NGPF Podcast: Jeff Desjardins, Founder of Visual Capitalist, on his book SIGNALS
If you use the NGPF curriculum, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of Visual Capitalist’s infographics. Jeff Desjardins, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Visual Capitalist joins Tim to talk about his book Signals: Charting the New Direction of the Global Economy.
Ren Makino: This is Ren from Next Gen Personal Finance and you're listening to the NGPF podcast. Today on the show, Tim speaks to Jeff Desjardins, who's the founder and editor in chief of Visual Capitalist, a digital media brand that publishes rich and intuitive visual content on business and investing. If you use the NGPF curriculum, you may have seen some of their infographics. Jeff shares with us why he thinks data literacy matters in today's world, how attention and trust are the two modern currencies for companies as well as educators in the classroom, and the role he thinks the Visual Capitalist model plays in today's world. He also talks about his book Signals: Charting the New Direction of the Global Economy and how he chose which charts he wanted to include in that book, which is really interesting. Enjoy.
Tim Ranzetta: All right folks. I'm real excited to have Jeff here because those of you who use the NGPF curriculum have probably seen visual capitalist infographic spread throughout your curriculum. And I just think the feedback we get from teachers about your product, Jeff, is phenomenal. We know how much students enjoy reading, but your ability with infographics to tell a story and display information in a way that really captures people, you know, kudos to you. It's great to have you here. Welcome.
Jeff Desjardins: Absolutely. Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I'm a big fan of the NGPF mission and we've done a ton of awesome stuff together in the past. I love being able to connect the dots between an area that I'm passionate about, which I am very passionate about financial literacy, and to connect that to what I do, which I guess could be considered some aspect of data literacy or something like that, right?
Because what we're trying to do is we're trying to take data and show it in a way that almost anybody can understand what, what we're trying to show. And to me that has so many implications across every sphere, not just personal finance or, or teaching or anything like that. I mean it spans across people being able to understand current events. It's people being able to, you know, the world is getting more and more data driven, and so people being able to take that what they learn and what they experience through through the stuff that we create to translate that to other things. So whether it's professional or personal, I just think that there's growing and so many applications for that.
[00:02:18] Beginnings of Visual Capitalist
Tim Ranzetta: Yeah. So let's go back to the beginning. I think you were doing infographics before people thought it was a cool thing to do. Talk a little bit about the beginnings of this idea behind visual capitalists.
Jeff Desjardins: I come from a marketing background. So in a way that makes sense because that's about marketing is all about how do you communicate a message and how do you get people to understand your message, right? And how do you amplify that? And so in the work that I was doing originally, I was helping companies try to get their company in front of investors online. And when I was doing this, there's a bunch of tried and true traditional ways. I mean, there was people would write press releases and they'd try and create investor decks and all these different things and some of these things worked and some didn't.
But at the time I was experimenting with what, you know, what are new ways that we could get a message out to people? And so where I started was I started partnering with some of these companies and also another I'm not a graphic designer personally, but we have obviously many wonderful ones at the company. And so I was working with someone that I had contracted with and I said, well, what if we took information about your company and visualized it so that people could look at that and sort of understand what's going on, either with taking a news release and visualizing it, or about the company as a whole and doing so people could just look at the data instead of trying to read something cuz people hate reading, they'd rather look at a nice picture.
And so we did that and it worked, but at the same time it didn't really click, it didn't really get any eyeballs. And what we realized was that people don't wanna look at something that is promotional necessarily. You wanna look at something that's interesting to you. And so what happened was we were partnering with one of these companies that we were working with, and they said, no, no, no, don't talk about me. No one cares about me. No one cares about our company. But I'm in this really cool industry that has these amazing trends that a lot of people will care about. So let's talk about the industry and then attach my company to that name or attach my company to that data. And so that's what we did is we talked about the emerging industry.
And so that just for a context this was, you know 10 years ago, and this was the emergence of lithium ion batteries, which now we all know in electric vehicles and stuff. Now the trend has already, it's there, right? But 10 years ago it was very in its infancy, right? And so he was like this story's really cool timing into that. And so we did that and we got tons of eyeballs, tons of traction. People were talking about it and people really cared about it. And so the aha moment for us was basically, okay, well let's not try and talk about companies or news or whatever. Let's talk about big trends that everybody cares about. And so once we started doing that, it started growing quite naturally for us. Okay, instead of talking about lithium ion batteries, let's talk about what's happening in the news or what's happening in financial markets. Not the day-to-day stuff.
