Tuesday, July 17, 2018

10 Data Visualization Best Practices for the Web

Data visualization has quickly become a standard for disseminating information on the web. It’s used across a range of industries, from business intelligence to journalism, to help us understand and communicate the insights within data.

Our brains are primed to process information that’s presented visually, making it much easier for us to understand data visualized in charts and graphs than data listed in tables and spreadsheets. A great data visualization should leverage these strengths of the human visual system to display data so that it can be readily absorbed and understood. It should take into account what we know about visual processing to enhance and ease the viewers’ experience of the data.

With so many tools and frameworks now available for building these graphics, it’s time to go back to basics. What makes data visualizations effective? What guiding principles should we follow when designing with data?

The following best practices will help you design rich, insightful data experiences.

1. Design for a Specific Audience

Visualization is used to reveal patterns, provide context, and describe relationships within data. While a designer holds no influence over the patterns and relationships within a given set of data, she can choose how much data to display, and what context to provide, based on the needs of the audience. After all, just like with any other product, a visualization is meaningless if its viewer can’t use it.

Visualizations for novices should be structured, unambiguous, and engaging. They should spell out directly, in words, what viewers should take away from the data.

Visualizations for expert audiences, on the other hand, can show a more granular view of the data to allow for reader-driven exploration and discovery. Detail and data-density should trump simplicity and clarity.

2. Use (but Don’t Rely on) Interactivity to Facilitate Exploration

Here’s a sobering number: only 10-15% of visitors to interactive visualizations on the New York Times website actually click buttons. The New York Times graphics team produces some of the best work in the business, and hardly anyone interacts with them!

The New York Times graphics team produces some of the best work in the business, and hardly anyone interacts with them!

What this suggests about interactive visualization design is that we cannot rely on interaction for building understanding. Key data must not be hidden behind interactive elements, and instead should be available without interaction.

What interaction is great for, however, is allowing for the integration of additional data (that might otherwise be excluded), to allow interested viewers to explore a dataset more deeply. Nathan Yau of Flowing Data has cornered the market on this style of interactive visualization, as seen in his graphics on causes of death and life expectancy.

Alternatively, interaction can be used as a hook; an attention grabber that gets your audience personally invested in the project before they can navigate far, far away. Check out this playful piece on handwriting and culture from Quartz. The piece kicks off by asking readers to simply draw a circle, before going on to outline an analysis of cultural shape-drawing that features some simple, but effective, visualizations.

Similarly, The Pudding recently released a interactive visualization to teach readers about the birthday paradox. While most non-statisticians probably find the birthday paradox, a standard problem in probability theory, quite dry and unintuitive, this visualization makes it seem downright fascinating. The way the creator incorporates the interactions of recent users makes the whole experience quite relatable.

Both of these interactive examples work because they allow the viewer to participate in the data, without requiring interaction for understanding.

3. Use Visual Salience to Focus Attention and Guide the Experience

Visual salience, the characteristic that makes a visual element stand out against its surroundings, is a powerful tool in data visualization. It can be used to guide the user’s attention to the most important information in a visualization, to help prevent information overload. By using visual salience to highlight some details and suppress others, we can make our designs clearer and more easily understood.

A few visual variables—color and size, primarily—are our keys to creating and controlling visual salience.

Color schemes are key to great data visualizations because color, as we all know, is particularly good at breaking camouflage. We can use warm, highly saturated colors to highlight key data points, and apply cool, desaturated colors to push less important information into the background.

Size is also pretty self-explanatory. Large elements demand more attention than small elements, so scale up elements that you’d like viewers to read first, and scale down text and elements that are less pertinent.

4. Use Position and Length to Encode Quantitative Information and Use Color to Encode Categorical Information

Cleveland and McGill’s well-known work on information visualization investigated the effectiveness of visual encodings (i.e. the mapping of data dimensions to visual properties). In their findings, they ranked different types of visual encoding according to how accurately we perceive them, giving us this (simplified) list:

  1. Position along a common scale
  2. Length
  3. Angle
  4. Area
  5. Color

What this suggests for data visualization design is that our first choice for displaying quantitative information should be to encode data by position (as seen in the classic scatterplot and bar chart). As opposed to angle-based encodings (like pie charts) or area-based encodings (like bubble charts), position-based encodings help viewers make more accurate comparisons in less time.

