Data & Design How-to's Note 5: Get the idea


    Amnesty International Sweden - 'Rose'  "Razor" by Aktion Mensch, Germany.
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? 

The rose and the razor are different takes on the same issue: they draw attention to the different ways campaigners have chosen to communicate about stopping female genital mutilation (FGM). The rose is a metaphor for the outcome of an act. It uses this as a technique for saying what can not really be said in words, certainly not on a poster. The second is a direct evocation of an act of violence. On close up, the creators have not only redesigned the centre of the blade, but also chosen to show it scratched and gnarled with a damaged blade's edge. The emphasis is on the how; the means and mechanics of mutilation. One may be a more effective technique than the other, but neither present further information, research or reasoning. They both use metaphors to represent an act of violence and to point to simple calls to action: support our campaign.
Whatever you think of either campaign poster, they perfectly illustrate the main features of products that aim to help an audience get the idea:
  • 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 key characteristic of products that help audiences 'get the idea' is the dominance of visual techniques. They may use data on a small scale, and transmit a little evidence directly, but they predominantly use the visual form to lead audiences in to a larger campaign or set of information. These are devices borrowed quite extensively from cultural, political and commercial communications approaches. These forms of expression are often emotive - they utilise techniques such as shock, humour, subversion and metaphor - and have the effect of challenging the stance of the viewer, attempting to create a pivot for their opinions and ultimately their actions. Their effect can be to induce in the viewer the realisation that they actually have an opinion about the issue, perhaps having never given it much thought before. For the remainder of this note we'll look at different sorts of visual techniques for getting the idea.

The use of visual techniques to help audiences 'get the idea'

There is a wide range of techniques that can be used to blend visuals with words that help audiences get the idea. Here are some of the most commonly-used techniques.

Technique 1: Visual metaphor

       Adopt a Child. Children of the World (India) Trust

Adopt a Child. Children of the
         World (India) Trust. 
2008 (we think).

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.

The campaign attempts to challenge perceptions of adoption in India. It works on multiple levels, implying that children - whether adopted or biological - can be (and need to be) loved and cared for in the same way. It implies that the feelings for a child by adoptive, or biological parents can be the same. Whatever the reaction of the viewers and their own opinions, the campaign uses one simple powerful image with a twist (just like Amnesty's rose) to get across a complex proposition and pose a series of questions to the viewer. 
Just as in language, using a metaphor allows you to present the similarity between two things to either clarify or shed new light on something you are trying to communicate. It can be effective when trying to help people understand a problem that is otherwise difficult to grasp or as a visual device for giving a second layer to a story. This way of using a metaphor can be seen in the 'Largest Bankruptices in History' info-graphic below. Here, the designer has used the image of a sinking ship to give a second layer of meaning to the graphic. Instead of just using a bar chart to show the biggest bankruptcies, they have represented the bars as ships, evoking the idiom 'to leave a sinking ship'.
Largest Bankruptcies in History. GOOD Magazine / Aways with Honor. 2009. Source.
Largest Bankruptcies in History. GOOD Magazine / Aways with Honor. 2009. Source.

Technique 2: Subversion

Many objects, symbols and places have gained meaning, have certain societal conventions associated with them, become iconic or have actual authority vested in them. These sorts of power can be subverted to expose the hidden side of an issue. Here is an interesting example called 'Meet the World', which uses national flags in an unexpected way.
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.  

Working for an ad agency at the time, Icaro Doria, 'Meet the World's' creator, came up with the idea almost accidentally: “I was flipping through the magazine (Grande Raportagem), trying to get a sense of it and I saw an article in it about female genital mutilation in Somalia. And there was a picture of the Somalian flag right next to the data about how 90% of women there endure FGM and only 10% don't. And I couldn't avoid the fact that the data was very similar, in proportion to the graphic details of the flag: a small white star in a big blue background. I found this very interesting. So I looked through the magazine to see if there were any other such issues from around the world that would be similarly interesting. I was looking for these kinds of patterns between data and their proportions to the images and blocks of colour on flags.” 
What Doria did then was to produce a series of flags and put these side by side with facts that both contradict what the flag is trying to represent and at the same time make the flag into a proportionate infographic of the statistic, for example adding a key to the EU flag showing the yellow of the stars representing the number of oil producers and the majority blue background as the number of oil consumers. “The Flags play with people's pride. You take a symbol of national pride and identity and show an aspect of that identity that people are not proud of. It really works,” says Doria. Some countries even prohibit tampering with the national flag, adding an additional layer of irreverent provocation to this campaign.
The flags were popular online and they also caught the attention of Brazilian officials: “When we launched this in the magazine, we had a picture of the Brazilian flag. Very soon after that, the Brazilian ambassador in Portugal wrote a letter to the magazine talking about how amazing Brazil is, how there is equality, how it is a great place for holidays, it has amazing beaches, and people are taken care of. Clearly it struck a nerve. It really hit home because he felt he had to write a letter saying all these other things about Brazil rather than facing the issues.” 
This form of subversion works because it draws viewers into a known symbol and then, on closer inspection, flips their expectations of what the image is there for and what it is telling them. 