So we were getting into bigger trends, long-term trends, stuff that was evergreen and a lot of the the work that we've done with you, Tim, is evergreen. It's stuff like this is the power of compound interest. It doesn't matter if you're looking at this 10 years ago, if you're looking at it 10 years in the future, the same principle applies, right? So we started creating a lot of evergreen content, a lot of stuff that ties into big trends that don't change that much. And so that's how we really got started and people loved it. We started building an audience and then that helped us turn it into what we have today.
Tim Ranzetta: Since you mentioned audience, give us a sense, I know I'm gonna be gobsmacked by this the current size of your audience.
Jeff Desjardins: Yep. So we have about 10 million people that visit the website each month. And then we have about 400,000 people that are on our daily email list. So we send out a daily email that says, Hey, here's what we published today. So yeah, that goes up to about 400,000 people. If you combine all the social media platforms together, over a million followers, which is not that incredible in today's world, but it's all very organic and very engaged audiences of people that care about this kind of thing. We have a good sized audience and we have a lot of folks that will retweet our stuff and the Elon Musk of the world will often retweet our stuff or different senators in the US will take our stuff and push it out to their audiences.
[00:06:50] Following trends
Tim Ranzetta: It sounds like there could have been an investment portfolio based on the trends that you were highlighting. Cuz we probably would've all done well to buy lithium mines back a decade ago.
Jeff Desjardins: It's true. Well, it's true and it's kind of funny because I think you're right. I think that the things that we're talking about, I think of all of that in terms of like a hype cycle as well, right? I mean, there was a time early on where people were talking about something like like lithium and batteries really early on, but it was way too early before things matured and things actually became like a real investment case. And so I personally, I think that the key is to be investing in that trough and that hype cycle so it goes up like this. And then it comes down and then it starts to even out but still growing, right? And so I think you see that for all of these things. And you know, AI right now is at the peak of the hype cycle right now. There's gonna be some wins there, but largely, you know, there's gonna be probably thousands of AI or AI adjacent companies that are probably not gonna amount to anything, right? But in a few years we're gonna know, okay, well all these people were silently building these really amazing companies and now they're coming to fruition, right?
[00:08:02] Monetization Model
Tim Ranzetta: So folks might be wondering what is, talk to us a little bit about your business model. Cause you give you're like us, you give everything away for free. But clearly when you have an audience as large as yours, there are ways to monetize that.
Jeff Desjardins: Yep. So we do, so we do three different monetization strategies with our audience. All three of them are pretty tried and true in the media space, so I don't think any of these will surprise anyone. The very first one is advertising and sponsorships. I'll give you the modern version of how we do this. Basically, we say okay, your company, maybe it's a financial company or something. Maybe it's like a BlackRock or someone like that, right? It's like, okay, your goal is to get your brand in front of people that are looking at financial content, right? Maybe it's more specific to that than that. Maybe you're trying to get in front of institutional investors, or maybe you're trying to get in front of a certain type of retail investors, people that invest in ETFs or whatever it is. So we'll take that and we will try and figure out a strategy for advertising and sponsorships that works with them, that gets them their brand around that audience within the component of our larger audience. So for example, if we're publishing something on these are the highest volume ETFs in the US today, they might be a sponsor on our email blast that goes out that day.
So we just try and tie them in into different places and we'll also build custom content with them on some of the areas where they want to. Maybe they have proprietary data that's interesting and they wanna highlight it. Of course, when we publish that on our website, we say, Hey, this is sponsored by BlackRock. This is not an editorial piece from us. But at the same time, we obviously are trying to make it interesting to our audience, right? Because what good is it if it doesn't provide any value? So we're always working with them to say, yeah, your idea is okay, but what if we did this instead? And this is the Visual Capitalist way to do it is talk about this, right? And so we'll try and do something that's a little bit more that's gonna get our audience engaged with not only us, but with our brand. So that's our largest stream by far.
