MEDEA Talk on ‘Visualizing Sustainability’

Arlene Birt presenting at MEDEA in Malmö, Sweden on Dec.10 (15:00-17:00 Central European time).

Arlene will present two projects that she’s done as artist-in-residence at MEDEA and a behind-the-scenes view on her work on how to visualize ‘background stories’. One project is a visual mapping of the sustainability-oriented systems at work within the Västra Hamnen area of the city through a collaboration with Unsworn Industries to show this information using the parascope technology they’ve developed. Another project visually communicates the benefits of bicycling – in terms of CO2 saved, money saved and calories burned.

Details on the talk here. There will also be a live-stream of the talk.

Chipotle Veggs Out Locally

Food retailer Chipotle has an online animated map showing the locality and seasonality of produce used in their menu items.

Though buried at the bottom of the page (click ‘integrity’, then scroll down), the graphic is a good educational tool: teaching about seasonality in produce.

From the perspective of informational design, it would be great to see it containing more specific data (rather than just being a visual description): I’d like to see what % of the onion used in Midwestern stores is local in the winter.

Regardless, it’s a good place to start communicating sustainability to consumers.

Seasonal Local Vegetables


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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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.

Car eco-label only inches forward despite potential

Environmental label for CA cars

Environmental label for CA cars

Effective since January 1st, California has launched a clean air label required on every new car produced and sold in California. The label rates ‘Smog’ and ‘Global Warming’ on a scale of 1-10 (5 being the average car, 10 being the cleanest). Though there has been a smog index label since 1998, this marks the first time such information has been available to the consumer at point-of-sale – though it seems you’ll have to pop the hood to find the label.

The best part is that the implementation of the label signifies a step toward transparency and ultimately sustainability: a system is now in place to transfer information from car producers, 3rd party reviewers, auto dealers and to communicate that to consumer.

However, the visual representation of the label leaves a lot to be desired. Very little actual information is communicated in these graphics – despite the seemingly substantial space allocated. A simple line makes up the ranking, but portrays very little detail about what the vague titles are all about. I’d like to see this label make use of the technique of layering: to call out the most basic important information (what’s already shown), while incorporating another level of supporting information to further educate viewers.

The ‘global warming’ score actually includes some interesting elements to touch on the larger life-cycle of the system – a stance not often acknowledged in products. But although this label touches on some issues related to sustainability, it leaves many questions in the viewer’s mind. For many audiences that already have a basic understanding of the principles of sustainability, the infographic neglects to transparently inform what the ‘smog’ and ‘global warming’ rankings actually include. [smog-producing emissions from use of the car for the former, and greenhouse gas emissions from fuel production, vehicle operation, and the car’s A/C system for the latter.] It’s also unclear whether average car score will adjust as cars are built cleaner in the coming years.

An online website clears up some of the vagueness: Consumers can also see the top 10-rated cars and check another vehicle’s rating  on the DriveClean website. But as information design, it certainly would be nice if the visual representation took the opportunity to communicate more substantive information to potential buyers, educate them on the potential environmental outcome of their purchases, or even motivate them toward sustainability.

Detail of the DriveClean site

Detail of the DriveClean site

This little piggy went …all over.

Pig book cover

Pig book cover

“Pig 05049” is a background story in reverse: This book starts from the initial ingredient (a pig) to tell the (future) story of everything that the pig becomes after slaughter.
Pig part

Pig part

Made from the pig

Made from the pig

Book by Christien Meindertsma. Images from julie joliat.

T shirt tells its own life cycle.

Tshirt printed with it\'s own life cycleLife cycle of a T-shirt: Droog Design

This t-shirt tells its own back story: the t-shirt tags are cut from the inside and stitched into the screenprint graphic of an imagined life of the product. The shirt was put into production in 2006 by Droog Design.

This is a more illustrative, conceptual version of a background story – less data based. The graphic is customized based on available information at the time (this includes where the cotton comes from, and where the t-shirt is sold). More quantitative figures on distance and carbon footprint could be input with the right data available.

Apple Card

Greeting Card with graphic of Apple life-cycle

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, this card is worth an entire year doctor-free.

The graphic on this greeting card describes the life-cycle of an apple seed/tree/fruit. The scale of each element is irrelevant because segment of illustration concentrates on the most important component of that part of the cycle; giving the viewer the appropriate zoomed-in or zoomed-out view.

The key words are a bit redundant (especially “Blossom”). Without these words the viewer would still understand that the story is about the cyclic growth of the apple. However, if the subject in question were more complex or unusual than the common apple, keywords would become essential.

Take it one step further: imagine how the graphic could get even better connected if the paper its printed on was made from apple tree pulp…then embed an apple seed inside so the disposal of the card grows another tree. The graphic could then expand to include the tree trunk’s second life as this card.

Card by Pancake & Franks.

Patagonia’s Footprint Map

Footprint ChroniclesTravels of a Patagonia Dress - Footprint Chronicles

Companies are increasingly able to track the life of their products through their supply chains and trace the origins of even the smallest notion.

Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles outlines the potential for a company to unveil its transparency in the name of promoting sustainability (and hence, appearing as a sustainable company). From an information standpoint, Patagonia is open about “The Good” and “The Bad” – admitting that, like any human, they’re not yet perfect, but they know where they need to improve.

The online tool carries the viewer through design, materials, manufacture, distribution (among others) of a handful of the company’s products, allowing the user to explore info both sequentially or geographically. Based on google-esque maps, the tool is well-designed as both a piece of information design and as an interactive tool.

Though included are a handful of data and other numbers, I’d like to see these numbers presented in a more visual way – nice parallels are drawn to perceivable concepts to make abstract quantities real. For example: where they say the CO2 generated from a specific shirt is equal to 100x the weight of the shirt, it would be nice to have a more standard reference: such as how many miles average driving…or how many trees need to be planted to counteract this release of CO2. This reference could in-turn, be illustrated in a more graphic format that would enable more direct comparison between various products.

Icy “ICE” sign

Ice for sale sign

The “ICE” on this sign gives visual cues to the effect of the product itself.

Where the viewer may have understand what “SNACKS” and “SODA’S” mean, they will feel the meaning of “ICE”. This technique can also aid in understanding for low-literacy audiences.