Data & Design How-to's Note 5: Get the idea
Amnesty International Sweden - 'Rose'.
Created by Volontaire, Sweden. Source.
|"Razor" by Aktion Mensch, Germany.|
Look at the image on the left; click on it to see a larger version you can scrutinise more closely. What do you see, and what sort of effect does it have on you?
We suspect it creates a range of reactions as you start to connect the text with the image to create a meaning; perhaps you think the image is completely inappropriate, an unsubtle metaphor trampling over a taboo to get your attention. Or perhaps you are feeling uncomfortable with the contrast between a rose, a cliched symbol for natural beauty, and what the metaphor along with the crude stitching represents. Now look at the image on the right: does it have the same effect on you?
- Their persuasive effect is through challenging the values of the audience, crossing taboos and inviting quick and immediate emotional reactions. Whilst provocative and controversial, they are not always one-sided; they need to leave some space for interpretation in the viewer's eyes.
- This approach is difficult to get right, often costly to bring to the audience's attention. If badly conceived and executed, they can alienate, insult or repulse an audience. But when they work, the effect can be remarkable: they spread quickly across all channels, are talked about and rapidly bring attention to an issue.
- They pass on tiny packets of information about the issue, building on top of what people commonly think of as evidence rather than directly communicating it. As provocations, they are mostly designed as tunnels into a wider campaign where further information about the issue can be found. They are often designed to have appeal to those who have never been exposed to the issue or don't have a clear position on it.
The use of visual techniques to help audiences 'get the idea'
Technique 1: Visual metaphor
Adopt a Child. Children of the
The main technique used in Amnesty's “rose” is a visual metaphor, which is the use of one thing to represent another. Here is another example of the use of a visual metaphor, taken from a campaign about adoption in India by 'Children of the World, India Trust'.
The projected shadow of the profile of a woman holding a sleeping baby is drawn as the shadow of a heavily pregnant woman, visually equating the two. This image teases at the difficult question of what motherhood and parenting are, trying to bring to the surface the audience's opinions about whether caring for an adopted child is different or lesser to parenting a child you bore yourself.
|Largest Bankruptcies in History. GOOD Magazine / Aways with Honor. 2009. Source.|
Technique 2: Subversion
|Meet the World - Brazil. Grande Raportagem. Created by Icaro Doria. Source.||Meet the World - Somalia. Grande Raportagem. Created by Icaro Doria. Source.||Meet the World - Chine. Grande Raportagem. Created by Icaro Doria. Source.|
This series of flags formed a promotional campaign for a (now discontinued) Portuguese news magazine called Grande Raportagem.
Technique 3: Less is more
|Childrens' Map of the World.
Save the Children Sweden. 2009.
The 'Children's World Map' is a billboard campaign by Save the Children Sweden. It depicts a familiar atlas-style map,but with some unexpected land shapes. The map shows the countries that have introduced laws criminalising the spanking of children, protecting their human rights. Rather than highlighting or listing out those countries without such laws, their complete removal from the traditional map creates a disorienting, drowned world view that is alien to the viewer. The message is very clear: there are few places a child is specifically protected from parental violence. Its visual expression centres on an unexpected absence rather than a familiar presence. This is a much more effective technique than the obvious one of just highlighting the world map in different colours to delineate which countries do and do not have laws: it uses its minimalism and difference to tweak the curiosity of the viewer.
This 'less is more' technique can also be used as a discipline for curbing how much information you publish. When trying to help audiences get the idea using a small slice of a much bigger story can draw them in. Try to resist the temptation to put all the information out at the same time. To paraphrase the author of 'Essentials of Visual Communication' (a book we recommend at the end of this chapter if you want to learn more about visual communication techniques), when a Jazz musician in a busy Parisian club wants to get everyone's attention, he whispers.
Technique 4: Seeing things differently
|Middle East: Who Backs Immediate Ceasefire?
The Independent. 2006.
The above info-graphic, 'Middle East: Who Back Immediate Ceasefire?' presents data about the States that supported or opposed a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. It was created by The Independent newspaper, and was published on its front page. The graphic shows on the left the flags of those countries that voted for a ceasefire and the right those that voted against.
The designer has deployed two effective, complementary design techniques. The first is the use of flags to represent the countries. The flags are equal in size and shape, unlike in maps, for examples, where the differences in size create a visual inequity. The effect is to evoke ideas of sovereign equality and democracy within the United Nations system. The second technique is the use of space to compare the positions of each country. The visual effect invites the viewer to question the flags' positions. The dramatic contrast between left and right, for and against a ceasefire – with some pieces taken out of the left side, resembling the last pieces of a nearly complete jigsaw puzzle - highlights the alignment of interests. Overall, it shows how a tiny minority stand out from the great majority and hints at the power imbalance that really exists.
Function. Kamal Makloufi. 2010.
