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EcoLabs

EcoLabs

Communication, Environment, Education

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  • The Greening of Illustration: When Words Fail

    Environment, Communication Design

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    Scientists have given us their verdict: the situation is urgent. Climate change is happening. The C02 and other greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere pose a deadly threat. Experts tell us that we have one decade to make a major shift in our consumptions patterns – after that it will be too late.

    Illustration can, and already is, fulfilling an important role in spreading awareness of global warming issues. Thanks to its ability to make ideas visible, illustration can play a part in making change happen. Furthermore illustration provides a means of communicating the complex emotional reactions that are naturally part of dealing with such loaded information as climate change. Illustration can work to communicate an immediate and a holistic representation. We need this ability of visual languages to help spread an awareness of not only the science behind global warming, but the measures that need to be taken to cut our energy consumption.

    We have already warmed the climate by 0.8° over the past century, and we are told that anything above 2° will be catastrophic. Despite the danger, there exists a serious disconnect between scientific opinion and public awareness. False pundits in the media have succeeded in confusing us. A MORI poll found that one third of the population knows little or nothing about global warming. An IPM poll found half of people unwilling to change their lifestyle (ref: Lois Rogers, Climate Change: Why We Don’t Believe It, New Statesman, 23 April 2007.) But would this be the case if the facts were better understood? The media, advertising and communication design have a vital role to play. The greatest danger comes from our own desire not to face facts.

    Studies in collective psychology indicate that the greater the threat, the more people are inclined to ignore it. Obviously the subject of climate change is emotionally loaded. Extinction is not a nice subject. We prefer to avoid it, and if we thought about it at all it would make us angry – so denial is perhaps natural. Lois Rogers quotes John Elkington, of the communications firm SustainAbility, who describes a common psychological defense mechanism: 'people enjoy being confused about big issues as it gives them a chance to do nothing.' In an essay entitled Seeing is Believing: Information Visualization and the Debate Over Global Warming, the design writer David Womack observes, ‘For an issue such as global warming, which requires millions of people to take action based not on observable phenomenon, but on scientific projections, this lack of certainty might be disastrous. After all, you don’t have to believe the scientists that dispute global warming in order to do nothing – you just have to be confused enough to be complacent’.

    Even when people start to acknowledge the problem, the systems in place are insufficient to make the changes necessary. We are all heavily embedded in a system that is unsustainable, and it is perpetrated by enormous advertising budgets. Within advertising, illustration can be used as an effective greenwashing tool by companies more eager to appear to be working towards a green agenda rather than actually doing anything about it. When advertising works to make unsustainable consumer choices aspirational, illustrators and designers become implicated in perpetuating systemic problems.

    But advertising and the media can also be harnessed to work against the activities that are destroying our environment. Lois Rogers notes the views of Solitaire Townsend of Futerra, a sustainability communications firm: Townsend believes that the obvious way to affect public opinion is through the cultural media: ‘It is quite easy to ‘de-status’ things by presenting them as un-aspirational,’ she states.

    In design, the topic of ethics has become a hot issue. Lucienne Roberts book's Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design looks at design as a social activity. Roberts claims that 'visual art has long been the agent of moral and ethical thought. It can persuade, educate or control'. Today we need to understand the difference between serving commerce and serving the public – because sometimes what is best for business is bad for the people who rely on the environment. Sustainability is the key to long-term economic security – but short-term profit motives have made dominant market forces unsustainable.

    For image-makers, the balancing act between the client's desire for profits, and our desire for visual sophistication and our responsibility to serve the public lies at the crux of what we do. Design writer Rick Poynor has long advocated the role of the designer as a visual journalist – someone who becomes a specialist in a field to make visuals with consequence. In an article entitled The Designer as Reporter, published in his book Obey The Giant, Poynor notes that he first became aware of the term ‘visual journalist’ in a lecture given by the Dutch designer, educator and activist Jan van Toorn. ‘Wherever possible,’ Poynor writes, ‘van Toorn uses his design commissions to develop his own graphic commentary on Dutch institutions, companies and political issues. Especially in the 1970s, many of his projects became a form of personal research, an impassioned, sceptical and sometimes combative response to the cultural moment and conditions in which he found himself working. His approach had much in common with that of a campaigning or investigative journalist, except that his medium of expression was design and image rather than the written word.’

