Data & Design How-to's Note 6: Get the picture

The Trouble With Metrics Reports. Email Marketing Reports, 2005.

Beyond the 60-page report

Once you've got people’s attention and helped them get the idea, what's next?

As advocates and researchers, our tendency is to want to tell the whole story and show all the work we've done. In some cases, publishing everything we know may be necessary, or be the fairest way to represent a problem. But doing this is often not very effective. Regardless of the rigour and skills that go into data collection, and regardless of the quality of research, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are awash with 60-page reports that very few people have ever read; they tend to collect dust on the shelves of like-minded organisations. This may seem like a harsh statement, but it's a commonly recognised problem that has to be addressed. In five years of talking about it with NGOs from around the world, we've only ever been met with rooms full of people nodding in agreement! So what can we do about it?

If we want people to understand and act on issues, the challenge is much greater than just the problem of representation and beautification. It's not enough to let the people who design our reports add more white space or a few full-page photographs. We need to find concise ways of telling stories that strengthen the information we’re trying to get across by presenting it well and beautifully, but without dumbing down the issues. We need to give people helpful short-cuts that increase their understanding of our key points, orient them within a particular perspective and entice them to explore our issue further.

By telling stories effectively, with high-quality data, delivered in a clear and compelling way, we can increase people’s understanding and focus attention on the most pressing or revealing aspects of an issue. In short, telling stories can be useful to:

  • present a brief visual executive summary, or lead people into a larger initiative
  • help people to grasp a problem by understanding its context or scale, how it came about, how it compares to other issues, or how urgent it is
  • illustrate a complex point by reaching for pen and paper and sketching it out, something many people do without thinking
  • help people to see different perspectives, and illuminate an issue in fresh ways

1. Telling stories with words and images

What goes into a story?

The Story of Bottled Water is a campaign video created by a USA-based environmental group called Story of Stuff. This video is one of a number they have made that highlight the social, economic and political aspects of mass consumption and the related environmental degradation.

Story of Bottled Water, March 2010. By Story of Stuff. 

The Story of Bottled Water is simple, and tells the audience things that they can remember, spread and use to develop a deeper understanding by themselves. It also works to nudge people who may already be unsure about drinking bottled water, but haven't yet taken a strong position, or who have friends and family who haven't yet taken a strong position. The narrative is structured to do the following:

1. outline and explain the history and scale of the problem; then,

2. suggest the solution to the problem; and, finally

3. ask the audience for support.

The narrative moves from the specific (you and your relationship to the problem) to the general (the system of production and consumption) and back to the specific again (what you can actually do about it). The video also has a narrator who tells the story – the prominent environmentalist Annie Leonard. Her persona and style of delivery are central to the video.

The story is ehanced by the use of visual techniques, combining a video of the narrator with a black and white animation. The animation uses humour to underline the main points and keep the viewer engaged. For example, visuals are used to emphasise Annie Leonard’s statement that “carrying bottled water is on its way to being as cool as smoking while pregnant ”. Similarly, when talking about the grossly-inflated cost of bottled water in comparison with tap water, the visual recreates the situation if similar costs were applied to sandwiches:

The overall aesthetic or visual style of the video is very simple, and this strengthen the video's impact in a number of ways. The simplicity of the style enables the depiction of a range of amusing stereotypes, for example of companies as grinning, top-hatted con-men. The cartoon style allows a comic over-simplification of situations, highlighting the bare essentials of the networks connecting people, products, markets and government.