And then the other ways are, so we have a a premium subscription product that is really small still. And the idea there was we have all this excess data and reports that we find and all of the work that we do in a regular week that are like super cool stuff, but we don't really have a place to put them. But people get sort of a roundup of all of our favorite reports that we found that week and all that kind of stuff. And so we do that and that's a very small percentage. That's probably 6 or 7% of of revenue.
And then we have I guess we have two other streams. So one of them is licensing. So we'll do all of our original work. We license it out so that other people can use it. So textbooks can take our stuff and license it and use it in their textbook or we had a movie that was a documentary. They licensed some of our visuals and incorporated it and they changed them around and stuff. But that's what the licensing contract allows you to do. And they put it in their movie. And newspapers will sometimes take our stuff and put it translated into French or translate it into Spanish or something and then publish it in their newspaper. That's a pretty small percentage too.
And then the very last one is is publishing, like publishing books and so on. Because I know that the Signals books are a component of this. That's another area as well that you know, books are never a massive revenue stream, but it serves many other purposes though, right? It allows us to get our thoughts out in, into a wider audience. It creates all kinds of speaking opportunities and things like that. So it's a great profile enhancer obviously, but we're very proud of the two books that we've published.
[00:11:47] Guiding Principles for the Companyu
Tim Ranzetta: Great. And we'll be talking about Signals shortly. So you mentioned something that I want you to kind of expound upon, which is, you know, you'll often work with clients on advertising and promotion, and they'll kind of have an idea and you'll say kind of, no, actually this is the Visual Capitalist way. How would you, if you have a design book or a design ethos, how would you describe it? Because obviously you're a much bigger team now, and you've been around long enough and you've got the reputation that people have a certain expectation about this stuff that you produce. And I wonder if you would talk about it, because I think for those of us who are creating our own graphics, I think it's a useful conversation to have, to understand what is your, you know, design aesthetic.
Jeff Desjardins: Yeah. So this in itself can be a whole day's worth of conversation. If there were one overriding principle that I would think about when we put the stuff together, I think of it as the following. If you look at, if any of you have heard of Seth Goden, he's a marketing guy on the East Coast. He's awesome. Has lots of great books, lots of great stuff. But he said this one thing that really I love and I've basically infused it into the lore of our entire company. And everybody has to think about this all the time, otherwise they get in trouble. And the concept is that there are basically two modern currencies. One of them is trust and one of them is attention.
And almost everything that we do in our digital lives. You're basically using up one of those currencies or both of them and, and you're trying to you know, you're either trying to convince someone, "Hey, you should spend your valuable time to go and look at my thing." So that's attention, right? And once you look at that thing, I want you to continue looking at that thing until you can make use of it or whatever. I don't want you to just look at it and then forget about it. So that's gaining someone's attention, that's holding someone's attention and obviously eventually you're hoping that they get something out of it.
The trust aspect is a little bit more obvious to most people, right? I think that if you're not trusted, people aren't going to value anything that you have to say. And so for me, when we're putting these together these visualizations together, I'm thinking about these two things coinciding with one another. So does it get people's attention? Does it keep people's attention? But does it also exhibit a strong level of trust? And when you are a brand that is publishing things over and over again, we have to maintain that level of trust through every single thing that we publish. Because if we are untrustworthy on one piece, now you're like, these guys are not trustworthy.
And I think Warren Buffet says something on this, which is that you know, it takes 20 years to build a reputation and it takes 15 minutes to lose it, right? So you do one wrong thing and one untrusted worthy thing and it's over. And now the, probably the most interesting thing about this is is not about how we do things, but how other people do things.
And in the modern media environment, everybody wants to get clicks. Everybody wants to get eyeballs. And so they're willing to trade away their trust in order to get that attention. And what we try and do is to not do that. We try and maintain both of them at a high level as much as we can. And we think the visuals offer us a super easy way to do that, right? Because we can have a really boring, trustworthy title on something, but the visualization is beautiful, so you still wanna look at it. However, if you look at if you think about clickbait as a topic, which is basically when publishers are like, you have to look at this now because the world is crumbling and if you don't look at this, you're gonna miss out or whatever. Like to me, when someone who, like Forbes writes that, they're using their trust that they've built over, up over a long period of time and they're trying to trade it away for clicks right now. And you know, if you're a teacher and if you're blowing either of those two things, you're gonna lose the classroom, right? And so this is kind of an overriding principle that I use across all the stuff that we do. And that's not getting very technical into what we're doing, but I think it's a really important first step to understand.
