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Graphics and images serve as a universal language for communication. The first records of human communication are drawings, and they have served as a means of communication among many cultures and throughout many generations. Even today, as children, we start learning names and ideas through colors, graphics, images and drawings. Why do we stop as adults when it is clearly a useful resource for communication?

Transportation engineers, urban planners, environmental scientists, and architects are some of the specialists that use technical language as part of their day-to-day communication. Although technical terminology might be very helpful to communicate complex information in a specific field, it might also create a barrier in interactions with people without that technical knowledge. For instance, imagine a group of experts in psychology participating in an engineering technical meeting about how to construct bridges. Even though all participants might have extensive professional trainings, they do not share the same technical language, which will can make communicating difficult. Now instead of psychology experts, imagine people from very different backgrounds, education levels, and even languages going to that same meeting.

When we organize public meetings at Nspiregreen, we experience these types of situations where experts in a field want to share their ideas and obtain feedback from community members. Graphic designs, maps, and other ways of content visualization help to simplify ideas.  We develop graphics, content visualization, designs, and interactive activities to help connect these two groups, experts and non-experts, and support their communication. Visually appealing and colorful designs for posters, handouts, and informational boards translate technical information to help the community visualize and understand complex processes. The interactive activities we design allow people not only to understand, but also to generate informed decisions to provide feedback for the projects.

For example, compare Figure 1 and Figure 2. The figures show two different ways to describe the same concepts related to stormwater management.

Sewer Systems in the District of Columbia - Document vs Graphic

What figure did you look first? Did you look at the Word document or the graphic?

When organizing and designing public engagement events, we have to consider that people have limited time to understand new complex and technical ideas, and give feedback based on informed decisions. The graphic on Figure 2 summarizes the process of how stormwater is conducted through a system in Figure 1. In addition, there are are no unnecessary technical details. It highlights the basic elements of the system that people need to know to understand the process in a visually appealing and even fun way.

Surprisingly for us, not only has the community found the graphics valuable we have created for them; but, also the project team members who are experts in their fields, have found them very informative, visually appealing, and useful. Artistic and creative resources such as graphics are highly underused and undervalued in the scientific communities. Our society tends to separate art from science as if they were opposites, but in reality they complement each other. If used together, they might even create a more powerful impact in engaging more people to participate in public events and local projects.

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.

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