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The Startup Universe: The Design Process

Accurat and Ben Willers

published on July 15, 2013 in Conversations

Visually created The Startup Universe because of our curiosity and desire to delve into the network of startup funding and see the connections. Accurat and Ben Willers did an incredible job pulling together a huge dataset and designing a visualization that shows some of the most interesting info embedded in CrunchBase. The process of designing and creating a visualization like this is one of evolution and experiments. Here is a peek into that process:

Accurat worked on the project from the very beginning, designing the structure of the visualization. The design aim with the piece was to provide “visual access” to the CrunchBase database. The idea that was driving all of the process was to provide an easy environment allowing users to go back and forth from a V.C.-centric view, to a startup-centric view, to a founder-centric view.

The three questions we tried to answer in the piece were:

  1. Where did money go, and when? (Where meaning in which startup, and at an aggregate level, in which categories)
  2. Which startups did their best, and what rounds did they do well in?
  3. Who founded lots of well funded startups over the years?

We thought a lot about how to represent this startup universe. Below is the complete set of sketches for the whole process, from first sketches to the actual piece.

Map Based Explorations

Our first idea was to provide geographical access to information:

  • Is there any very strong relationship between places / startups / venture capitalists / time trends but really “related” to location?
  • Can we see a shift over time from SFO to NYC?
  • When and how much do Colorado or Seattle, or other startup hotbeds come into the picture?
  • Can we see a specific category mapping = zones where specific categories are popping up?
  • Is there any pattern in how much money is raised for each category in different places?
  • Is there a place more suitable for biotech (according to the money invested there)?
  • Is there a better place for mobile?
  • Or even simpler – How much money was raised in each specific place?
  • Where is the money coming from?
  • Is there any pattern between where money comes form and where it goes?

Trend Statistics Among Categories

Another possible angle was statistics over time. This approach would give a good overview of how the startup universe has evolved as time goes by.

  • What was the total amount of money raised for all startups – month by month?
  • What was the total amount of money raised for all startups – month by month – highlighted by sector?
  • What was the total amount of money raised for all startups – month by month – highlighted by geography?

(For these, everything would be explorable for a singular V.C. or startup)

Relationship Driven Approach

We had to choose one point of view to start with, and we ended up deciding that the “relationship” point of view (among VCs / startup / founders) was the most interesting to explore.

When we got to this point we had to choose whether to use the radius or the area of the bubbles to represent the amount of money.

We initially proposed to use the area to represent the investments, and we’d been thinking about it a lot.
We ended up using the radius, because as the whole data behaves, this highlights who got big investments.
Also, with the radius, the circle representing a startup that had regular investments over time (all of the same amounts, like five investments of $10 million each) would’t look regular, and the rings would become thinner and thinner as we go out.

What would be nice, instead, would be to see it with the areas, and compare the two views.

First Digital Explorations

From the sketches, we moved onto mocking up everything with Illustrator to get a better sense of sizes, proportions and the overall design space.

With the help of [Accurat’s] designer friend Valerio Pellegrini, we made some steps forward with all the views:

At this point, Ben Willers lent his design expertise to the project, making everything feel elegant and clean.

I am a strong believer in the “show, don’t tell” approach when it comes to data visualizations. The joy that comes from exploring these pieces and discovering the many stories buried within is something that is rarely matched by more direct methods of information delivery. Those stories the reader extracts for themselves are inevitably more interesting, more relevant and more memorable than those that we are told.

The Startup Universe was not only my first opportunity to collaborate with other designers on a large project, it was also my first experience working on an interactive. While working on my own projects I am constantly making efforts to remove as much nonessential information as possible to avoid clutter, or as Tufte would put it, “chartjunk,” to ensure data remains the primary focus. Here, though, with so many great ideas for additional elements coming from all members of the team, it became increasingly challenging to retain the clean, minimal aesthetic from our early designs, while also allowing the piece to be as informative and useful as possible. Drawing the eye to the center of the display and moving additional information towards the sides helps keep the reading experience as pleasurable as possible, while using a consistent visual aesthetic throughout prevents these from feeling disconnected. Even the loading icon is styled to match the rest of the piece, although the load times are so short in the final product, it’s almost a shame we don’t see more of it!

I was extremely impressed with how close the final visualization came to the design concepts. I also really appreciate how willing everyone on the team was to consider new ideas and how much I enjoyed the discussions and design processes which followed. The timeline is something I am particularly pleased we managed to recreate after a number of design revisions, it feels really intuitive now.

Accurat is a design agency and consultancy based in Milan and New York, transforming data into meaningful stories, and developing multimedia narratives and interactive applications. You can follow them on Twitter @accuratstudio, or read more about them on the Visually blog.

Ben Willers is an information and graphic designer from Lincoln, UK. He got his masters in Graphic Design from the University of Lincoln (UK), and is interested in video games and roller coasters. You can follow him on Twitter @b_willers, or read more about him on the Visually blog.