The Story of Bottled Water weaves a narrative of villains and innocent consumers, of conflict and high stakes. It backs this up with hard facts and quotations in a short script of around 1300 words. This script conveys a selected evidence base to the audience and lends credibility to the video's main arguments; for example, citing statements from bottled water companies such as: “When we're done – one top water executive said – tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes”. These examples work by themselves to highlight the disingenuous attitude adopted by representatives of the bottled water industry in countries with safe drinking water. These references are combined with facts such as:

  • Bottled water costs about 2000 times more than tap water
  • A third of all bottled water in the US comes from the tap
  • Each year, the oil and energy used in making the bottles for bottled water is enough to fuel a million cars
  • Tap water in the US is under-funded by 24 billion dollars

Most of the facts in The Story of Bottled Water are headline grabbing, intentionally short and easy to absorb. The distinct facts that the video provides appeal to people's values and may work in different ways on different audiences; for example some of the arguments are based on money, others on health, wrong-doing or market manipulation. The campaign builds on the details in the animation with complementary information on its website – fact sheets, research, annotated scripts – that are available for viewers who want to dig deeper and learn more. The Story of Bottled Water is a straightforward example of a way to help people understand an issue by telling a story, and video is an obvious format for this. There are many ways to tell a story with information: through images, maps, information graphics and data sets. Although the format used is very important, success also depends on how the story is framed and what devices are used to create a compelling narrative.

Crafting your narrative

As you can see from our analysis of The Story of Bottled Water, you can use instantly recognisable common narratives, taken from the wider universe of storytelling. These include 'the crisis and the solution', 'the perpetrator and the victim', 'the symptom and the cause' and 'friends and enemies'. These narratives are very often used in advocacy and campaign communications: so often that in many cases audiences come to expect them from us, possibly to the detriment of our campaign's effectiveness.

Many advocates have also been quick to adopt narrative innovations that use complex techniques to build stories, rather than just telling them. In his book Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs – whose Freerange Studios produced The Story of Bottled Water, profiled above – uses the term digitoral to describe the way in which stories can be built by sharing, clipping, remixing and transforming content through social media such as Youtube and Twitter. This technique has been used in the global climate change campaign 350 and in Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign in 2008. Marshall Ganz's formulation, 'story of you, story of us, story of now', encourage people to craft personal stories that connect them to the wider community and to the problems a campaign is working on.

Digitoral and story-building approaches find an echo in products that use visuals effectively to represent and convey data. Such products can work to create a visual executive summary of the main points contained in a more extensive set of documents. They can also create layers of reading, enabling people to explore an issue in cursory or in deeper ways at the same time. Georgia Lupi, an information designer from the Milan-based studio Accurat, calls this sort of presentation non-linear storytelling: “The big picture is the shape of the story and this must be seen at a first glance. From this high-level view... further levels of non-linear exploration may then invite readers to “get lost” within the story or stories and engage at deeper levels”. This captures the essence of how we can create information products that help audiences get the picture.

Bringing data into your narrative

Combining narrative with facts to trace a storyline through your data is difficult. When working with data to create stories, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of shoehorning facts into an agenda or a pre-defined narrative. At best this would be unconvincing, and at worst it would discredit a campaign or initiative. Creating a narrative for your campaign from your data is a careful balancing act that involves working continually on four fronts at once:

  • Thinking strategically about the position of your audience: what do they already know or not know? What is it that you want them to understand and why?
  • Working outwards from the data: be clear about what the data tell you. Consider whether the data need to be simplified, contextualised or completed with other data to make your point.
  • Designing your information: how will you bring your story together with the facts and details in your data? How can you frame it in succinct and compelling ways without misleading or over-generalising?
  • Finding visual stories: what visual devices will you use to present the information in an engaging way? How will the visual design help organise and give meaning to the information?

Procedures to formalize a legally obtained home in Peru.  Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital, 2000, page 16. All rights reserved to Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

If you are very lucky, simply presenting the data will tell your story. For example, for his book The Mystery of Capital, the economist Hernando de Soto produced the chart above to show the vast number of administrative steps it takes for a property owner to legalise ownership of their property in Peru. The data about the legalisation process bounce between different boxes, showing the Byzantine nature of the process itself and the unimaginably tedious journey that an applicant would have to make. The storyline is one of astonishing bureaucracy, frustration and complexity, and just looking at the data shows this. And this is only the first of five charts about the same process!