That isn’t to say, however, that all visualizations must be bar charts or scatter plots. It’s just a good idea to keep these fundamentals in mind when exploring new and exciting ways of visualizing data.

What I really want to emphasize here is that color should not be used to encode quantitative information, and instead may be used to encode categorical information. That is, we can use color to show that different bits of data belong to different categories.

5. Make Structural Elements Like Tick Marks and Axes Clear but Inconspicuous

Whether or not you support Edward Tufte’s extreme approach to minimalism in design, do yourself a favor and strip the visual clutter from your charts. Make your data shine by creating visual contrast between data elements and non-data elements, like Nadieh Bremer has done in her award winning visualization on birth times in America.

Remove any structural elements (like backgrounds, lines, and borders) that don’t work to clarify the data. Attenuate essential structural elements (like axes, grids, and tick marks) that would otherwise compete with your data for attention. Style grids in light grey at a maximum weight of 0.5 pt, and style axes in black or grey with a maximum weight of 1 pt.

6. Directly Label Data Points

Every visual element that encodes some data needs to be labelled, so that the viewer understands what it represents. Simple, right?

Wrong. Far too many designers rely on legends to tell readers which symbols or colors represent which data series in their charts. Legends, while easy on the designer, are hard on the reader. They force readers to scan back and forth between the legend and the data, putting unnecessary strain on readers’ working memories.

A better alternative is to label data series directly on the chart. It’s often more of a challenge, but hey, you’re the designer. Your job is to do the work so the reader doesn’t have to. In the example below, Nathan Yau has done the work to avoid using a legend, creating an interactive small multiples display with lots of direct labeling.

7. Use Messaging and Visual Hierarchy to Create a Narrative Flow

The best visualizations tell compelling stories. These stories emerge from the trends, correlations, or outliers in the data, and are reinforced by the elements that surround the data. These stories turn raw data into useful information.

At face value it might seem like data visualization is all about the numbers, but a great data story cannot be told without words. Messaging, with a clear visual hierarchy, can be used to lead the reader, step by step, through the data.

The title of a visualization, for example, should kick off the narrative by explicitly stating the single key insight the reader should take away from the visualization. Tiny annotations scattered amongst the data can provide support to that narrative by drawing attention to outliers or trends.

What I’m trying to say here is: give the viewer a hand and tell them exactly what to look for in the data!

8. Overlay Contextual Information Directly onto the Chart

As I just mentioned, we can use annotations in a visualization to help create a narrative flow. Sometimes we can add graphical elements to make those annotations even more meaningful—to connect that information to our data more directly.

Take this graphic from Susie Lu, for example. The “Summer Blockbusters” and “Oscar Season” overlays give meaning to peaks and valleys that might otherwise seem random. They help the viewer understand the significance of the data in a way that’s more direct than captions or annotations alone.

9. Design for the Mobile Experience

Static visualizations, typically published in bitmap image formats like JPG and PNG pose an obvious challenge for mobile viewers. The beauty of many data visualizations lies in their visual details—in tiny data points and subtle encodings—and many of these details are lost on small screens in static formats.

Case in point: Accurat studio’s beautifully complex work on Nobel prizes, which looks fabulous full-size in print and on a high-resolution retina display, is next to illegible on a mobile device.

To design for the mobile experience, either build responsive visualizations with a JavaScript visualization library like D3.js or Highcharts, or create multiple variations of the same static visualization for print, desktop, and mobile.

10. Balance Complexity with Clarity to Foster Understanding

All of the best practices I’ve touched on today boil down to one thing: finding the right balance between complexity and clarity that aligns with the needs of your audience.

It’s always tempting to make a beautifully detailed, subtle, exploratory visualization, but that’s rarely the most appropriate approach. Be considerate when designing your graphics—allow the knowledge and goals of the audience to dictate which and how much data should be included, and curate the data to tell the story you want to tell.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Why I Spent $500,000 Buying a Blog That Generates No Revenue

neil patel
(If you are wondering, the image of me above was taken when I used to work at KISSmetrics with Hiten Shah… I used to have hair)

In early January 2017, I purchased the KISSmetrics website for $500,000.

If you go to the site, you’ll notice that it forwards here to NeilPatel.com (which I will get into later in the post).