Technique 3: Less is more

Childrens' Map of the World. Save the Children Sweden. 2009.
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.
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.

By visually translating political positions into spatial positions and comparing them, the audience is invited to consider the facts and to raise their own questions. It is difficult to imagine a newspaper headline or article that could work quite so effectively. 


Function. Kamal Makloufi. 2010. Legend: Dark Blue = 'Friendly troops' / Turquoise  = Host nation troops / Orange = Iraqi Civilians / Dark Grey = 'Enemies'
Function. Kamal Makloufi. 2010.
Legend: Dark Blue = 'Friendly troops' / Turquoise  = Host nation troops /
Orange = Iraqi Civilians / Dark Grey = 'Enemies'
'Function' shows data from the US military 'SigActs' database which was obtained and made public by Wikileaks. It shows civilians and military personnel killed in military engagements involving coalition forces in the Iraq war between 2004 and the end of 2009. “I try not to tell people what to think about it; let them form their own impressions!” says Kamal Makloufi, the French Canadian designer who in his spare time created this work. The images were republished in a number of high profile media outlets, including The New Yorker. “I never thought that it would have such an impact. It got so many comments after I posted it online. I don't really know why this picture was printed, shared and why it was so widely commented on. I don't know why this picture worked. I'm still trying to find out why it was so popular”.  
Makloufi's images create two different narratives of the Iraq war from the original Wikileaks data. The image on the right side shows deaths as they happened over time as they were reported in the military's database, plotted in rows starting at the top left and running left to right. The result is a confusing mess of colour that looks like the screen of a television with no signal. The clearer image on the left, that looks like an abstract painting, presents the same data. This time it is not shown over time but grouped by the characteristics of those killed. It reveals precisely what the other one conceals: a simple and memorable truth that civilian deaths massively outweigh military ones. Neither image would work as well on their own, but the difference between them allows people to contrast two narratives about the Iraq war.
The work also shows that a simple technique can give meaning to the huge amount of data on display without having to select or reduce it. It creates a moment of realisation for the viewers that they can comprehend something important about this complex, and highly politicised issue. It is the contrast between the two views that both makes the viewer think about the percentage of civilian deaths and at the same time raise questions about the problem of data presentation and the influence this has on our understanding of the shape of a problem.


Another way of seeing things differently can be found in the San Francisco Bay Chronicle's 'Lethal Beauty' series of articles. These  look at why so many people choose to end their lives off the city's iconic Golden Gate Bridge, what should be done to stop further deaths, and why it is still an issue after so long. Accompanying the articles are two charts showing data about these deaths. 
Suicides by Year. San Francisco Chronicle. 2005. Source. The Sad Tally. San Francisco Chronicle. 2005. Source.
Suicides by Year. San Francisco Chronicle. 2005. Source. The Sad Tally. San Francisco Chronicle. 2005. Source.
The above image on the left plots data about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge by year, revealing little beyond the numbers. The one on the right – titled 'The Sad Tally' -  shows these same deaths organised not along a timeline but along the actual bridge, placing the data at the locations that people jumped from. The visual presentation reveals some morbid facts: more people jumped east towards the city, and the single most popular spot is the centre of the bridge. Why is that? In bringing side-debates like this to the forefront, audiences have to grapple with the bigger question of why this is even possible in the first place. The real message is illuminated: there should be a safety barrier to stop this, and it's absurd that there is not.

Technique 5: Humour

As viewers we selectively exclude images and messages all the time; our environments are so saturated with them that we have to. Humour and irony seem to be our Achilles heel. It is hard to get it right but when we contextualise humour and hone it for the audience it can be a really effective technique. Humour is commonly used in campaigning to try and get a point across quickly, to engage people and to encourage people to pass things on to others. Humour also comes in many different forms, such as wit, parody and irony. 
Is this yours? Greenpeace. 2007. Photograph  by Alex Hofford.