However, such a situation is quite rare; most of the time we have to create the visual and informative story that will help people understand an issue, and this is where we need to combine our creative skills with our knowledge of the issue.

Questioning your ideas

At Tactical Tech we use this “question ladder” to test any information campaign ideas:

  • Who are you talking to?
  • What do you want them to do?
  • Why aren't they doing it already?
  • What will influence them?

Many of us struggle, both as publishers and as consumers of information, to deal with the dizzying amounts of data we encounter on a daily basis. Information graphics – infographics – have become popular vehicles for showing and simplifying data. Most infographics fail to achieve this aim and their creators should think more critically about how an infographic really helps.

The good visual design of information that we are presenting is important, and most of us need to work with graphic designers to achieve this. Even more important is the overall concept, the design of the story and the selection of the information to be presented. These are processes that the journalist, researcher, advocate or activist communicating the information must be involved in, as they understand best what needs to be said to whom, and what they want the reader to get from the product.

2. Telling stories that alter perceptions

One of the projects Tactical Tech has worked on involved choosing how to represent 15 years of human rights abuses against journalists in a particular country. The initial instinct of the organisation that had collected the information was to display the information on a map. We asked the questions: “Is where these things happened the most important story? Or are there other aspects of the data that are more important, such as the frequency of abuses, or the type of story the journalist was reporting on at the time of the abuse?”

At Tactical Tech workshops we have seen that when given a data set and the task of visualising it, most people will either draw a map, a bar graph or a pie chart. These are familiar visual organising principles that we can rely on without having to invent something new. There's nothing wrong with maps and bar charts. We see them so frequently because we often need them and they're easy to use. However the hard question we have to ask ourselves before we use them is, “Is this the best organising principle for the information we have and the story we are trying to tell?” In order to start thinking differently about representing information, we need to consider what we really intend to achieve, rather than just falling back on our habits or basic abilities.

Often we use visuals as a way to help us put things into perspective by manipulating context and using comparisons. We can make things more meaningful to people if we can help them move from an abstract awareness to something they can grasp and relate to. Below, we suggest eight organising principles that can help you tell evidence-based stories that shift people’s perceptions rather than simply showing them information.

Explain a problem and its impact

Panels from Our Toxic World, 2010, by Toxic Links. Left image: page 5. Right image: Page 3.

The environmental organisation Toxic Links focuses on the ways in which toxic pollution affects people living in India. In order to promote understanding of the scale of the problem of pollution in a city such as Delhi, and to look at its impact on different types of communities, they decided to experiment with a graphic novel format. They created a graphic novel called Our Toxic World – A guide to hazardous substances in our everyday lives. It combines a strong storyline, involving fictional characters, with detailed information on various pollution-related problems and their impact on individuals. The graphic novel is 160 pages long, and took eight months to produce. Illustrator Priya Kuriyan describes the process to us: “Aniruddha would send in the script as it was being written, chapter-wise, and then I would work on the rough visuals at my end. He would then go through these rough sketches and send in very detailed feedback. The major part of editing the artworks was done at this point, after which the inking and final artwork was complete. It was a huge learning process for me in many ways.” The final product was then printed and widely distributed.

Show your relationship to an issue

Walk This Way, 2009, Good Magazine.

Walk This Way is an infographic produced by Good magazine, exploring the issue of water consumption, in particular an individual's water footprint. In presenting the information the designer has chosen two ways to describe water consumption: the direct consumption of water through visible, everyday acts such as flushing a toilet, and the indirect, invisible consumption of water through such processes as the production of beef. For each water consumption unit, an alternative is presented that automatically introduces the idea of choice. For example, look at the difference in the number of units of water used to produce a beef steak as opposed to a baked potato. The choices are also mapped over a 'typical' day, from getting up, to breakfast, to lunch and so on. Framing the information in this way invites the reader to consider her or his own day, the options available and the choices made.