The $500,000 didn’t get me the company, KISSmetrics, or any of the revenue streams. The parent company, Space Pencil, is continually improving and developing the product.

And on top of that, there are restrictions. I can’t just pop up a competing company or any company on the KISSmetrics site.

So why did they sell me the domain? And why would I pay $500,000 for it?

I can’t fully answer why they sold it, but I do know a lot of their customers came from word of mouth, conferences, paid ads, and other forms of marketing that didn’t include SEO or content marketing.

For that reason, the domain probably wasn’t as valuable to them as it was to me. And of course, who wouldn’t want extra cash?

I’m assuming they are very calculated because they are an analytics company, so they probably ran the numbers on how much revenue the inbound traffic was generating them and came to the conclusion that the $500,000 price tag seemed worth it.

Now, before I get into why I spent $500,000 on the domain, let me first break down my thought process as I am buying out a lot of properties in the marketing space (more to be announced in the future).

Why am I buying sites that aren’t generating revenue?

This wasn’t the first or the last site that I’ll buy in the space.

I recently blogged about how I bought Ubersuggest. And it wasn’t generating a single dollar in revenue.

Well technically, there were ads on the site, but I quickly killed those off.

And eventually, I ported it over to NeilPatel.com.

When I am looking at sites to buy, I am only looking for 1 thing… traffic. And of course, the quality (and relevancy) of that traffic.

See, I already have a revenue stream, which is my ad agency, Neil Patel Digital.

So, my goal is to find as many sites that have a similar traffic profile to NeilPatel.com and leverage them to drive my agency more leads.

How do you know you won’t lose money?

I don’t!

This approach doesn’t guarantee I’ll make more money.

I look at the business as tons of tiny experiments. You don’t build a huge business through one simple marketing strategy or tactic.

You have to combine a lot of little things to get your desired outcome.

And sometimes you’ll make mistakes along the way that will cost you money, which is fine. You have to keep one thing in mind… without testing, you won’t be big.

With my ad agency, we tend to mainly have U.S. clients. Yes, we serve other regions as well… for example, we have an ad agency in Brazil.

neil patel brazil

But I myself mainly focus on driving traffic to the U.S. ad agency, and the other teams just replicate as I don’t speak Portuguese, German, or any of the required languages for the other regions we are in.

So, when I buy companies, I look for traffic that is ideally in the U.S.

Sure, the ad agency can work with companies in Australia, Canada, and even the United Kingdom, but it’s tough.

There’s a huge difference in currency between Australia and the U.S. and the same goes for Canada.

And with the U.K. there is a 5 to 8-hour time zone difference, which makes it a bit more difficult to communicate with clients.

That’s why when I buy a site, I’m ideally looking for U.S. traffic.

When I bought Ubersuggest it had very little U.S. traffic. Indonesia and India were the two most popular regions.

But I bought it because I knew I could build a much better tool and over time grow the U.S. traffic by doing a few email blasts, getting on Product Hunt, and by creating some press.

And I have…

ubersuggest traffic

As you can see from the screenshot above, U.S. is the most popular region followed by India and Brazil.

Over time it shouldn’t be too difficult to 3 or even 4x that number as long as I release more features.

Now, my costs on Ubersuggest have gotten into the 6 figures per month, and I am not generating any income from it.

There is no guarantee that it will generate any revenue, but I have a pretty effective sales funnel, which I will share later in the post. Because of that sales funnel my risk with Ubersuggest is pretty low.

As long as I can grow the traffic enough, I should be able to monetize.

What about KISSmetrics?

As for KISSmetrics, I mainly bought the domain for the blog traffic.

During its peak it was generating 1,260,681 unique visitors per month:

kissmetrics peak

By the time I bought the blog, traffic had dropped to 805,042 unique visitors per month:

kissmetrics purchase

That’s a 36% drop in traffic. Ouch!

And then to make matters worse, I decided that I wanted to cut the traffic even more.

There were so many articles on KISSmetrics that were outdated and irrelevant, so I had no choice but to cut them.

For example, there were articles about Vine (which Twitter purchased and killed), Google Website Optimizer (no longer exists), Mob Wars (a Facebook game that no longer exists)… and the list goes on and on.

In addition to that, I knew that I could never monetize irrelevant traffic. Yes, more traffic is good, but only as long as it is relevant.