Legend: Dark Blue = 'Friendly troops' / Turquoise = Host nation troops /
Orange = Iraqi Civilians / Dark Grey = 'Enemies'
|Suicides by Year. San Francisco Chronicle. 2005. Source.||The Sad Tally. San Francisco Chronicle. 2005. Source.|
Technique 5: Humour
|The World of 100. Toby Ng, 2011 version. Source.|
Some campaigns utilise a different type of humour, playing on stereotypes and parodying known conventions and symbols to create new stories. In Greenpeace's 'Barbie it's over' campaign a fake celebrity expose is created. The famous male doll produced by the Mattel company, Ken, is the central character. The video - which you can watch above - is a pastiche, combining a parody of television celebrity news, with the stereotypical cliches of Barbie and Ken dolls. The 'breaking news' video plays with these conventions in order to create the amusing narrative of Ken being traumatised to discover that Barbie has been destroying the rainforest for her packaging. The campaign itself targets a range of toy makers including Disney and Hasbro but chooses to use Ken and Barbie as its central story, therefore specifically targeting Mattel. In doing this they also create an amusing story of Ken and Barbie's break up as a way to draw people in to the issue and a much broader campaign.
The 'Most Dangerous Species in the Mediterranean', created by the Catalan Water Agency in Spain, mimics the style of posters used in school classrooms to show different types of wildlife. The irony here is that in fashioning commonly seen marine life out of plastic rubbish found in the sea, the tables are turned: people become the most serious threat to marine life. The poster uses visual irony to make its point: making small condoms resemble a little shoal of fish, a plastic bag look like a floating jellyfish and a sanitary pad reminiscent of a skate.
The level of information portrayed here is also slightly different than in the other examples, going a bit further with the viewer. It states the life expectancy of this particular 'dangerous species': “the sanitary pad – 25 years”. As a behaviour for this species, it states that it "impedes the proper digestion of animals that ingest them". The poster attempts to encourage behaviour change and reaction based on more than just empathy or ethics, but on information related to the actual impact of human waste on the ocean's ecosystem.
Technique 6: Shock
Though shock is an often-used technique in campaigning it is even more difficult than humour to use effectively. Shocking images are often used as a way to try and gain interest and support, many of these use real photographs of an actual event or situation. However, some of these can be very difficult for the audience to take in, especially if they involve images of people in distress, poor conditions, or depict injury and death. The ability for an audience to see something directly for themselves can be powerful, but the use of such images has to be well thought through because when an image is truly disturbing we naturally look away. Even though witnessing in this way can be very effective it can also easily push our audiences away. Many of the shocking images that work well as a draw to an issue are re-enactments which show certain aspects of an event. Others provide additional context, or create an 'a-ha' moment of revelation to reduce the discomfort to the viewer, but still get the idea across.
For example, the image of the albatross chick with his stomach full of ocean plastic debris that we showed in Data and Design How-to Note 1: Where is your evidence? pitches itself just at the edge of this line of 'bearable witnessing'. It works by taking the viewer on a visual journey that slowly leads them in to the shocking aspect of the image. At first glance it is just a bird and some plastic, then it becomes clear that this is a dead bird with its stomach opened out. It is only on closer inspection that it becomes clear - in combination with the text - that this bird died because its stomach was so full of plastic waste that it could no longer eat.
Shock is a technique more increasingly used by commercial advertising as a way to catch attention. Companies like Benetton have made it a feature of their advertising campaigns. These techniques work for them because they are playing with social taboos as a way to create a shock reaction in their audiences, but also because they are operating in a different communications market where shock can get them free media attention. At times it even raising their appeal to certain audiences drawn to the supposed cool of radically breaking with convention. Despite this we can still learn a lot from the advertising industries effective use of drama, visual playfulness and their ability to utilise shock to influence their target audience.
Many of the more effective shock campaigns that have been run by NGOs have evolved due to a collaboration with advertising agencies; Amnesty International's many successful visual campaigns are perfect examples of how this collaboration can, in some cases, work well. For example,the Amnesty's 'Making the Invisible Visible' campaign uses a visual trick to gain the attention of pedestrians
The technique used here is derived from lenticular or 3D printing. From one angle it looks like one thing; from another it takes an alternative dimension. As pedestrians initially walk past the railings they see a series of patterns on the railings, as they walk further the images line up and become a clear image of a face. The shock is that the faces are of individuals who have been imprisoned or murdered due to limits to freedom of expression. When passers-by read the stories it challenges their assumptions and raises a series of questions in their mind. There is a case study video of the project here.
Whilst this campaign was devised by a US advertising agency and carried out by an art collective in Germany, it would not be that expensive in production terms to make. It demonstrates how it can be much more important to have the right idea than to have a large production budget.
Through the above techniques we have tried to highlight different elements of how visual representation can work when minimal information is being exchanged and one simple story is being told. They are intended to give inspiration for thinking about what you are saying and how you are saying it. The above techniques are not put together to present a comprehensive framework or formal categorisation. Instead they show a range of techniques that can at times be used in combination.
Helping your audience 'get the idea' means making simple, eye catching products that are based on substantive arguments. Creativity is one of the central skills needed to help people to 'get the idea, but you also need to know your issue and your audience well and be able to back your visual presentation up with convincing evidence. When executed well, these kinds of techniques can successfully engage audiences and - in a positive sense - work to raise more questions than give answers.
In the next note, we'll look at ways to pass on more information and give the audience room to fully explore an issue. In particular we'll look at how to tell stories using info-graphics and visual narratives.
- Data & Design How-to's
- Data & Design How-to's Note 1: Where is your evidence?
- Data & Design How-to's Note 2: Data basics
- Data & Design How-to's Note 3: Opening open data
- Data & Design How-to's Note 4: Visualisation basics – the three 'gets'
- Data & Design How-to's Note 5: Get the idea
- Data & Design How-to's Note 6: Get the picture
- Data & Design How-to's Note 7: Get the details