Infographics can (help us) change the world

Posted by on Nov 26, 2013





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In the 6th Century BC, Chinese Philosopher Lao-tzu remarked that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. Could he have known how universally true this saying would be thousands of years later?

Well, he certainly knew something about being too overwhelmed to start! In this digitally connected age, there is so much accessible information that is often hard to know where to start on our own journeys, even if they’re short. To learn anything of importance, most of us need to be shown the first step. Once we hit our stride, we may well be able to take some more positive steps to making meaningful change for ourselves, society and the environment.

A (very) brief history of data visualisation

Our eyes are the only sensory organs hardwired to our brains (screen addiction, anyone?) so it make sense that what we can see, we have a much better opportunity to understand. In fact, according to Wikipedia, another phenomenon of this information age, infographics take advantage of our ‘visual system’s ability to read patterns and trends’.

Although the origins of the infographic don’t quite go back as far as Lao-tzu, there is a rich heritage that itself probably deserves a pretty impressive infographic… and yes, here it is). Possibly without knowing it, most of us refer to infographics every day; think of transport maps, Venn diagrams, or even the humble 3D piechart. In whatever form, effective infographics can engage audiences, help connect stakeholders to issues and may even help people take that first step to change their behaviours for the better.

Infographics 101: Ecocreative-style

More often than not, when asked to help clients communicate something quite complex, we’ve suggested an infographic as part of the approach. They generally have a lot of impact on their own, make great features at the heart of a campaign or publication and they translate really well from digital to print media (or vice versa). Perhaps best of all, though, they can be easy to share across social media, meaning the message can be modularised and  spread far and wide.

Before we get to creating an infographic at Ecocreative, we are usually presented with a research paper, case studies, a media release, financial or quantitative reports, or even just an idea that needs some attention. If we’re lucky, we get a spreadsheet. From there, we tease through data and pick out which points will engage people with the main message, which ones need a little help, and those which don’t really add anything to the story that needs to be told.

Once we are across the main information, the big picture, so to speak, we ask ourselves the following questions:

  • what is the main point of the story?
  • how do we highlight the essential information, processes and systems?
  • once people have made sense of things, what is the desired outcome?

We then investigate several ways of reinterpreting information and how this might sit in the context of a client’s brand identity, plenty of sketches are made, people are consulted, and what may have started as a spreadsheet becomes a narrative. Without a story, an infographic lacks what we consider to be one of its most vital aspects: a sense of future, and positive alternatives.

For us at Ecocreative, a sense of what could be is the crucial and the distinguishing factor between an infographic that simply rearranges data to look nice, and one that is a catalyst for change.

Over the past year, some of the things we have been called on to interpret relate to the problems with food waste; teenagers facing tough issues in life; and the effects of global warming on our biodiversity. For each of these, information relating to quality of life, food tonnages and degrees of temperature change were considered alongside production systems and consumer behaviour, socioeconomic contexts, ecosystems, landscapes and even future climate scenarios. To make this make sense, we certainly felt infographics might at least be part of the solution.

A lot of personal growth in one year

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Youth Opportunities is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a 10-week personal leadership program for at-risk teens in South Australia. This program has a huge impact on participants’ lives. We were asked to help them come up with a way of telling a story about the year they have had and what’s really been faced, worked through and overcome. This was to be the centrepiece of an annual summary of the organisation’s successes.

After in-depth exploration of different ways to present this information, our design finally clicked in a way that really conveyed the Youth Opportunities philosophy: people are more than numbers. Diverse data, both qualitative and quantitative, were presented alongside each other in a cohesive scene that featured teenage characters quite literally interacting with the data (like the graph stepping stones above) on their personal journey.

What we loved about working with Youth Opportunities was their focus on resolutions over problems, and the positive future that is achievable for many students who have had negative life experiences or environments. If our infographics helped get this across to the many generous donors and stakeholders, then there is every chance this program will continue to go from strength to strength, benefitting many students to come.

Depicting climate futures and landscapes: adapt, migrate or die!

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Some truths are inconvenient and won’t be realised until far into the future. As we are seeing with climate change, the easy option is to ignore the problem until it becomes overwhelming. Professor Andrew Lowe from the Environment Institute prefers to talk about  proactive alternatives. Andy’s work examines the changes in population density of biodiversity in response to human activity, predicting patterns of habitat change in the future, how we can plan ahead to connect patches of remnant vegetation and provide native wildlife with safe corridors to new habitat locations.

No matter how pretty a picture is, there is little point in identifying a problem without at least hinting at  a solution. After listening to the statistics and science behind climate change models and filling several whiteboards with notes and ideas, we approached this work with the idea that infographics can work as a map, outlining the journey so far and recommending one pathway over another.

Sitting in the centre of Biodiversity Brief, an offshoot of Biodiversity Revolution, Andy’s great blog, this infographic shows the two future pathways; the path where we did nothing to address climate change or habitat loss and the path where we really take on the climate change mitigation and adaptation challenge.

Food production, wasteful behaviours and bananas

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As part of the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Environment Day focus for 2013, we helped UNSW Sustainability develop a ‘Food, Waste and Our Future’ campaign to raise awareness about food waste. As part of this work we sourced all of the statistical information ourselves, and after deciding we wanted a banana to be the star of the show, set out a style to align with the UNSW Sustainability brand, with a view to future extension across other media. The design of this infographic was highly modularised to allow it to be used on posters and web formats as a whole, plus broken into pieces for focal statements and screen displays.

Of course, infographics don’t need to be restricted to two dimensions, so everyone was invited to take a real (organic) banana home from the World Environment Day event. Each one was marked with dotted lines relating to the wasteful proportions shown in the infographic, reminding people of their own opportunities for less wasteful food choices.

‘In life, the best journeys rarely have an end’

Even though he may have believed in reincarnation, that’s not something Lao-Tze said. It’s just what we think here at Ecocreative. Effective, engaging infographics about big issues like climate change, food waste or social isolation can be the first step on our great journey to becoming part of a more sustainable society.

Have you felt motivated by a great infographic recently? We’d love to know!