I instantly cut the KISSmetrics blog in half by “deleting” over 1,024 blog posts. Now, I didn’t just delete them, I made sure I added 301 redirects to the most relevant pages here on NeilPatel.com.

Once I did that, my traffic dropped again. I was now sitting at 585,783 unique visitors a month.

kissmetrics drop

It sucks, but it had to be done. The last thing I wanted to do was spend time and money maintaining old blog posts that would never drive a dollar in revenue.

I knew that if someone was going to come to my blog to research Vine, there was little to no chance that the person would convert into a 6-figure consulting contract.

After I pruned and cropped the KISSmetrics blog, I naturally followed the same path of Ubersuggest and merged it in to NeilPatel.com.

The merge

The KISSmetrics merge was a bit more complicated than Ubersuggest.

With Ubersuggest, I didn’t have a keyword research tool on NeilPatel.com, so all I had to do was slap on a new design, add a feature or two, and port it over.

With KISSmetrics, a lot of the content was similar to NeilPatel.com. For the ones that were similar, I kept the NeilPatel.com version considering this blog generates more traffic than the KISSmetrics one.

As for all of the content that was unique and different, I ended up moving it over and applying 301 redirects.

If I decided to skip the pruning and cropping stage that I described above, the KISSmetrics blog would have had more traffic. And when I merged it in with NeilPatel.com I would have done even better.

But in marketing you can can’t focus on vanity metrics like how many more unique visitors you are getting per month. You need to keep your eye on the prize.

And for me, that’s leads.

The more leads I generate for my ad agency, the more likely I’ll increase my revenue.

Here’s my lead count for the weeks prior to the KISSmetrics merge:

hubspot leads

When looking at the table above, keep in mind it shows leads from the U.S. only.

The KISSmetrics blog was merged on the 25th. When you add up all of the numbers from the previous week, there were 469 leads in total, of which 61 were marketing qualified leads.

That means there were 61 leads that the sales reps were able to contact as the vast majority of leads are companies that are too small for us to service.

When you look at the week of the 25th, there were a total of 621 leads. 92 where marketing qualified leads.

Just from that one acquisition, I was able to grow my marketing qualified leads by 50.8%. 🙂

I know what you are thinking though. The week after the 25th (7/2) the leads tanked again. Well, you have to keep in mind that the table only shows leads from the U.S. and during that week there was a national holiday, the 4th of July. So, leads were expected to be low.

But still, even with the holiday, we generated 496 leads, 68 of which where marketing qualified. We still generated more marketing qualified leads than when we didn’t have the KISSmetrics traffic.

The early results show that this is going to work out (or so I hope). If you ever want to consider buying up sites that aren’t generating revenue, you need to know your numbers like the back of your hand.

My sales funnel

Some of you are probably wondering how I promote my agency from this site. As I mentioned earlier, I will share my funnel and stats with you.

The way I monetize the traffic is by collecting leads (and my sales reps turn those leads into customers).

On the homepage, you will see a URL box.

neil patel homepage

Once you enter a URL, we do a quick analysis (it’s not 100% accurate all of the time).

neil patel analysis

And then we show you how many technical SEO errors you have and collect your information (this is how you become a lead).

lead form

And assuming we think you are a good fit, you see a screen that allows you to schedule a call (less than 18% of the leads see this).

schedule call

From there someone on my team will do a discovery call with you. Assuming things go well, a few of us internally review everything to double check we can really help, we then create projections and a presentation, and then we pitch you for your money (in exchange for services of course).

That’s the funnel on NeilPatel.com in a nutshell… It’s pretty fine-tuned as well. For example, when someone books a call, we send them text reminders using Twilio to show up to the call as we know this increase the odds of you getting on the phone.

We even do subtle things like asking for your “work email” on the lead form. We know that 9 out 10 leads that give us a Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, or any other non-work email are typically not qualified.

And it doesn’t stop there… there are lead forms all over NeilPatel.com for this same funnel.

If you are reading a blog post like this, you’ll see a bar at the top that looks something like:

exit popup

Or if you are about to exit, you will see an exit popup that looks like:

exit popup

You’ll even see a thank you page that promotes my ad agency once you opt-in:

video thanks

And if I don’t convince you to reach out to us for marketing help right then and there, you’ll also receive an email or two from me about my ad agency.

