A story about information design and impact.
October 2018 was a pivotal point in climate change history. We were part of the team behind the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and it has been a defining journey for us, professionally.
We are information designers. At the heart of what drives us is working with scientists to turn complex information into meaningful messages. We think a lot about the datavisualisation industry. How it’s changing. How it’s evolving. Probably the thing we think about most is impact.
This is an article about visualising data for lasting impact, particularly in science. Not because we think we have the answers. We’re constantly looking for those ourselves. Every day. But because we want to share what we’re experiencing as information designers, the changes that we’re witnessing, what we think we’re part of.
Datavisualisation is changing. Updating. Becoming more relevant. Finding ways to be more useful. But change is gradual. Still more often than not, datavisualisations are made by simple ‘order-and-delivery’ mode.
Client places commission. Client briefs designer. Designer delivers to deadline on Monday. This doesn’t always happen on a Monday — of course. But for the sake of this story, let’s say it does.
So Monday comes, and our work as a designer is released to the world. Maybe the datavisualisation makes some people think, or understand something differently. But often, the engagement might stop there. Something else is published. People move on.
Ever since we started out as information designers 15 years ago, we have been thinking a lot about this order-and-delivery mode, and we have been discussing how, in small or big projects, in short- or long-term ones, it affected our purpose.
Then things evolved and began to shift towards thinking about who the datavisualisations are really for. They’re not for the client. They’re definitely not for us, the designers. They’re for the audience. We began striving to understand our audience’s needs — and thinking about how to meet those needs. Designing became more about impact than the client’s or designer’s personal vision.
This notion is often called user centric design. But this term can still mean different things to different people. Sometimes it’s interpreted as researching an audience before we start designing. Other interpretations take the approach a step further by going out and actually talking to the audience. This kind of feedback definitely helps to refine and sharpen up ideas, but even so, sometimes it feels like just scratching the surface.
As designers, how can we create ripples that last? How can we have an impact on the Monday when our work gets published — and keep having impact after that? In other words, how can we design for Tuesday?
We don’t have the answer, but for us, the challenge of designing for Tuesday (and beyond) is a useful way to channel our ideas and ambitions. How can visual information help disentangle complex issues, resolve challenges, help make important decisions and, ultimately, inspire change?
How do we move people from ‘think’ to ‘act’?
As designers, wanting this kind of impact and making it happen, are two very different things. But here’s what we think it comes down to. Here’s what our experience has taught us, for what it’s worth. We believe that designing for Tuesday means more than involving the users. We need to become the users. We need to do more than create with the content we’re given. We need to master the content.
We need to think beyond what the information will look like to what it will do. We need to create tools. Tools that last. Tools that empower.
The approach that we’ve found useful as information designers is to borrow tools from other disciplines, such as systemic design, service design or cognitive science and bring them into the datavisualisation process. We try things and we figure out what works. When things don’t work, we try something different. We’re convinced that collaborating across disciplines is key.
With any project we do, we are immersed. We live and breath the science. We push the scientists to think about what they want to show — and they challenge us back. They ask questions, we ask more.
It is important that we plan the design process to create maximum space for sharing, for conversations and feedback. Merging ideas across different parts of the globe, time-zones and schedules, over time we become one entity. One design team. We listen, we learn and we design. Then we do it all again, until we have co-designed something together that feels useful as well as scientifically rigorous.
Full immersion: The IPCC experience
With almost a year now passed, we’ve had a lot of time to reflect on how our design approach shaped and, in turn, was shaped by the IPCC process.
The acronym IPCC stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it provides the benchmark in scientific understanding of climate change. The reports are drafted by scientists over many months, years even. They are unique in going through several rounds of review and feedback by experts and governments worldwide. In total, there were 42,001 review comments on the drafts of the Special Report on 1.5°C. That’s on all aspects of the science, not just the figures. But on the figures alone, we had several hundred review comments that we, as the designers tasked with producing the final drafts, needed to consider together with the scientists. Expert review like this, is one way of involving the user in shaping the design. Another way that we find valuable is to use cognitive science principles to understand how the brain responds to visual information. In the IPCC project, we collaborated with cognitive scientists to collect evidence via a survey about how our target audience reacted to the draft figures.
Each time the figures went through review or user testing, we climbed further into the minds of our audience. Each time they challenged us to rethink our ideas and assumptions, the figures got better.
Then came the final test.
In October 2018, the time had come for the official approval of the Special Report on 1.5°C in Incheon, South Korea. The word ‘approval’ doesn’t begin to capture what actually happens at these meetings. It makes it sound relaxed and easy-going. But in reality, the scientists’ work is put under a microscope, including the figures we co-designed with them. It’s anything but easy-going.
For six days, sometimes long into the night, 195 government delegates representing different countries of the United Nations scrutinised every detail of the figures. Every line, data point, shape, colour and narrative structure. Points were argued. Justifications were given. Every view was considered. Changes were made. It was tense at times, heated even, though almost always respectful. We’ve never been involved in anything like this — and it was incredible to be part of and observe the diplomacy and negotiation skills in action.
It wasn’t the full scientific report being scrutinised in South Korea, just a 30-page distillation of the most relevant findings for policymakers. This is known as the Summary for Policymakers and is the most high-profile part of the whole report. It’s for that document that we were co-designing the figures.