[00:16:00] Keeping Things Simple
Tim Ranzetta: Yeah. There's a simplicity to what you do. And I wonder if that's kind of another principle you have. There's so, so many deceiving ways you can kind of create graphs to try and tell a story. And yet your graphs really strike me at both the simplicity of them as well as the impact. And I wonder, you have people who've been doing this for five years and they're just so keyed in on like, this is the way we need to do it. But I always wonder, how do you bring on, the challenge is always where the growing organization you need more people, and how quickly does it take somebody to figure this out?
Jeff Desjardins: Yeah. I think that's a really important point. I do believe that that ties into those two principles a little bit. I think that you're gonna lose someone's attention if something is too complicated or if it's disorganized. And for us, like being able to have someone's eye nowhere to go and for it to be intuitive on a visualization is really important. And to me, that's part of keeping that attention. I don't know about you all, but when I go and look at something and there's too much going on, it's too complex. I'm like, okay, I'm gonna go and look at the next thing cuz I don't feel like figuring this out right now. And so that's the exact opposite feeling that we wanna be giving. We wanna, when you look at something, we wanna keep it so simple and so straightforward that you know, you can explain it to a five year old basically. Right? And that you can look at it and get the insight. Instantly. And if that happens, a again, I think that ties back to trust and attention, trust in that, wow, I got that insight instantly.
I trust this source because it helped me learn a thing really quickly. Or attention wise, we've not only got their attention, but we've kept their attention because they felt like they understood it right away, rather than trying to get all technical and have too many points going on. And this is actually interesting because we actually start the book Signals talking about this, which is that information overload is a real problem. And I'm sure this is something that teachers would know quite a bit about as well. But scientific studies basically say that cognitive processing actually low when you have very low amounts of information and then it rises as you get to sort of a medium amount of information. But as soon as you get past that point, your ability to process information with your brain starts to decrease past that point. And we've all experienced this, right? We've all experienced situations in our lives where there's many different things going on. It's hard to know the right answer. And when that's the case, when there's too much information, we don't know what to do, right? It's like that it's applied to all over life or to a course teaching a course or a visualization that we publish, right? The more information that's there, the less that people are gonna be able to understand it. And so I think this is another principle as well that I think is really important.
[00:18:54] Why Data Literacy is Important
Tim Ranzetta: You talked about data literacy and I bet you kind of know your web metrics like the back of your hand still. Cuz I remember being impressed when I would ask you questions when we were speaking years ago. Talk a little bit about that, how do you use data? To ensure the ways you use data to make sure you're continuing to create content that people are gonna come back and look at.
Jeff Desjardins: Yeah. So data literacy is an interesting topic in itself because I think that, believe it or not, one of the silver linings of COVID was that I feel like data became more central in our lives over that period of time. And I actually think that it helped a lot of people become a little bit more data literate. And the reason for that is, is we had all of these these visualizations that were happening where we're talking about flatten the curve and exponential growth and all of these things that are not really concepts that your average person is really going to be that fluent with. They don't experience it or they don't talk about it on, on a regular basis in their life.
And so, Starting to look at all this stuff and case counts and stuff. It really brought data to the forefront of the daily discussion that people were having. I think that even in the past few years, , we've made leaps and bounds as far as data literacy go. I think all of the major media, I think they're all trying to incorporate similar strategies to what we do to try. And now that they know that people are a little bit more literate and this is the kind of thing that they want, they're trying to publish more stuff like that so that people can understand what's going on and take a data driven point of view.
I feel like the world is too polarized and I think that people are too bent on their opinions on things. And I mean those opinions are usually not even built necessarily based on fact. But people are very biased and very opinionated about some things that they might not even understand. I've always been a very I've always been a guy who's like, I don't care about either extreme. What I care about is like, what is the data at the base level? And I'm trying to understand, I can go either this way or that way on an issue, but I want to give you the true data. I want you to look at it and understand it and to make your own decision based on that. I don't want you to listen to someone who talking about this stuff on TV and, you know, they don't necessarily know what they're talking about anyways. But I feel like the whole world would be better if everybody could look at some of this basic information and understand it through data literacy and then use that to build their own opinion.