Show how different types of information are related

How many cancers can be prevented? 2012, Cancer Research UK.

Information graphics can also be useful to explain how things are related. Cancer Research UK uses an unusual visual form to show the relationship between different types of cancer and different behaviours that increase risk, such as smoking or being overweight. One of the good things about this infographic is that it is extremely simple to follow even though the information is extremely rich.

Show how we got here

Glencore, 2011, ABC.

Most of us aren't really aware of the complex chains of power and influence behind innocuous everyday things such as the price of bread or where the minerals and metals in an frying pan come from, or of the implications these have for communities around the world. Patrick Clair's animated infographic for the Australian Broadcasting Company's documentary Hungry Beast (2011) presents the story behind the ways in which the prices of commodities from barley to zinc are manipulated by a wealthy and powerful commodities trading firm called Glencore. The short animation shows how far Glencore's influence reaches – from pressuring Bahraini officials, to controlling the price of Russian wheat in the global market. Clair's animation takes information about the activities of Glencore from the time of its founding in the 1980s and shows how it was born in criminality, violating US sanctions and buying oil from Iran; the litany of offences continues up to the present day, when Glencore is a powerful investor. The dirt on Glencore reaches back 30 years and this animated infographic is able to pull together decades worth of information into a brief, well-laid out and clear story.

Show how things are related

Altro che disarmo, IL 20, Sara Deganello and Francesco Franchi. Illustrations by Laura Cattaneo.

Many classic information graphics allow the reader to understand something in context or relate one fact to another, working in the same way as verbal metaphor. Italian information designers Francesco Franchi and Laura Cattaneo are well-known for their very distinctive style.

Their infographics tell complex stories through visual representation. This is not a style that every reader likes. The encyclopaedic or educational style makes the reader work to learn how to read what is front of them. This sort of approach is widely used in the print media in an effort to present issues from different perspectives and break up standard reporting. If done well it can be an engaging format for some readers who are more comfortable grasping things visually. This example, on disarmament, explores the details of the growing arms trade. In the centre it shows the top ten importing and exporting states. The panel on the right shows a series of facts about the types of arms sold by each top ten company (top right). This compares the biggest producers of arms and how much of the market each dominates (middle right). It also compares the biggest consumers to each other.

Make something personal

Travel documents I needed to travel outside Palestine, by Majdui Haddid.  Subjective Atlas of Palestine, 2007, Annelys de Vet.

Travel documents I needed to travel outside Palestine is a montage from a book called Subjective Atlas of Palestine. It plainly displays the nineteen documents that the creator of this work, Majdi Haddid, needed in order to travel outside Palestine. Haddid takes a well-known political problem and explains it at a highly personal level. As the viewer, you can identify with this by comparing it to the relative ease and simplicity of your own travel experiences. This is one of over 30 artworks in a book exploring aspects of life in different parts of Palestine.

Show the scale of something in a meaningful way

In trying to understand an issue, we are often asked to comprehend measurements that are difficult to grasp. This could be because the scale means nothing to us; for example, 'global energy consumption in 2030 will be 678,000,000,000,000,000 BTU (British Thermal Unites)’. Or it could be because we are being asked to try and understand something we have no direct experience of.

How Big Really? BBC, 2010.

The BBC developed How Big Really to help people understand the impact of large-scale environmental problems, such as the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the BP oil spill. They did this by using a geo-spatial reference that has relevance for the user. In this example, you can see the size of the area destroyed by the Pakistan floods of 2010 mapped on to a specific postcode in the UK.

Earlier versions of this have existed as mash-ups on the internet, like the chilling mapplet that allows the viewer to see the area affected by devastating explosions, from “Little Boy”, the bomb dropped by the USA on Hiroshima in 1945, to an asteroid's collision with the earth.

