, you can have a title slide that kind of works exactly as you want. And then, the other thing you have in Canva, of course, is this massive image library, so if you’re making a data driven story about almost anything, then there’ll always be a bunch of photos that you can just use, whereas in Flourish, you have to upload them and use the URLs and stuff.
JS: Right. Yeah, so now you can build that little Scrollytelling piece in Canva with a little grid of photographs of the candidates, and then, have an interactive map or whatever below that, and you can really do that kind of seamlessly with all the pieces, yeah, it’s really interesting. So what is the process that you all go through when you’re thinking about new features, additional graphs, additional charts, like, you sort of said that you get feedback from users, I’m sure you have this huge queue of things that you want to put in, so how do you – is that a team effort to sort of prioritize, or how do you think about making those improvements, making those changes?
DC: So we try and be very user led, and we also try to be quite data led, so whenever a kind of paying customer, because we always try and give extra weight to our paying customers’ requirements…
JS: Probably a good business strategy, yeah.
DC: Exactly. And whenever they ask for a feature, but also whenever a free user does as well, it gets logged and it gets logged, in sort of GitHub and stuff, and then what we have is a Flourish live updating table, because you can make those in Flourish with little mini charts in them and stuff that show which users are asking for which features. So we have a live table that we can refer to anytime that says, the thing I use as one of the most is, and then we kind of try and fit that with time available and other sort of, because obviously, when you run a software company, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you have to do in the background, it’s a bit less exciting, the new features like DataViz migrations and all the other stuff. But yeah, so we try and be quite user led, there’s a little bit the other way around as well there, because we always, in Flourish, we’ve always had a kind of culture of having what we call free Friday, where we encourage anyone on the engineering side to sort of experiment and do fun stuff on a Friday, and that fits really well with the modular architecture I was talking about before, because generally what people do on a Friday, they sort of fire up the SDK, and they say, okay, I’m going to make a Marimekko template or whatever, and I use that example, because I saw a really cool demo of a Marimekko template yesterday, which started off as a Friday project I think, but will now kind of will end up flowing into the tool. And so, it’s kind of like, generally, it’s user led, but sometimes it’s kind of team enthusiasm led as well.
JS: Yeah. So I was always under the impression that Flourish, like a lot of the browser based tools, you’re sort of limited by what’s in the options, but now I’m learning that you can do more with it through the SDK. So can you talk a little bit more about how a user who obviously would need to know some coding, how a user can go in and customize and hack away that a little bit more?
JS: Without giving hard numbers, because I’m sure you can, but how many or what share of people do you find are actually doing that in Flourish?
DC: It’s a tiny proportion, but it’s generally, and which we always expected, so we built this at the beginning, such that we wanted the architecture to support, we wanted it genuinely to be a platform rather than just a tool. So we made the architecture, we built it this way, and then, we used the SDK ourselves. So all the templates are made with the same tools that we give away. And what that means is that for those users who do want to do that, like, we have various newsroom users who, you know, their newsroom developers can suddenly code all their own custom stuff, and that’s super powerful for them. But we always expected that this would be a tiny minority of people for the simple reason that for every one coder, there’s a thousand people who want to make a visualization, and it’s that amplify effect that the whole platform is designed to support.
DC: So we already kind of know the answer to this, because obviously, when we were acquired, we talked to all our bigger customers to let them know, reassure them that Flourish was kind of only going to get better rather than disappear or anything like that. And so many of them, when we said, the new owning company is Canva, said, oh cool, we use Canva as well. And because they didn’t really speak to each other previously, then that was not something of a connection we’d really made, but actually, there’s loads of overlap, for all the reasons we were talking about before, it’s kind of like a way to make something really good easily and quickly without having to spend a year doing training kind of [inaudible 00:30:13]. And so, that’s really encouraging, and I think what we’re now starting to unlock is the combination, so, so many of our users, they’re using Flourish to make really rich visualizations. And the next challenge is like, what’s the best way to share that – yeah, we could put it on a website. Sure, but actually, generally, in a business context, if you make a rich data story, it’s probably about internal data, you don’t want to publish it. I mean, Flourish already lets you publish it to the web and share a url with a password if you’re an enterprise customer, but actually, what you really want generally is to be able to drop into a presentation and share that presentation; and then, you want all the access controls on that presentation that you’d expect from a really advanced tool like being able to share it with two specific people and someone on your team, but not someone else, whatever. And so, now you can do that, and so, we’re really excited about how much opportunity that opens up to spread Flourish more widely across organizations, and also to just take Canva from being a really great presentation tool to just being the best way to sort of tell stories internally with data, and we’re already starting to see that kind of work, so that combination is really exciting.
JS: Yeah, that is very cool, I’m going to, as soon as we hang up, I got to go to Canva and put that app in and start importing stuff, that looks great. Duncan, thanks so much for coming on the show. This is really exciting stuff. Congratulations on all of it. And yeah, I’m looking forward to see how things evolve over time and how the two sort of come together.
DC: Thanks a lot, Jon. Really fun being on the show, and yeah, see you soon.
Thanks, everyone, for tuning in to this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed that. I want to remind you, once again, if you’d like to learn more about data visualization, and you’d like to learn more about data visualization and have lessons delivered right to your phone, check out my Winno app, I am sending two or three text messages each and every week – data visualization strategies big and small, so that you can improve how you communicate your data, so check out winno.app/policyviz. You can check it out for free for seven days before you subscribe, it’s only five bucks a month, and that money goes to helping support this show with the editing, the design, the transcription, all the things that are needed to bring the show to you each and every other week. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.
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