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.

The [Unequal] Power of Images

When to use a photo vs. an icon

There are many style options available when it comes to communicating information visually. Photos excel at evoking emotion in individual scenarios, when the photograph literally represents what is being communicated.

Photograph of a tree Icon of a tree

Icon-focused infographics tend to group information on a more broad level: reflecting general patterns and information rather than specific, individual – and quite often emotional – experiences.

Consider this example: This tree photo points to a very specific situation and can evoke memories. Maybe it reminds you of one that you played under growing up. Alternatively, perhaps the species of tree on this rolling, green landscape looks nothing like where you live. That makes it harder to relate to.

An icon, on the other hand, is more versatile. The icon evokes the idea of ‘tree’ regardless of your own memories. It is perceived more generally as ‘tree’ rather than ‘deciduous tree’ or ‘kinda-like-our-climbing-tree’.


In short: 

  • Use a photo for specific circumstances, details, case studies and people
  • Use an icon for general concepts, broad mapping, global systems and universal ideas.

Case studies are a great place to use photographs because they need to communicate details of a specific story. When the desire is to communicate a more global, standardized concept or structure, icons are generally a better choice. The 2 approaches can certainly be combined in a well-thought-out visual.

Visualizing Complex Systems

The way the world works as a complex science. 

Most of what I do is related to communicating complexity: helping audiences understand systems to locate themselves within sustainability solutions. Complexity science is a field that was recently brought to my attention. In sustainability, we’re familiar with systems thinking and the complexity of the human interactions between society, the environment and economics.

According to complexity.ecs.soton.ac.uk

“Complexity science is the scientific study of complex systems, systems with many parts that interact to produce global behaviour that cannot easily be explained in terms of interactions between the individual constituent elements.”

Complexity science is an interesting lens through which to consider the intricate systems behind sustainable design solutions  – natural, technological and social.

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.

Artist Residency to Visualize Impacts in Malmö, Sweden

Arlene has begun an artist residency at interactive center for new media MEDEA, where she will develop work to visualize the impacts/benefits of bicycling for the Västra Hamnen area of Malmö in order to encourage and celebrate a culture of bicycling.

More on the progress of the project, which will run Oct-Dec 2010, is posted on the MEDEA site.

sketch of visualizing sustainaiblity in bicycling

WORK-IN-PROGRESS

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

SEASONAL LOCAL VEGETABLES ANIMATION

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

TRACING THE BACK-STORY OF A SPECIFIC 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.

Serving Carbon With Your Crackers

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