Show things in an out-of-the-ordinary way

Dutch design studio Catalogtree visualised information linking the parking fines incurred by diplomats with corruption. An initial visualisation of this data was created in the form of a table that was published in the New York Times. This visual representation is a strong and simple design that clearly shows patterns that enables the viewer to get an analysis of the findings at a glance. Its simplicity makes it easy to read. It cuts through 141,369 data points very nicely.

Diplomatic Parking Violations, 2008. Cataloguetree.

In other pieces based on the same data set, Catalogtree worked more experimentally, through a series of posters. The Flocking Diplomats series shows different aspects of the data in increasingly abstract but comprehensible formats. FD-4 (below) is an image treemap showing photographs of the 100 places where parking fines were most frequently issued to diplomats. FD-01 shows all parking violations per hour for each hour from 1999 to 2002, and FD-6 lays out the data in radial form with the regular and frequent fines at the UN's headquarters.

Catalogtree images from the Flocking Diplomat series. Left: FD-4. Right: FD-1. The data is based on a paper by Ray Fisman and Edward Miguel, entitled 'Corruption, Norms, and Legal Enforcement: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets', published in the Journal of Political Economy in December 2007.

3. The Limits of Visualisation

Click image to enlarge. "Infographic", Phil Gyford, 2010. 

With increased access to data visualisation tools and mapping software, it is now possible to trade up from the pie charts and bar graphs offered in your everyday spreadsheet programme to more descriptive visualisations, as we've discussed here. However, the question remains – what next? How does the presentation of data in a visualisation or on a map contribute to your campaign?

Two Activists Walk Into a Bar (Graph)

Simple mapping and data visualisation tools can serve as an introduction to seeing information in a whole new light, prompting us to start asking questions and developing our own idea of what it means to communicate visually with numbers. Experimenting, learning how to clean up spreadsheets, thinking about our data and our story – all these are worthwhile pursuits that can help develop skills. At the end of this chapter, it is also useful to look at the other side of making infographics. We are witnessing an explosion of information graphics today, as a direct reaction to the sheer quantity of text-based information that audiences are exposed to.

The development of easily accessible data visualisation software results in what Megan McCardle of The Atlantic calls the 'plague of infographics'. Some infographics you come across online can be quite glitzy-looking and impressive at first glance; others will put you off instantly with their vast webs of connections, endless pie charts or tacky clip-art-like visualisations. There can be infographics with questionable or misleading data that you don't spot because you're overwhelmed by the image. Others make you feel exasperated; why would anyone would want to spend their time making an infographic to show the overlaps and distinctions between

a) the number of people who like pies, and

b) the number of people who hate circles?

Bluntly put, does every piece of data need to be visualised as an infographic just because it can be? Easy to make and readily shareable, infographics have become the flotsam of the internet – they are everywhere, they are annoying and they are easily forgettable in the slew of information around us.

The Myth of Maps: The Dead Ushahidi Project

The Dead Ushahidi Project is a map of defunct or 'dead' Ushahidi maps. The pioneering work of Ushahidi (meaning 'witness' in Kiswahili), using crowd-mapping to expose post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008, has become one of the most accessible digital documentation and reporting platforms. Crowd-maps allow rapid data collection around a particular event and can be very useful; for example, in cases of electoral violence, or of a natural disaster. As events are unspooling, crowd-sourcing information allows data from public or official sources to be challenged (or supported) by direct reports from individuals on the ground. However, just because a map is the most easily available do-it-yourself tool around, this doesn’t necessarily mean that mapping is the best format in which to display your information.

“There is an increasing number of Ushahidi maps that are set up with little thought as to the why, what, who, and how... Using crowdsourcing technology such as Ushahidi maps without doing the strategic and programmatic ground work is unlikely to work or to change much. Trying to crowdscource a map without a goal or strategy leaves you with just a map, which will soon be a dead map.”