It’s important to note, however, that the scientists’ underlying findings don’t change. What changes during this intense week of negotiation is which bits of information are included in the Summary for Policymakers, and how. Delegates argue over how to present the information in a way that is of most relevance to them. Of course there are country politics and national interests at play, just as in any international negotiation. But most of the time it is about making sure the scientific information is as clear, complete and accurate as it can be. As the target audience, the policymakers hold great sway at these meetings. But the scientists are there to make sure that any changes to the figures or the text do not detract from, undermine, misinterpret or in any way compromise the science.
Normally, a lot of design work is done remotely — it’s unusual to be as close to the action as we were with the IPCC report. To be in the room when our target audience reacted to what we’d created was a humbling but energising experience. There was no hiding behind our computer screens. We were exposed and we had to be battle-ready, in the sense of being prepared to stand by the design decisions we made together with the scientists and promoting principles of good visual design as far as possible. But we also had to be prepared to leave our egos at the door, and listen to others’ perspectives.
One of the most important things we’ve experienced — that is so special to the IPCC process — is the discussion of the figures between scientists and hundreds of delegates during the approval session.
We had to develop methods to facilitate constructive discussions around the visualisations. Stating clearly the intent of the figures up front, enabled us to have a much higher level of constructive discussions on every aspect of the figures.
While every part of the visual design and every word is scrutinised, we sit and we listen. Ready to support with new solutions, at any time of the day or night.
Some designers might think this kind of ‘designing by committee’ is impossible. Unworkable. An affront to their professional skills, perhaps. The experience was certainly intense. Painful and exhausting at times.
But the reward, immeasurable.
This is where the real power of co-design process lies. What we ended up with, once the dust had settled, were datavisualisations of complex scientific information that were useful to policymakers. Not because we thought so, but because they did.
When co-design means impact
We’re not claiming the figures that you see in the Summary for Policymakers are, visually-speaking, the best they could be. Of course we’re not. Given free rein, we would have designed things differently. But it’s not about us. The policymakers are the audience and it’s hard to imagine how any datavisualisation could be more tailored to an audience’s needs. Every single one of the policymakers in the room gave their stamp of approval to the figures. We may have begun the process with the scientists many months before, but by the end of the week in South Korea, the policymakers co-owned the figures too. Each one of the figures represents a lasting tool, not a one-time impression.
Co-design truly means co-design when we design with our audience, not for them.
When it embraces all stakeholders in the design process. When their purpose becomes our purpose. The IPCC process is extreme. We’re not suggesting this is how it should work every time. But it was a valuable test for the way we work. As designers who consider co-design and user-involvement as our core values, the IPCC experience put us through our paces. It tested us to see if we could stick to the principles that drive us. And we felt tested to the extreme — but we’d do it all over again.
And we did. In July 2019, the IPCC published its new Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Just like with the 1.5°C report, we co-designed the figures that you see in the Summary for Policymakers with the scientists. As well as being thrilled to be part of the team again, we feel inspired and energised by the changes that co-design can spark in an organisation like the IPCC. We’re always excited to see how an organisation we’ve worked with continues to build on this new way of thinking afterwards. And we keep changing what we do too.
With each experience, each unique co-design process we go through, we learn more. Each new group of people that we work with teaches us new perspectives, which helps us refine the process to be smoother and more sustainable next time. Most of all, the interactions we have, the relationships we build and the feedback we get constantly reminds us of the need to be flexible, resilient and — most of all — open-minded.
While our IPCC experience is about designing with scientists for policymakers, co-design has the power to impact any kind of decision-making, ranging from local to international scales and in any discipline. From sustainability to social justice, from education to health, co-design can empower people to see patterns, think systematically about the challenges we face as a society, inspire leadership, find solutions and, ultimately, act responsibly on them.
For us, that’s designing for impact.
That’s designing for Tuesday.
Tom Gabriel Johansen and Angela Morelli are the co-founders of InfoDesignLab. They are information designers, lecturers, international speakers and possibly future authors, as their notes, research and insights are piling up.💪😀
This article would have not been possible without the talent of Roz Pidcock, Project and Communications Manager for InfoDesignLab and formerly Head of Communications for Working Group 1 of the IPCC. Her insatiable curiosity for the co-design process made her guidance in turning thoughts into words invaluable.
Implementing a co-design process in a scientific organisation such as the IPCC has been, most of all, the consequence of powerful leadership, and Anna Pirani, Head of IPCC Working Group 1 Technical Support Unit, has been a key player. She has been a pioneer in making sure science would embrace design through a truly collaborative approach. She trusted the co-design process in such a way that every stakeholder involved has trusted that as well. From day one.
Working across disciplines allows us to learn continuously from incredible experts. We are grateful for the collaboration with Jordan Harold, researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research whose deep knowledge in cognitive processes has been a central part of the journey.
A warm thank to Fredrik Matheson and IxDA Oslo for partnering with InfoDesignLab in organising the very first event with the goal of sharing our journey (links to videos: panel discussion, Anna Pirani, Angela Morelli). Many of the thoughts shared in this article are the result of that insightful event.
We are grateful to the IPCC Working Group 1 Technical Support Unit for formally acknowledging InfoDesignLab’s contribution to the final Summary for Policymakers Report by listing us as drafting authors.