Is this yours? Greenpeace. 2007. Photograph 
by Alex Hofford.

The above example –'Is this Yours?' - by Greenpeace was part of their public information work about plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean. It is a snapshot from what looks to be a strangely vindictive diving expedition by environmentalists to find that toothbrush you just chucked away and never expected to see again. It is a simple joke with a simple aim; a memorable invitation to think about your plastic consumption and disposal, and an attempt to befriend you to their campaign. It works because it is playful and uses wit to draw the viewer in, then leaving them to imagine the rest.
In another example -'The World of One Hundred' - visual playfulness is used effectively to get the audience to consider a series of comparable facts. Each image works by itself, such as 'births/deaths', or 'sexual orientation', by converting statistics into simple and easy to digest formats.  They also work equally well as a set of posters.
The World of 100. Toby Ng, 2011 version. Source.
The World of 100. Toby Ng, 2011 version. Source.



                           Ken finds some hard truths about Barbie
                           from Greenpeace on Vimeo.

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. Catelan Water Agency. Undated.
The Most Dangerous Species in the Mediterranean.
Catelan Water Agency. Undated.

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 

Illustration 27: Campaign poster by Greenpeace.   Photograph of albatross chick Copyright David Liittschwager,2005. Photograph of stomach contents Copyright Susan Middleton, 2005.
Illustration 27: Campaign poster by Greenpeace.  
Photograph of albatross chick
Copyright David Liittschwager,2005.
Photograph of stomach contents
Copyright Susan Middleton, 2005.

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 
Making the Invisible Visible. Amnesty International. 2011. This image is of Jabbar Savalan, a history student in Azerbaijan, who is serving a two and a half year prison sentence for his peaceful anti-government activism, including comments he posted on Facebook. Making the Visible Invisible. Amnesty International. 2011. This images is of Fatima Hussein Badi, who faces the death penalty in Yemen following an unfair trial in which her brother, Abdullah Badi, was also sentenced to death. Abdullah was executed in 2005.
Making the Invisible Visible. Amnesty International. 2011. This image is of Jabbar Savalan, a history student in Azerbaijan, who is serving a two and a half year prison sentence for his peaceful anti-government activism, including comments he posted on Facebook. Making the Visible Invisible. Amnesty International. 2011. This images is of Fatima Hussein Badi, who faces the death penalty in Yemen following an unfair trial in which her brother, Abdullah Badi, was also sentenced to death. Abdullah was executed in 2005.
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. 

Wrap up

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 summary: 
  • Visualisation can turn the undefined, difficult to describe, complex and often invisible into something a viewer can quickly recognise and relate to. For advocates, this can create a quick bridge between the problem they are trying to describe and the individual or group of people who may be interested in it. It can allow them to lead people into a complex problem through a simple story or hook.
  • Visualisation is a flexible and efficient way of communicating. There is a wide spectrum of choices in how to represent any issue. A visualisation can cut straight to the point of a matter very effectively, raise an issue without being direct, for example about something taboo, sensitive or even dangerous. 
  • Visualisation can help to find a completely fresh form of expression, inventing new ways to tell stories about and create a narrative for an issue. It allows to open up new forms of debate and participation.
  • Attention-grabbing techniques become stronger: contrasts, shock, humour, beauty and narratives express themselves and show their strengths very differently in visual media.
  • Visualisation opens up new formats for communicating in ways that are not possible otherwise. It enables the creation of something distinctive that stands out and is memorable to audiences because it creates a new sort of experience for them.  
  • Visualisation creates alternative routes for the audience to understand, identify with and participate in an issue. It can help people recognise themselves or the relevance of an issue to them; it can give them space to think and decide for themselves. This recognition is not just rational, but also emotional.
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. 

Further resources

  • Essentials in Visual Communication, by Bo Bergström, this clearly written and extensive book is a great introduction to some of the ideas that we have discussed in this Note. 
  • The Inspiration Room, you'll find a wide range of different creative, but mostly mainstream ways of communicating on this website. A particularly helpful feature are the pages organising adverts by brand, including Amnesty International and Greenpeace.
  • Ads of the World, this website archives a huge number of campaign materials made by advertising agencies, arranged by country, media type and industry. It has a section for 'public interest' advertising,though again it is mostly mainstream material. 
  • Social Design Notes, John Emerson's excellent blog about the use of visual communication in activism. Packed with examples and analysis.