The Dead Ushahidi Project is making a critical point – one that we have reiterated in this guide, too: that our choice of the kind of visuals or technology we want to use to display information must be driven by a thorough understanding of our reach, network, resources and skills. Our choices must grow out of our broader strategies for advocacy: who we want to influence and how we want them to engage with our content.

4. What makes a good information graphic? 

Tactical Tech is often asked this simple but hard-to-answer question: “What makes a good information graphic?” The answer depends on what the creator is trying to achieve and who they are trying to reach. However, there are some fundamental common points that we have identified in many of the issue-related information graphics we think are great. These work in sequence, as follows:

1. Invite. A good information graphic provides a concise visual entry-point that at first glance invites you to examine the image further, get an initial impression of the issue and a quick summary. This works in much in the same way as when we scan a page of text to look for headings and see if it's what we need, or flick through the images in a magazine to find an article we want to read. At Tactical Tech workshops we run 'image galleries', where we find that complicated, dense or technical-looking infographics lose people in the first few seconds even if the content is interesting.

2. Intrigue. On closer examination, an issue-related information graphic that works well often presents something that you weren't quite expecting, or shows you something out of context. This ignites your curiosity or makes you question your assumptions about the issue.

3. Inform. This may seem obvious, but an information graphic actually has to communicate something that the audience may not have known, understood or reflected on before.

4. Resonate. Once the combination of image, text and facts starts to come together, many successful issue-themed information graphics either chime with or challenge our world view. They can move us away from the visual or aesthetic experience of what we are looking at into a more rational space of contemplating what the graphic is saying. Often, political stories or statements are implicit in an infographic, giving the viewer the opportunity to join the dots. This can lead to the final and most important step: leaving the viewer with an open question, or hook, leading her or him to search for more information, reconsider her or his views, or get more engaged.

This visually straightforward image by the Land Art Generator Initiative is a great infographic. We can see why by looking at the four fundamentals. First we are invited to take a closer look by the arresting heading 'surface area required to power the world' and a pattern of lines we don't yet recognise on the world map. We are intrigued when we realise that the blue lines represent locations where wind farms would have to be constructed. On further examination, abstract numerical information about energy consumption is translated into something concrete so as to inform us. The starting premise for this work was a US government estimate that global energy consumption in 2030 will be 678,000,000,000,000,000 BTU. The project translated this abstract concept into a 'what if' scenario and mapped this on to a visual and spatial reference that we can grasp easily.

At this global scale, the space required still looks small, but at the human scale the potential impact of such a transition would be enormous. Consider the land area that would have to be completely devoted to wind farms. The visual resonates with the audience as it introduces a new sort of trade-off. It neither endorses nor condemns, but asks the viewer to think for themselves and consider the different aspects of this proposed solution to the world's energy needs. Perhaps most importantly, the information graphic raises a more subtle and broader geo-political question, “What would the world look like if energy sources came from other places, and how would this draw power away from oil centres like the Middle East?

In summary

  • By comparison with conventional ways of presenting evidence, such as 60-page reports, a visual executive summary can help audiences understand and relate to our issue quickly.
  • The dangers when creating a visual summary are that the issue becomes dumbed down; the data are shoehorned in to fit the most convenient argument; imagery and nice design become substitutes for a strong argument; and that there is no story that appeals to the viewer.
  • Aesthetics and design certainly matter, but the biggest challenge in creating a visual executive summary is getting the narrative right. There is a range of familiar narrative types we can use to tell stories that inform, and other narratives that we can use to help our audiences build themselves into an issue and explore it.
  • In designing an information product, we should consider what is the best organising principle for the information, rather than the most comfortable or convenient for us. We can find organising principles by thinking about what our audiences need to know in order to change their perception of an issue.
  • The success of advocacy and campaign communications can only be judged by how they affect an audience; in creating them we must look at what the audience needs, not what we fancy producing. To judge the success of a visual executive summary such as an infographic, look at the degree to which it manages to invite, inspire, inform and resonate with the viewer.

Further resources for this Note