Designing Information for the Understanding of Sustainability

Notes From the GreenID Conference

Recently presenting at the International Institute of Information Design’s (IIID) GreenID conference in Vienna, I was struck by the phrase, “Context brings understanding.” As information designers, we seek to clarify complex information. And sustainability is certainly a topic area that involves a lot of complexities in communicating related social, ecological and financial attributes of a product or service.

Green ID sustainable information design conference logo

My work focuses on developing ‘visual stories’ to help consumers understand how their individual actions play into the ‘big picture’ of sustainability. In my mind, it’s the communication of the context of sustainability that brings understanding to consumers.

To this aim, I presented research and techniques for communicating sustainability – gleaned through my work on narrative life cycles and with students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s (MCAD) sustainability program. I aimed to demonstrate how a visually-compelling story can present complex sustainability data in an approachable, layered format that can act as a tool for consumer education.

The conference covered a wide variety of topics and projects related to the overlap of info design and sustainability. Three areas of interest for my work and the upcoming visual communication course at MCAD include techniques of designing for understanding, measuring impacts and questions on the effectiveness of info design in changing behavior.

Designing for Understanding:

When setting out to design information to aid in understanding, and to clarify context, there are a number of strategies to consider. 

Presenter Angela Morelli, who has done a thorough analysis of the hidden water footprints embedded behind everyday foods and activities, made a case for emotional connection with an audience. She presented 4 guidelines for designing for understanding: utilize empathy, reference cognitive science, observe beauty and play on an audiences’ interest.

To design for understanding, one must first thoroughly understand the content of what is being designed. In a workshop Morelli gave on data visualization, she also outlined the steps to creating information design: first we ‘look,’ then ‘read,’ ‘organize’ information then ‘cut & paste’ it into a format which communicates a message to others. This process mirrored the 4 steps of visual thinking outlined in Dan Roam’s book, “Back of the Napkin”: first we ‘look’ to scan what’s in our vision. Then we ‘see’ to make sense of that which is visible, and then ‘imagine,’ to use our mind to guess that which is not visible. At this point we ‘show’ to share with others (this is the actual stage of creating a visual info design).


Measuring Our Impacts:

Discussion at the conference considered methods of measurement for each of the 3 legs of sustainability in order to visualize data in a holistically-balanced way. 

Data obviously exists for financial measurement– all companies financial reports go into depth on this very important topic.

The ecological dimension is –relatively more recently- available through processes such as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). In fact, my presentation showcased a variety of visual narrative approaches to information design, including examples from client work, creative practice and student work from a course I teach that concentrates on visualizing product life cycles and the more technical ecological measurements of sustainability known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

However, defining measurement for the social component is much more slippery. (How exactly does one measure ‘happiness’?) As this field of ‘quality of life’ is based on qualitative research and varies based on cultural norms and individual expectations, it’s hard to make inclusive visualizations of the ‘social’ on-par with its financial and ecological counterparts.


Can Data Visualization Lead to Behavior Change?

Overwhelmingly, questions throughout conference discussion centered on ‘can visualization of information lead to behavior change?’ Fortunately, there was an environmental psychologist among the presenters to provide some guidelines for our research into this question. Dr. Karen Stanbridge of the University of Reading presented some theories to reference when designing for behavior change:

  • Theory of Planned Behavior – (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980)
  • Stages of Change Model – (Prochaska & Diclemente, 1982)
  • Theory of Social Dilemmas

These theories can act as a starting point for research into measuring the effectiveness of this emerging field of information design for the communication of sustainability. 

Food Tracability: Article

By this Washington Post article, it appears food traceability is set to go main-stream.

The opportunities for communicating the social and environmental sustainability behind such foods are huge. It’s fascinating how it may be the food safety concerns that drive us toward opening to transparency. – Once those doors are open, so many additional communication possibilities exist.

These ideas for the food system are also good validation for the TraceProduct.Info project I initiated as part of an Art(ists) on the Verge fellowship.  More info on the project here.

systems for food tracability

Graphic from the Washington Post

The Eco-Savings of File Transfer

An Earth Day Campaign by online service calculates the savings of using digital file sharing vs. printing, burning CDs and shipping.

Though a bit of a stretch to calculate environmental impacts in this fashion, it’s always good to see dynamically-calculated details on your own impacts (and those of all users of a service).

Yousendit earthday campaign calculations

Earth Day Campaign

campaign to calculate sustainablity savings


Tracing a Taco

‘Tacoshed’ tracks the journey (and miles) of all the ingredients from a taco produced by a specific taco truck in San Francisco.

Tracing Food miles from a taco


Compiled by students at California College of the Arts and design group Rebar, this info-visualization highlights the complexity of our food systems.

Tough resulting in complex maps, the results accurately gives people an idea where their food comes from.

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.
Read more

Serving Carbon With Your Crackers

Carbon foot-printing has made its way onto the plates of people living in Sweden.
Read more

Linking Everyday Gestures with Digital Details

Pranav Mistry combines standard, everyday gestures with digital information. His solutions -which include the SixthSense wearable computer – have potential to bring real transparency into sustainability, and enable people to literally immerse themselves in their own ecological footprints. Read more

Carbon Footprinting Transit

Twin Cities Metro Transit now links carbon footprint data with bus schedules when you plan a trip online.

Carbon Footprint Calculator

Carbon Footprint Calculator

Public transit reduces carbon footprint

Public transit reduces carbon footprint

The  website averages bus CO2 emissions over the distance of your journey to show the visitor what positive impact they can contribute (in terms of carbon saved) for each public-transit journey made.

This is a great tool to help consumers understand the impact they have as an individual – even if the results are a bit ambiguous (it’s highly doubtful that most consumers understand what 6.2 lbs of CO2 means – and unfortunately no comparison is provided to help them put it into context).

Tracing A Box’s Life

Colombia Sportswear is asking you to ‘Consider the box’ with their project: A Box Life. A Box Life brings awareness to an often-overlooked part of mail-order products’ life-cycles: the packaging.

Box life transparently tracks the back-stories of where boxes have traveled.

Box life transparently tracks the back-stories of where boxes have traveled.

Not only is it a clever way to encourage people to reuse packing materials, but telling the stories behind the travels of things also acts as a tool for transparency, and reminds consumers of how individual actions impact sustainability.

read more: Springwise

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.