    This is a noble goal for illustrators, and allows illustration to become a more influential tool. Yet many still prefer to play with fashions, styles and novelty, when these should be tools for working with the content at hand. Will survival focus our will?

    A: Communication Campaigns / Visualizing Change

    NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) have led the agenda in terms of visible and effective climate change communication campaigns. Awareness raising, campaigning for policy change, membership drives, future scenario planning, and event design are all areas that need artistic direction and often illustration. Illustration can be especially helpful at mapping out strategies for behavior change because it makes change visible before it happens. Both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth use illustration to depict the technology and the personal actions necessary to lower carbon emissions.

    All NGOs need to attract attention by deploying campaigns that are visually exciting and expressive of current cultural styles. When work needs to appeal to a wide variety of audiences – illustration can work wonders. The recent illustration-led Friends of the Earth’s The Big Ask campaign (although perhaps a little bland for some) was an enormous success. The result was the Climate Change Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech on November 15th 2006 – a year ahead of FOE’s plan. FOE policy recommendations are now being incorporated into the government's new Climate Change Bill (except, unfortunately the crucial yearly emission targets). The Big Ask was effective because it had the specific goal of changing UK policy – unlike some other awareness raising advertising which merely reminds us that global warming is happening without helping us create the change we need to deal with it. The illustration made this message accessible and appealing to a broad group of people.

    Meanwhile, the private sector is scrambling to demonstrate its green credentials. Corporate campaigns use design and illustration to present a green facade that can often be misleading. What becomes dangerous is when companies change their image rather than change destructive systems. A green makeover is necessarily easier than implementing green policies and making integral sustainable change. Illustration, with its ability to deliver subtle messages and visual coding is a good tool for a convenient greenwashing.

    We have historical reasons to be suspicious of those with an economic interest in spreading a particular message, especially in the motoring and energy industries. Corporate sponsorship and funding of climate change deniers has stalled progress – thanks as well to the fact that we would all like to believe the deniers to be correct. The greatest danger now is not ignorance but half measures – and as image-makers we can become implicated in the deceit. When we refuse to take responsibility for our actions, we become part of the problem. We must learn now to guard against having our skills hi-jacked and used as camouflage.

    B: Scientific Visualizations / Information Graphics

    For many, it was the graphs in Al Gore's film The Inconvenient Truth that finally drove home the fact that we are in serious trouble. The movie uses visualizations in Gore's PowerPoint presentation to make the science of climate change understandable to a wide audience. It is the information graphics that give the scientific data life – and by far the most powerful of these is the now famous ‘hockey stick graph.’

    The ‘hockey stick graph,’ as it has been nicknamed because of its shape, may be the most important information visualization in the history of science – and likely one of the most contested. The researchers responsible for the original data have been brought before Congress to defend their findings with one member of the Congress demanding to inspect their financial records for evidence of bribery. As David Womack notes: ‘Not only has the data been under the microscope, but the way that the data is represented has been minutely dissected’

    The designers of the graphic, Duarte Design, describe the importance of the visualizations: ‘Your brain is hardwired to process visually first and then verbally. The goal is to communicate instantly. You're looking for impact.’ David Womack again: ‘Images and graphs can communicate immediately and, given the choice between words and images, we look to the images first’.

    This ability of information graphics and illustration to educate audiences makes it an important tool for ecological literacy campaigns about the science of climate change. Lloyd Anderson, the Head of Science at the British Council is one scientist who champions the use of visuals. He claims: ‘Describing data trends in words is very difficult without it sounding monotonous or confusing. A graph, as a pictorial representation, really is worth a thousand words’.

    Anderson elaborates; ‘Cultures are shaped by climate. The culture in, say, Yemen, is very different to that in Iceland, and reflects the way society is moulded by the immediate environment. We haven't begun to think what changes in climate will mean for our cultures, past the pub discussion about better weather for holidays in Brighton or Blackpool. Visualisation is the best way to begin that thinking’.

