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. 

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.

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

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

Cell Size Comparison

This nifty flash tool from the University of Utah’s Genetic’s lab lets viewers zoom into an image to experience the size of increasingly small cells relative to each other. Such an interactive and immersive experience helps people understand more about the world around them – the very, very small world.

Zooming into increasingly small size comparison of cells.

Zooming into increasingly small size comparison of cells.

A useful application based on some of the same principles behind the Eames’ Powers of 10.

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.

Disclosing Dish Soap

Seventh Generation’s liquid dish soap bottles are sporting an in-depth ingredient label – under the existing label.

Dish soap ingredient information label

Dish soap ingredient information label

The peel-away outer back-panel gives a text-heavy overview of the company’s safety criteria and commitment to transparency. Inside, an extended eco-label takes the first steps toward integrating statistics: Minimally illustrated with a home icon, the statement reads that ‘if every household in the U.S. replaced petroleum-based dish soap with plant-based… we would save 86,000 barrels of oil (the equivalent to heat and cool 4,900 U.S. homes per year).

Its nice to see a comparison that puts so many barrels of oil into a meaningful perspective for the purchaser.

Stats and info revealed on Dish liquid bottle

Stats and info revealed on Dish liquid label

The peel-away label allows for 2 additional panels for the consumer to transparently uncover information, but the space could have been used even more effectively: I’d love to see a more life-cycle oriented approach applied to this design format, and the icons used to highlight information, rather than to advertise the company’s other product offerings.

Turning over a New Leaf (paper)

The New Leaf paper eco-audit is a well-thought out tool that communicates transparency, and -in a beautiful way- helps the end consumer understand the sustainability-positive impact of using a specific paper.

The eco-audit provides a place for data on resources that have been saved throughout the life-cycle of New Leaf’s paper (as compared to the industry standard). The eco-audit profiles the quantity of ‘saved’ trees, water, energy, solid waste and greenhouse gases. And an online portal allows companies to customize the quantities for their own print-jobs.

New Leaf labels on printed projects

New Leaf labels on printed projects

Customizable background stories supported by sustainability statistics- what isn’t to love? A bit more visual reference could be incorporated into the eco-audit label, or the concept could have some accompanying publicity or other materials that really bring this idea to (visual) life. This may include developing an application to show comparisons online, or supplementing the numbers with visual representation.  I -for one- would like to see what an expanse of 118-saved trees actually looks like. Or a comparison to how many swimming pools 50,178 gallons would fill.

Tracking water droplets: Playing raincloud.

An exhibit on Water at the Science Museum of Minnesota contains an interactive display that allowed people to ‘become’ a raincloud. By rubbing a ‘raincloud’ tool over a series of screens displaying a topographic map, the cloud rains drops of water onto the topo-map. Visitors can see how the drops of water run down the sides of a topographic map to slow and pool together in the valleys between mountains. Colliding together, the blue drops create rivers which meander through valleys until falling off the screen.

Interactive table created interaction for watersheds

Interactive table created interaction for watersheds

As a fun way for visitors to interact with the exhibit, this project helps people understand how water flows (the fact being downhill- which I thought was obvious, but apparently there is an overwhelming number of people who are surprised when rivers turn to flow North instead of South, as on maps they must have an idea that gravity makes the water flow off the page.)