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The Water We Eat

Ten years ago I fell in love with the concept of virtual water and I could not imagine I was going to undertake a journey full of so many encounters. I could not imagine that, from that point on, my personal and professional compasses would point so firmly in the same direction.

That journey has been a catalyst for two major discoveries: the way we use water and the power of design. I became a more conscious water-user and I became aware of how powerful information design can be in communicating data with clarity and beauty to enhance understanding.

For years I had been bombarded with powerful advertising campaigns that urged me to save water while brushing my teeth or while flushing the toilet. That is extremely important, but water scientists tell us that a big problem lies in what we eat, in how we produce what we eat, in how we trade what we eat, and in how much food we waste.

How is this so?

Well, a startling statistic is that only about 8 percent of the total global water consumption refers to domestic services such as drinking, cleaning, washing, and to the production of industrial products such as steel, paper, clothes.

A colossal 92 percent of the total global water consumption is used in food production (strictly, a very small bit is for cotton, other fibers and bioenergy). This 92 percent can be called virtual water or food-water and is managed by the world’s farmers.

Thanks to a continuing dialogue with leading water scientists such as Professor Tony Allan and Professor Arjen Hoekstra I have spent the past ten years communicating this research and its consequences to different audiences, in different contexts by using different design solutions.

The United Nations World Water Development Report has been the foundation of my MA thesis in Information Design at Central St Martins. The goal was to visualise The Global Water Footprint of Humanity thorough cartograms, diagrams and a 900-page encyclopedia.
Design activism for Water, an exhibition on how contemporary designers can influence our general way of thinking about water, November 2016, Ghent
The design of the book Virtual Water commissioned by Professor Tony Allan, IBTauris, London-New York

One of those solutions is the infographic story The Water We Eat, an 8-month self-initiated project whose ripple effects have been overwhelming and unexpected. The visual story which is, I believe, the first scrollytelling info graphic story, launched in September 2012, sums up some important key findings that we cannot ignore if we want to solve the water crisis.

Symbol Design for the visualising the Water Footprint of Products
Check The Water We Eat on desktop to get the fully animated reading experience

What do I mean by an info-graphic story?

Imagine a ‘stage’ where words and images dance in sync in order to guide the audience through a reading experience, where the reader has a certain degree of freedom while navigating the information. I wanted the narrative to be mainly author-driven, but at the same time I wanted readers to experience wonder and freedom in setting one’s own reading pace.

In the info-graphic, every sentence and every visual are the result of a meticulous process aimed at constructing a narrative that communicates fairly complex scientific evidence though a visual journey, where cognition and perception, logic and emotion, clarity and sense of wonder make the experience worthwhile.

Several experts have been involved in the design process. Senior editor David Stonestreet who works on scientific water books supervised me while I was writing the story; leading water scientist Professor Allan advised me on content and data; my business partner Tom Gabriel Johansen, with his 20-year experience in information and interaction design, has been an incredible design advisor; a team of developers helped me solve implementation issues.

The design of The Water We Eat required 8-month work on words and images with the supervision of a senior editor and scientists
An early prototype of The Water We Eat

The Impact

After the launch, the project was featured in The Guardian, Huffington Post, Le Monde, Fast Company, Brain Picker which helped to create a lot of interest in the topic. That interest has never ceased.

What blew me away was the feedback I received by email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, every year since the launch, from readers who saw a potential in the project that I was oblivious to. The feedback of hundreds of different people, from all over the world, has contributed to keep the project alive.

A scientist from Norway wrote that she had been thinking about becoming a vegetarian for several years, but as with everything else, she wanted it not to be a mere assumption, but evidence based. She said that The Water We Eat allowed her to see it “black on white” that it would mean a difference to the environment if she quit eating meat. She already knew from a public health perspective that guidelines advise as little meat (and especially red meat) in the diet as possible and she wrote that the presentation made her see how changing our habits can affect our life, our health, our planet, every day.

A policy maker from India wrote that during the negotiations at COP 21, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, an Indian minister responsible for the environment had come up with suggestions based on the Indian lifestyle being environmental friendly. He knew that the statement the minister had made was partially right, but mostly wrong and The Water We Eat was useful to fact check water data and to understand where the big elephant in the room is. He added that at times many of our politicians worldwide are happy with temporary fixes, which unfortunately could do lots of harm in the long run. He concluded: ‘Please continue the good work that you are doing. Hoping to see your similar contributions on other issues affecting humanity.’

Agnès Dahl, English teacher in a French school, using The Water We Eat as teaching material with her students

An English teacher in a French school wrote that she decided to use The Water We Eat to teach kids English through a meaningful topic. She said that the visual story aroused tremendous interest among her students and she would love to renew that fantastic teaching experience in the coming school years with other classes. She suggested developing an off-line downloadable package that would allow teachers to teach the key concepts and data presented in the visual story.

An army of people from all over the world offered to translate the visual story into different languages.

Today, 22 March 2022, ten years on, thanks to the hundreds of people who got in touch with us at InfoDesignLab and wanted to help, we are ready for new steps:

  1. we are launching the visual story in 7 languages while many more are in progress;
  2. we are launching a visual info-graphic lesson that can be used in schools to teach kids the key concepts of how we use water and how much water we use;
  3. we are launching an animated mobile version.

We don’t know how many more steps there will be in the years to come, while science evolves, while technology evolves, while the planet keeps transforming dramatically under the pressure of our consumption patterns.

One thing we have learnt for sure at InfoDesignLab is that it might be hard to measure precisely the impact of an info-graphic story, but when you design for impact with the collaboration of users, scientists and experts, the outcome can be powerful. A self-initiated project, with zero-funds, can bring you very far.



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angela morelli

Co-founder, CEO, Information Designer, Info-Activist, Lecturer, Science Communicator, YGL-WEF|