    Illustration is able to communicate the intricacies of global warming in a way no other discipline can. Used to visually describe none tangible ideas such as energy, and carbon emissions - illustration works where words fail. Illustration becomes an indispensable tool when used to examine the science behind carbon offsetting for example. Here one image can graphically demonstrate the flawed thinking in the industry; a recent illustration in the New Scientist shows how carbon offsetting is not a long-term solution but a quick fix – and one that is questionable commercially and ecologically. Climate change demands holistic solutions – and illustration is particularly good at showing how things fit into the big picture.

    C: Self - Directed Work / Mapping Emotional Terrain

    An effective vehicle for a critique of issues surrounding climate change is the work that designers and illustrators make on their own. Self-directed work allows the freedom to deal with some of the darker mechanisms at work in our reaction to climate change. It is here where our emotional responses are encountered and reflected back at us. Self–directed work often deals with psychological reactions to climate change and can sometime communicate more succinctly than prose. This is not the place for solutions; it is here that the many strategies that people find to avoid the issues are ridiculed. Some images offer a much-needed dose of comic relief. Image-based satirists provide a helpful critique of our cultural mores and values.

    Using narrative and storytelling techniques illustrators can create transformative material that focuses on the folly of common attitudes and behaviors. At it’s very best, some work can provoke small epiphanies. Artworks with text and narrative combined are most capable of challenging deeply held ideological assumptions. Kate Evans, Dr. Parsons, Steven Knowles and Darren Hopes use text, narrative and illustration to lead us through a story to an end that says something about ourselves.

    Pervasive now are images demonstrating a state of affairs that has clearly gone wrong. Some depict a world where nature is losing the battle. While descriptive of an era, we are better served avoiding morbid doom mongering. All-important here is keep an eye on the bigger picture. We must avoid at all costs the disturbing trend to glorify the 'end of the world'.

    An apocalyptic vision might seems like is a valid artistic response to the current state of affairs – but artists should be aware of the inspirational power of their work. If we fall for the apocalyptic hype we will surely help only to bring it on. There is nothing glamorous about extinction. During my research, I encountered some fairly exciting images on global warming – this cynical imagery is just bad magic.

    As creative communicators we are in a position to help to change attitudes – working towards ultimately changing behavior patterns, policies and systems. If we can mobilize our resources now - as they have been mobilized before (the popular analogy, made by Al Gore and now Prince Charles, is WWII), we can possibly start to make this transition to a low energy future. It need not be the apocalyptic nightmare that it will be if we do not wake up and get serious about climate change now.

    As image-makers we can make possibilities visible. Forging an awareness of the inspiration power of our work will help. As members of human race we will react to news of climate change with the same mixture of anger, denial and fear that everyone faces. It is important to realize that there are solutions to this mess (see especially George Monbiot's Heat: ‘a manifesto for action and a thought experiment… how a modern economy can be de-carbonized’). Here is a challenge for illustrators: visualize/or illustrate a better low energy future. We used to see visions of the future with jet packs and monorails. Illustration could mainstream a picture of a more human sized, earth connected and energy realistic future. We need to draw our brainstorms to make this future visible.

    by Jody Boehnert - illustrated article on-line here: EcoLabs published in Varoom, AOI, London: August 2007.

    Further reading:

    David Womack. Seeing is Believing: Information Visualization and the Debate Over Global Warming.www.adobe.com/designcenter/ thinktank/womack.html

    Kate Evans. Funny Weather, Brighton: Myraid Editions, 2006.

    George Monbiot. Heat, London: Penguin, 2006.

    Lucienne Roberts. Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design, AVA, 2006.

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    Just wanted to share this with the right people; there you are Jody! Please pass on my gratitude to all involved here. Thanks for your words; i will have to return and finish ingesting later...such a good inner read/action/root to outer manifestation/acivity/sprouts! Hope you enjoy my illustration. Pace the Peace! inione4earth.

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