As you can see, I’ve fine-tuned my site for conversions. So much so, that every 1,000 unique visitors from the U.S. turns into 4.4 leads. And although that may not seem high, keep in mind that my goal isn’t to get as many leads as possible, I’m optimizing for quality over quantity as I don’t want to waste my sales reps time.

For example, I had 2 reps that had a closing ratio of 50% last month. That means for every 2 deals they pitched, 1 would sign up for a 6-figure contract, which is an extremely high closing ratio. Hence, I am trying to focus on quality so everyone in sales can get to 50%, as it makes the business more efficient and profitable.

The last thing you want to do is pay a sales rep tons of money to talk to 50 people to only find 1 qualified lead. That hurts both you and your sales reps.

Conclusion

The strategy I am using to buy websites may seem risky, but I know my numbers like the back of my hand. From an outsider’s perspective it may seem crazy, but to me, it is super logic.

And the reason I buy sites for their traffic is that I already have a working business model. So, buying sites based on their traffic is much cheaper than buying sites for their revenue. In addition to that, my return on investment is much larger.

For example, if I wanted to buy KISSmetrics (the whole business), I would have to spend millions and millions of dollars.

I’m looking for deals, it’s how you grow faster without having to raise venture capital.

When you use this strategy, there is no guarantee you will make a return on your investment, but if you spend time understanding the numbers you can reduce your risk.

I knew that going into this KISSmetrics deal that I will generate at least an extra $500,000 in profit from this one acquisition. Realistically it should be much more than that as the additional leads seem to be of the same quality, and the numbers are penciling out for it to add well into the millions in revenue per year.

But before you pull the trigger and buy up a few sites in your space, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t buy sites that rely on 1 traffic source – you don’t want to buy sites that only have Facebook traffic. Or even Google traffic. Ideally, any site you buy should have multiple traffic sources (other than paid ads) as it will reduce your risk in case they lose their traffic from a specific channel.
  2. Buy old sites – sites that are less than 3 years old are risky. Their numbers fluctuate more than older sites.
  3. Spend time understanding the audience – run surveys, dive deep into Google Analytics… do whatever you can to ensure that the site you are buying has an audience that is similar to your current business.
  4. Be patient and look for deals – I hit up hundreds of sites every month. Some people hate my emails and won’t give me the time of day. That’s ok. I’m a big believer and continually pushing forward until I find the right deal. I won’t spend money just because I am getting antsy.
  5. Get creative – a lot of people think their site is worth more than it really is. Try to explain to them what it is really worth using data. I also structure deals in unique ways, such as I gave KISSmetrics up to 6 months before they had to transition to a new domain (and to some extent they are still allowed to use the existing domain for their client login area). You can even work out payment plans, seller based financing, or equity deals… you just have to think outside the box.

So, what do you think about my acquisition strategy? Are you going to try it out?

The post Why I Spent $500,000 Buying a Blog That Generates No Revenue appeared first on Neil Patel.

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What’s New for Designers, July 2018

What kind of projects are you working on? It might be the hotter days (with more time at a computer) that have me focused on ways to enhance productivity. In this month’s roundup of new design tools and information, you’ll find plenty of helpful items that relate to workflow.

If we’ve missed something that you think should have been on the list, let us know in the comments. And if you know of a new app or resource that should be featured next month, tweet it to @carriecousins to be considered!

UnDraw

UnDraw is a curated collection of SVG images that you can use for free, without attribution. All of the images fall under the MIT license and the site is packed with scalable images for web projects. Embed tiny SVGs or edit the code and make each image your own before adding it to your design. (One of the most fun features? You can browse SVGs by color.)

Placid

Placid allows you to create custom social media share card images via API. Choose a pre-designed preset and automate image creation (and show social users exactly what you want). The tool is free with limited use and there’s special beta pricing for more power users.

HTML Email

HTML Email is an email design system for Sketch. Download one file and get 10 templates for mobile and desktop emails with plenty of reusable components to make building HTML emails easy. Using the system will help create more consistency in email design, saving you time with a reusable grid, modules, styles and colors.

Gradient Joy

Gradient Joy is a placeholder image generator that puts pretty gradient boxes in image areas. Just add an image size, pick a color (if you like) and pop the simple code in as a placeholder.

