Balancing Science and Story

Effectively communicating sustainability across sectors

What do European climate scientists, Midwest U.S. organic farmers, and small arts organizations have in common? They all have a huge amount of data (or potential for it) and battle with balancing science and more personal, emotional messages in their communications.

In the past few months, I’ve presented to scientists at the Copernicus Climate Change Service general assembly in Europe, to organic farmers at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference (MOSES), and to artists and arts organizations as a panelist at Data for Art.

Copernicus Climate Change Service

Arlene at Copernicus Climate Change Service General Assembly

In order help audiences grasp the very complex scenarios involved in each of these industries, we have to both produce solid, objective research about these subjects and provide more subjective entry points into the information. Our goal: Help non-experts grasp the concepts and navigate the content. These entry points should show how the data can be understood from a variety of different perspectives, and aim to tell stories with the data. Visual stories reach audiences and help people connect with these complex concepts.

We have to improve how we communicate this important information, so that our audiences — policymakers, stakeholders, businesses, consumers, and citizens — can more fully engage and ultimately take action. Because if people can’t grasp the information, they default to ‘Business as Usual’: they ignore the information and do nothing (and that won’t help our planet one bit!). We can do better, and when audiences are more engaged, our organizations benefit and so does our common cause. — AB

‘Emotional’ Sustainability for a Post-Truth World

Visual storytelling reveals context and appeals to our individual beliefs

Riding the tails of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year.

Emotional AppealIt’s not hard to believe, given the events of the past year, to see how people do not make decisions based purely on fact. Appeals to our personal beliefs and emotional centers are important. Data alone does not influence decisions. To a large portion of society, facts simply do not matter.

Feelings matter. Connection matters.
I can spout off statistics and information, but unless you — my audience — feel connected to it, it won’t make a difference. The author of ‘How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail’ also describes the mental stress that we endure when we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time (a.k.aCognitive Dissonance). He acknowledges the need for a calm discussion when presenting new information — and new facts — to an individual with a strong pre-determined worldview. So what are some ways visual communication can help make sustainability information appeal to our emotions, and allow us to gradually open our minds to new information?

Here are a few key points and resources: 

Show & Tell Data as a Story
Numbers, by themselves, are not generally very welcoming. Deciphering numbers and comparisons requires a lot of effort and time — particularly given that 65% of the population are visual learners (Mind Tools, 1998). Icons and illustrations can provide context for the numbers. Diagrams can show how a set of data flows over time.

Use Visuals that Connect to Individuals
This research shows how people interpret visual images of climate change. The report finds, for example, that protest images do not resonate, however images of real people taking action in a local context do resonate.

Communicate the Context of your Social or Environmental Goal
Show individuals how bigger picture climate consequences will impact their personal lives. This can mean mapping out the narrative in a visual infographic or developing a diagram to walk audiences through how a larger goal is connected to individuals and their families.

Motivating Sustainable Behavior

How can we help people act more sustainably?

According to a series of studies from the Harvard Business Review, ‘seeing’ ourselves in the future helps us make decisions that prioritize long-term benefits to our future selves (over short-term gains).

One study had half of participants interview digitally-aged avatars of themselves. Then participants did a seemingly-unrelated exercise to divide a budget. Those who had interacted with their future selves allocated twice as much of the hypothetical budget to retirement.

There’s already a lot of literature showing that response is stronger when you people are given vivid examples -those that touch them emotionally. So these studies seem to suggest that long-term thinking can be accessed through establishing emotional connection with the future.

In sustainability, ’the future’ is already plastered throughout tag lines and campaigns: “for our children” or “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” are common examples. However, these phrases often aren’t positioned in a way that helps the ‘future self’ of individuals become visible. Maybe instead of talking about the future in vague, society-oriented terms, we should spend more time helping people see themselves in their own future. This could involve helping people understand the ways in which data or information parallels with their own, individual future. Or how trends over time align with their children’s existence.

So let’s help people first envision their own futures; in order to prepare individuals to understand the important role that sustainability plays in life.

Global Mean Sea Level Rise

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. 

Sustainable Summer School, Belgium

I'm excited to an advisor at REcenter's Sustainable Summer School this August in Limburg, Belgium. Join us to tackle themes of water, food and public space throughout the week-long course. More info on REcenter's website

"Seven days of Sustainable Summer School with Institute without Boundaries and Euregional faculty and international experts." 

GoodGuide coming to iPhones

Via a New York Times article, barcode-reader iPhone apps will put product info in consumers hands at point-of-sale.

GoodGuide is already a beta database of info on products will help consumers know what is in the products they consider purchasing.

A Goodguide app on iPhone will let consumers access info via barcode.

A GoodGuide app on iPhone will let consumers access info via barcode. Image Credit: Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

The service reduces lots of complex info into a single number (the higher the number, the better the product overall). Though the purpose of the system is to create transparency on products, such a single-number approach lacks transparency. Consumers also need education on what’s behind the number. A more visual approach incorporating icons to reference each product’s background story could help.

Thanks Craig!

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.

5lb. butter = How many cows?

My local, local-foods eatery, Common Roots, has launched the first of a series of profiles on the local farms from which the restaurant/coffee shop sources their ingredients. First up: Butter from Hope Creamery in Hope, MN.

Nice story about the history of the creamery (though slightly lengthy for online attention spans) . And a short video (the first time I’ve seen 2500 pounds of butter churned). But what was most Background Story-esque is a graphic that was included in an email announcing the endeavor:

How many cows does it take...

How many cows does it take...

Not only does this factoid give us a bit of background on butter production (by stating the average daily output of 1 cow), it also quantifies the cafe’s own usage in terms of cows. This kind of information puts data in context. I hope to see similar comparisons (especially in terms of land use, water use, etc.) in future showings of Common Roots’ farm/product profiles.

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

Home energy usage via Google

Google is in the development stages of a power meter that enables users to monitor real-time feedback on their household energy consumption. This kind of instantaneous feedback gets to the basic premise of why it’s important to show & tell background stories. This power meter is tool that enables the customer to make their own choices: in this case, the customer can make the connection between more energy usages= more $.

Google's plan to meter home energy consumption

Google's plan to meter home energy consumption.

Follow google’s developments on www.google.org/powermeter.

Perhaps this precision monitoring of the background of products also paves the way for technologies enabling people to generate their own power – and sell it back to utilities.