[00:21:22] Impact of Visua lCapitalist
Tim Ranzetta: So you put this stuff out in the universe and I wonder, there's gotta be instances over the last several years where you're like, wow, I never knew this would be part of a board of directors discussion at the highest levels, or I never realized that somebody would build a course just around using our content. What are some use cases that you could have never imagined, but point to this, you know, the level of creativity people have at finding ways to bring this content to life, as well as thinking about impact, like who's reached out to you at a very high level and you're like, wow, I can't believe this is being seen by X, Y, Z.
Jeff Desjardins: Yeah, there's numerous cases that range for, certainly on the impact side. There's many different interesting cases there. I mentioned, you know, there are very prominent people that are using our stuff and Tweeting it and, and getting it out to their audience, for example. And that's just Twitter, which we can see. But if people are also sharing things, obviously by email and by WhatsApp or whatever to these crowds. People at the highest levels of government are trying to think about how do we tell a story about our country or about our department within the government or whatever. How do we tell our story in a data-driven way that people can understand. But also yeah, the use cases of our stuff are all over the map. We've had we had the President of Mexico give a presentation using some of our charts which you can find on YouTube. So there's very very many interesting use cases of, of people using it for different reasons. But yeah, certainly there's there's more than than we had ever imagined.
[00:23:04] The Book, Signals
Tim Ranzetta: All right. A little bit about, you know, the why and then the what this book, Signals.
Jeff Desjardins: Yeah. So signals arose because we were over the course of doing what we're doing. As, as we mentioned at the very beginning, we've been examining global mega trends. That's kind of our sweet spot. There are things that are really important. They affect the future. They don't change too much, which when you're trying to visualize things, you don't want things that change all the time, cuz then your picture's gonna be inaccurate. So that's kind of our sweet spot. And we've had an ongoing list of these kind of big trends and what's affecting the world and so on. And so we got to a point where we said, okay, well we have a ton of these things. Maybe it's worth maybe it's worth compiling them into something that is our official take on these things. And again, it's not our way to go and say, Hey, here's an aging population and this is what you should think about it.
It's more about here's an aging population, here's all the data around it, and here's some of the areas that could be affected by it. And here are some of the forecasts that experts have put together about it. And we're not trying to tell you which way it's going. We're trying to give you the data so that you can make a decision yourself.
Our goal there was in, in terms of selecting these things, we call them Signals. The criteria for them was that it has to be a data set on obviously something that is important and that affects a lot of things. But it has to be a data set that has been on a certain trend line for a while and is projected by experts to continue on that trend line going forward. And so certain things that were trends when we published this book last year are no longer trends or there's still trends in the background, but think of something like crypto or web3, right? Everybody was talking about this all over the last year and the year before that we're like, oh man, maybe we should have included that in the book.
But at the time, we decided not to include it because it didn't have a long enough history as something that would've made the criteria for the book. And now it actually appears like we're right about that because now activity has sort of dwindled down there. And it's still a super interesting space. I still love the space, but it just didn't meet the criteria of that mega trend that was happening for a while and is expected to continue happening. And so yeah, we compiled the 27 trends. They are based on a range of factors, whether it's population, whether it's wealth inequality, or whether it's financial markets.
For the personal finance folks, we looked at five or six different indicators in financial markets that are super interesting there too. Whether it's rising global debt or whether it's something like we did one on on concentration of of companies in the S&P, I think. We also did one on basically innovation, which is that the average length of time that a company stays on the S&P has been falling over time. Which basically speaks to the fact that because of technology, it's much easier to disrupt some of these big companies than it ever was a long time ago. So we basically have taken all of these different chapters. We've applied the same treatment to all of them, so they all follow a similar layout. So it's like, here's the big trend, you know here are the different data sets that kind of expand on it, and then here are the potential consequences.
So they all follow a very similar track, and that's to make it so that it's really easy to follow on each chapter. And that's basically it. It's been translated into a bunch of different languages. So it's been translated into Chinese and Spanish and Korean and a bunch of different languages and, and it actually was nominated for the Prime Minister's book award in New Zealand as well. So we've started to get some good traction there as well from it.
[00:27:01] Most Interesting Trend
Tim Ranzetta: That's awesome. What's a trend in the book that might surprise people? Either one that's a surprise to you or you think kind of the mainstream gets wrong.