ColorSpark

ColorSpark is a fun color gradient tool that helps you generate cool color combinations. (And it makes this list as the second gradient tool because they are just so nice) Start with a color you know or click the “generate” button for a random, but well-paired, color combination.

MapKit JS

MapKit JS allows you to embed Apple Maps on your website and search using location-based tools. The JavaScript API allows for direct embedding of interactive maps; it does require authorization via JSON Web Tokens for initialization and come API calls.

Open Logos

Open Logos is a project to help you find free logos and divots for other open source projects. There are a few rules to make sure that each logo only goes to one project, so make sure to read the instructions to get started and claim a logo.

Scrolling Gradient

Scrolling Gradient is a fun little pen with a background gradient that changes color as the user scrolls down the page. It works by using two gradients that are overlaid to create a nifty scrolling effect.

Sensorama

Sensorama collects samples from all the sensors on your iPhone and sends the data to you via email. It activates with your prompt and the developer is looking for additional help on GitHub. Plus, it is fun for data geeks.

Maze

Maze adds analytics to your design prototypes so that you can think about projects in progress in the same way you would monitor live websites. Create actionable paths and test the results with real users, then analyze results in a live dashboard. And you can do it all without adding code to your design. Maze is free for a single project and also offers paid plans.

Roller

Roller is a Sketch plugin to help you find and fix inconsistencies in design projects. The creator calls is “spellcheck for Sketch.” The free plugin is easy and pretty effective.

Free Illustrations

Free Illustrations is a collection of icons and images that you can use for projects. All of the illustrations are vector-based and the collection is updated weekly. (So there’s always something new to play with.) The project is thanks to Lukasz Adam.

Tropical Icons

Tropical Icons is a set of 50 free scalable vectors that evoke feelings of summer fun. The set includes icons in outline, outline with color, and color settings. Plus the design make it easy to switch the color palette to match your website colors.

150 Vector Icons

150 Vector Icons is a fun set of line icons in 15 different categories. Every style is easy to edit, customize and make your own for pretty much any project. Each icon also comes in color and monochromatic styles in AI, EPS and PNG formats.

API.video

API.video is billed as a way to create your own Netflix using a scalable webservice with an API based on the REST standard. You can host and broadcast videos anywhere in the world. Toll pricing is based on encoding, hosting and streaming needs.

Whimsical

Whimsical is a visual design workspace that can help you mange projects. Create flowcharts or wireframes in a collaborative environment. The tool is adding new elements all the time and has promised a Sticky Notes feature next. The tool is free for up to four diagrams a month, after that the model switches to paid plans.

Sonar

Sonar is now open source. The tool is Facebook’s creation and is designed to debug mobile apps. Plus, you can do it all from a single desktop interface. It is available for us as-is or through a plugin API.

Overflow

Overflow is a collaborative design tool that’s currently in beta. Use it to help create user flow diagrams to help clients or team members better understand projects. (You might not go back to your old method of showing mobile app user patterns.)

Tenori-Off

Tenori-Off is a fun little distraction. The smart music sequencer uses some back-end machine learning to match drums to a melody. It might be the most interesting thing you play with all day.

DevTube

DevTube might be your new go-to video channel. It’s a lot like YouTube, but all the videos are made for web developers with topics, talk and tutorials that will make your work life better or inspire you to try new things. Sort by type of information, favorite speaker or even channel.

Codementor

Codementor is designed to connect developers to programming and freelance jobs. The website is an interface to find someone who can help you solve design problems as well as workplace connector. The site claims to already have 8,000-plus developers on board.

Alpha

Alpha is a fun and modern sans serif typeface. It includes four styles – medium, regular, light and inline – with a full upper- and lowercase character set.

Fivo Sans

Fivo Sans is a neo-grotesque sans serif with a strong stance and high style. It is fairly neutral and with multiple weight and styles, can be used for almost anything. The complete font – including six families – is free to use and packed with characters.

Heptal

Heptal is designed as a multipurpose typeface for wide usage. The thick stroke, block style makes an excellent display option. The character set includes letters, numbers and some punctuation, but is otherwise somewhat limited.

Leira

Leira is a hand-drawn style typeface with an all uppercase character set. It makes a fun and interesting option for display uses. The font also includes numerals and some basic punctuation.

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