To metamorphose is to transform. This site is an exploration of change (why we avoid it, how we can achieve it, who inspires us along the way) and the conditions required for transformation. Founded and curated by Simran Sethi.

“Context Brings Understanding”

Arlene Birt is a designer/ storyteller dedicated to helping people understand how their individual actions embed them into the bigger picture of sustainability. This is a critical but often overlooked component of engaging people in change. A perfect example of this is climate change. Arlene and I discussed this a few days ago. She is creating a series of infographics on carbon emissions and how they translate into everyday consumption.

Most information is, what I would call, interesting but misguided.

Equating personal actions to a number of trees saved, households powered or cars taken off the road is interesting but does little to capture the imagination or spirit. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Take this example from the Meat Eaters Guide put out by Environmental Working Group (an environmental non-profit engaged in consumer protection and advocacy that I adore for their research on our chemical body burden):

Translating my burger consumption into line-drying clothes or shortening my shower time does not compute.  

This is a new realization. I have heralded car/ home/ tree equivalents on endless television outlets, and didn’t realize they weren’t doing it for me until I saw Arlene’s images. She included the traditional ones but had also developed equivalents I could get my head around such as how CO2 emissions equate with computer usage. I use a computer. I know how many hours I spend online (too many). I do not grow trees or count trees or think too much about the energy it takes to light up someone else’s house. I have a clothesline but definitely do not think about it (or even really use it). Because I think about my computer and know how much hurt I’m in when the internet goes down or the computer is on the fritz, I interpreted the data differently. I felt something. It stirred me in a way her tree/ car ones did not.   

Arlene is a wickedly creative and thoughtful woman who is also trying to understand the drivers of change. Here are some of her notes on designing for understanding from the GreenID conference:

"When setting out to design information to aid in understanding, and to clarify context, there are a number of strategies to consider. 

Presenter Angela Morelli, who has done a thorough analysis of the hidden water footprints embedded behind everyday foods and activities, made a case for emotional connection with an audience.

She presented four guidelines for designing for understanding:
1) Utilize empathy
2) Reference cognitive science
3) Observe beauty
4) Play to an audiences’ interest

To design for understanding, one must first thoroughly understand the content of what is being designed. In a workshop Morelli gave on data visualization, she also outlined the steps to creating information design: first we ‘look,’ then ‘read,’ ‘organize’ information then ‘cut & paste’ it into a format which communicates a message to others.

This process mirrored the 4 steps of visual thinking outlined in Dan Roam’s book, Back of the Napkin: first we ‘look’ to scan what’s in our vision. Then we ‘see’ to make sense of that which is visible, and then ‘imagine’, to use our mind to guess that which is not visible. At this point we ‘show’ to share with others (this is the actual stage of creating a visual info design).

3 legs of sustainability
Discussion at the conference considered methods of measurement for each of the 3 legs of sustainability in order to visualize data in a holistically-balanced way.

  • Financial data obviously exists for monetary measurements. All companies financial reports go into depth on this very important topic.
  • Ecological dimensions are –relatively more recently- available through processes such as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). In fact, my presentation showcased a variety of visual narrative approaches to information design, including examples from client work, creative practice and student work from a course I teach that concentrates on visualizing product life cycles and the more technical ecological measurements of sustainability known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).
  • Social components are much more slippery. (How exactly does one measure ‘happiness’?) As this field of ‘quality of life’ is based on qualitative research and varies based on cultural norms and individual expectations, it’s hard to make inclusive visualizations of the ‘social’ on-par with its financial and ecological counterparts.”
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