Jeff Desjardins: I think I have a good example of that. So we wanted to cover income and wealth inequality in the book, which a lot of people know about that. A lot of people have heard about that. It's something that gets talked about all the time. But I think the part that people don't think about necessarily is actually the flip side of it. So basically to sum it up, there's rising wealth or rising income inequality within nations.
Within the US, within Canada, the extremes on each side are further apart, but globally between countries, it's actually rising equality, right? So you have China and India are raising their GDP per capita and their income per capita. And some of these, they're both obviously giant nations, right? And so having these GDP per capitas rise and come closer to that of a United States or Canada or Western Europe or whatever is actually, it's a big deal for a bunch of reasons. It took about 800 million people out of poverty since the early 1990s, which that amount of people, it's so hard to put it into perspective. That's over two times the entire United States right out of poverty. And so it's contradictory cause we say there's rising inequality, but that is rising equality, right? But the differences within one of them is within a country and then the other one is actually between countries. And so it depends on how you look at it, right? So if you're looking at it from the perspective of a policy perspective within a country, you're like, okay, well we obviously we don't want rising inequality. But if you're looking at it from a global perspective, it's actually quite a nice story, right? You have a bunch of places that didn't have money that are starting to have money and they're able to get out of poverty and do things like we do them more in the Western World. So that's probably something that wasn't something that we were thinking about when we put it together. But we did realize that this was another, this has been a trend for a really long time, obviously.
[00:29:13] Wealth 101
Tim Ranzetta: I wonder if you would just talk a little bit about Wealth 101, which is a collaboration we did several years ago to create infographics specifically for the personal finance classroom.
Jeff Desjardins: Absolutely. So my my dad is a financial planner and so as I mentioned earlier not only financial literacy, but just the topic of of wealth creation and understanding the different engines for that and understanding the different frameworks for that from a early and beginner perspective are some of the things that I care a lot about. And we were lucky early on in our journey that that Tim and and Next Gen Personnel Finance were both interested in helping us put together a series of visualizations that tied into this mix. And so we did a bunch of stuff there. We see some of it still get large mass traction today, which is great.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the pieces there are pretty evergreen in the sense that the information isn't gonna change, right? We didn't try and make it based on the latest news or you know, the latest data or anything like that. We tried to pick evergreen concepts, things that would always be relevant from a teaching lesson perspective.
The example that I gave earlier on compound interest is a great one, right? It's a tried and true concept that is never gonna change in the world of personnel finance. It'll always matter and it's always gonna be a fundamental thing that for anybody learning about this stuff, if you don't know that, then you're gonna have trouble applying many of the other principles of as you're going into something like long-term investing or saving over the long-term or whatever. And I hope they continue to provide value to everybody that's using them.
Tim Ranzetta: Very cool, Jeff. Thank you for the work that you do. I can tell you whenever I'm searching for content that I want to put out on the blog, your website is usually the first place I go to. And so just thanks, you know, for your openness to share the data so broadly, and thank you for partnering years ago when we were, I think NGPF was three or four people at the time, and you took our phone call. But yes, we did use email back then too. You took my email and helped us work through just a phenomenal partnership, which is, you know, I think it's safe to say that's being seen by hundreds of thousands of students across America.
Jeff Desjardins: Amazing. And thanks for pushing forward personal finance for youngsters. I mean, all of you. Thank you for doing that. I wish I had more of it as I was growing up. So as I say, it's a very important mission to me.
Tim Ranzetta: Awesome.
Ren Makino: I hope you enjoyed this episode with Tim and Jeff. I have a few final housekeeping items before we go the show notes and the full transcript can be found on ngpf.org/podcast. You can also join these sessions live and ask the speaker questions by signing up for the NGPF speaker Series sessions that occur on Thursdays at 4:00 PM pacific time. For the special Author's Corner sessions, like the one Jeff was on today, you'll have the chance to win one of 50 books that are raffled at the end of the session. You can sign up to attend on ngpf.org/virtual-pd. Please be sure to subscribe to the NGPF podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get these podcasts. Better yet, leave us a review. We love hearing from you, and it will help us reach a broader audience on behalf of Tim and Jeff, thank you so much for tuning into this NGPF podcast.