The Inside Lives of Fruits and Vegetables

Less of a background story…but more of an internal story: the internal stories of fruits and vegetables. (So this is what MRI scan operators do on their lunch breaks!)

Magnetic resonance data made visual in a beautiful way. If only companies and political organizations were so transparent.

MRI scan

I, Pencil – A Sustainability Story From 1958

I, Pencil by Leonard Read, is an essay on the life cycle of a pencil. Written in a way that references all the strings attached and people involved in the back-story of this simple, everyday object; this story is an excellent text to tie products to global social and environmental concerns. And it was written in 1958.

“Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.”

I, Pencil is referenced in this TED talk by Matt Ridley about the collective effort that leads to innovation,

Year in Numbers

A local cafe has compiled a somewhat-visual depiction of their activities over the year. The focus is on communicating data as it relates to the sustainability initiatives of the cafe.
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Revealing Hidden Time

A work by artist Pierre Huyghe, entitled ‘Timekeeper’ uncovers a history of exhibits in this space at the Walker Art Center through sanding down layers of paint on the gallery walls.

Previous layers of gallery paint revealed through sanding.

Previous layers of gallery paint revealed through sanding.

This work is especially interesting in the context of a white-walled exhibition space: the walls are usually forced into the background in order to highlight the work hung on them. In this case, the very history of that back-drop is what’s highlighted.

The work is part of the Walker’s exhibition, The Quick and the Dead;

Surveying art that tries to reach beyond itself and the limits of our knowledge and experience, The Quick and the Dead seeks, in part, to ask what is alive and dead within the legacy of conceptual art.

Communication Design Recognized in Back-Story-Telling Project

For the first time, the prestigious INDEX Design Award has a winner from the field of communication design. ‘PIG 05049’ is a primarily-visual book, designed and conceived by Christien Meindertsma, that traces all the products made from one pig.

Visual spread from the book 'Pig 05049'

Visual spread from the book

Meindertsma’s intent for the project:

Help people in a highly mechanized and “packaged” world understand how things are made and where they come from so that the resources involved can be cared for by enlightened, informed people.

It’s nice to see the role of communication design to build awareness being recognized within the design community.

Read a previous entry on Meindertsma’s project here.

Mapping the Mississippi: Through Time

In a beautiful example of layered visual information, Harold Fisk mapped a portion of the Mississippi River in 1944. The series of plates show the changes in the path of the river through time. I’m drawn to the simple and clear detail, effective color palette and the amount of information communicated through this simple technique.

Fisk Map of the Mississippi through the ages

A portion of Fisk’s visually-stunning map of the Mississippi

The full map is available at the US Army Corp of Engineers.

Toaster, from Scratch

The Toaster Project: A design student’s fascinating project to make a toaster – starting with finding and processing small quantities of raw materials.The project took him all over the UK searching for raw minerals, and developing methods to process them at home.

His whole process was about re-creating the background story. I’d love to see a graphic outlining all of his steps.

the final toaster (photo Daniel Alexander)

the final toaster (photo Daniel Alexander)

The project is featured on

Cross Section of History

A Giant Sequoia in New York’s American Museum of Natural History reveals centuries of history juxtaposed with the tree’s growth rings. The pairing of dates of history with centuries of growth rings gives us deeper understanding of how time passes and things change: as seen both in nature and in civilization.

Historical events juxtaposed on growth rings

Historical events juxtaposed on growth rings

A definite ‘background story’ – pairing visual cues with data and textual information. This visual reference to nature’s growth is a peak into the life story of the tree: marking the years of fast and slow growth. The numerical years provide a reference to our own history: with additional stories of what happened in civilization corresponding with each growth ring. A good reminder that everything changes.

On the topic of trees, the image below is from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (by an artist whose name I seem to have unfortunately misplaced…). Following growth rings, this artist carves away the ‘years’ of a length of log: revealing the shape of the tree’s younger self.

carved tree reveals it's younger self

carving reveals youth

Reality, augmented. […sustainably?]

Merging analog and digital, this new tool allows users to use their webcam to make a simple printed page come to life. In 3 dimensions!
Augmented Reality: a virtually 3-d landscape unfolds via your computer's webcam.

Augmented Reality: a virtually 3-d landscape unfolds via your computer

An incredible display of technology, it’s not hard to imagine the communication possibilities for sustainability, communicating the background stories of products…or anything for that matter. However it’s not immediately clear how this technique is as exclusive to the future of sustainable communications as it would have us believe (the tool is introduced from within GE’s micro site promoting sustainable technologies like the smart grid and smart power meters). Though a extremely promising tool, a slight scent of greenwash clouds the air.
Watch the video, as presented by Adobe CTO, then try it for yourself.

On the topic of eco-magination, there are some wonderfully communicative info-graphics throughout the micro site. However, overall the site is excessively flashy: lots of pretty pictures…but not much overall content.  It seems to have been created as a playground for cutting-edge graphics more than to support sustainability. (Though, one could argue that’s GE’s intent…) More easily accessible information to back up the claims that GE wants to communicate through such elaborate – and interactive- visuals would lend significantly more credibility to this site.
bar graphs bring information to life with visual virtual worlds

Bar graphs bring information to life with visual virtual worlds

Environmental and financial savings stack up in a bar graph.

Environmental and financial savings stack up in a bar graph.

GE infographic - Mapping CO2 Emissions

GE infographic - Mapping CO2 Emissions

Prius console monitors the product’s energy

Prius’ console allow users (and passengers) to see what happens under the hood. The console sports an energy monitor (among other controls) that transparently provides information to the user (and passengers) so they can understand how the ups-and-downs of gas and break pedals impact the hybrid’s fuel usage and battery charging.

Prius Energy Transfer map

Prius Energy Transfer map

Using simple visuals and motion graphics, the console maps how energy is used, and shows how the battery gets recharged.  What results is the ultimate in immediate user-feedback.

Map of Prius Energy Usage in motion

Map of Prius Energy Usage in motion

In addition to helping the riders to understand what exactly a hybrid is, and how it works, this system helps users drive more eco-efficient because they get immediate feedback. As a driver, you can start to understand what’s going on, and how your driving techniques impact the fuel-efficiency of the vehicle. This model integrates enough feedback loops so a driver can learn to adjust their own driving to help the system optimize how it runs.

An added layer of feedback on newer Prius models is a chart that records energy consumption over the last 30 minutes of use – enabling the user to compete against themselves for improvement.

Graph charts energy consumption

Graph charts energy consumption

Products should be designed to showcase some level of their inner-workings. Even if the vehicle was not a hybrid, it’s a great step toward product transparency. Just imagine if more of our energy-devouring equipment incorporated similar feedback mechanisms.