Art and Representation

Developing characters that speak to us and others

By Giulia Balestra, Associate Innovation Officer (Research), and Hans Park, Strategic Design and Research Manager

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Illustration by Ailadi

Over the years, at UNHCR’s Innovation Service, we have collaborated with a variety of illustrators, artists, and designers, documenting the process of innovation, portraying innovators, and expressing values that guide its work. Perhaps for some of us in the humanitarian context these were, and to some extent still are, unchartered waters: what’s the relation between visual art and humanitarian work? How can art and other mediums be understood and used to communicate strategically about innovation, forced displacement and humanitarian work?

Different projects and artists have been part of this attempt to make UNHCR’s visual communication more diverse and inclusive. Illustrations, images and art in general seemed to hold unlimited opportunities to visualise the often quite complex ideas and concepts of innovation and shape the visual narratives of and for diverse audiences. We started seeing and using visual communication not as a nice ‘add-on’ to a written article, report or piece of research, but rather as a complete form of expression in and of itself — the artwork was in some instances able to also drive the conversation, shape and broaden the outlook on challenges and solutions. In a field often dominated by words (and very often for good reasons: reporting, accountability, impact measurement, and so on), visual narratives and expressions have the potential to bring new meaning, take the paragraphs and written pages to a different level, emphasizing and making the best out of the words used.

UNHCR’s Innovation Service believes in embracing complexity and driving change through purposeful and meaningful communication, and this extends to design and visual communication. We recognise that the world is visual and that how we attempt to represent is not only tied to who we hire, who we partner with but also what and how we write and how we present concepts and acts of innovation. The most common questions we came across when working with artists and illustrators were: how do we translate nuanced and complex ideas and concepts — including climate change, digital inclusion, and displacement — into accessible visual language? Should we try and be as representative and inclusive as possible or should we use art to transcend or go beyond abstract concepts and ideas?

In the spectrum from the abstract to the more representative, the choices we make in our visual communication can elicit different emotions and trigger different thoughts in the audiences. The difference between a polygon image and an illustration of an able bodied man drives audiences to different worlds. The challenge was and always is to look at this spectrum, with care, and provide different interpretations or versions of our work that speak to audiences in an accessible and meaningful way.

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Polygons & geometries
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Character development by Russell Abrahams

Below is a snapshot of some of these collaborations and the ways in which the question of representation was addressed, circumvented, or transcended. To every collaboration and project, each artist has brought their perspective on the question and their interpretation of our work. With some of the artists, the work has spanned across several projects and themes — exploring different styles and techniques, whilst with others we have focused on producing specific ‘campaigns’ — in every collaboration we have learned the importance of the design brief and that there is a whole spectrum of approaching representation. Far from having one single answer to the question of representation, diversity and inclusion, the results — illustrated below — are a mosaic of approaches, techniques and products.

Representation through abstraction

Over the years the collaboration with Ailadi, and the visual communication products developed with the artist, evolved into visual language that is more complex, nuanced and metaphorical. Through this work we looked at how abstract images can help us go straight to emotions and bypass representation. The approach Ailadi took with us, and the approach we took with her, was to have an artist render and interpret our work that tried to go beyond what was written, or sometimes, what couldn’t be written. Abstraction was a great way for us to purposefully create certain empty spaces for audiences to imagine and fill what wasn’t explicit.

In Reflections, a publication on inclusion and diversity, Ailadi explains the following:

“The illustrations I created for this publication and project focus on the state of mind that views all of these differences as a source of richness; human richness, the wealth that really matters. Each of us has an inner universe that’s the result of a personal path, origin, background, selection of interests and experiences. That’s something we should value. It’s something to be curious about, something that should spark the gentle discovery of others, and something to be proud of as our inner universes interact and find their place in a larger collective universe.”

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Artist: Ailadi
Key project: Ethics, Year in Review,
Reflections

Striving for absolute representation

How do we design for a diverse world in a way that is inclusive and in which people recognize themselves?

The project we worked on with Russell tried to represent and work through diversity in an effort to produce inclusion, or try at least to reduce exclusion. When searching online for ‘explainer animations’ — animations that ‘explain things’, from how-to videos to videos explaining various concepts — one often is met with a generic Western styled character that speaks to (i.e. represents) a specific and narrow audience. When we set out to do a few explainer animations for the Innovation Fellowship programme we knew we wanted to address this and build characters who represent the many rather than the few.

In Designing for a represented world Russell explains his approach to inclusion with these words:

“The most challenging part of this project was to create characters that represent a wide variety of people; a group of characters that felt approachable and relatable. Through collaborative efforts, we were able to create a positive bunch of characters that made us smile as a team.”

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Artist: Russell Abrahams
Key project:
UNHCR Innovation Fellowship — explainer video animations

Representation by omission

What can we convey through inanimate objects? What is their effect on the audience? Can we represent by replacing, by not representing?

The third way we explored representation in our work was to omit characters completely and therefore remove representation from the equation. Representation is not only about recognisable characters and people — it goes beyond. We focused on the situations, the scene and the settings, and ‘replaced’ representation through inanimate objects. Through holding a place for representation we explored the effect this might have on the reader.

In working with Connectivity for Refugees research briefs, Jungmin had this to say:

“I try together with the client to find the right balance of what is being said, and what we leave out for viewers’ imagination. There is a lot of back and forth in my work, the first sketch may have an element that is kept all the way to the end, but everything else around it moves, changes, and lives.”

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Artist: Jungmin Ryu
Key project:
Connectivity for Refugees and Innovation Fund

Forms of representation

Representation is at the core of creative work and the industry has been caught up in the conversation around it for some time now. Images in fact, like words, are not neutral, they are never empty of meaning, even simple emojis are not just simple emojis and there are “baked-in values” in what is represented or not, and in what way they are represented.

This matters because in visual images the misrepresented, the underrepresented and the absent may be even more evident and visible than in other forms of communication. And so, thanks to the artists and their own artistic, cultural and social background they brought with them, we learned that representation is always partial, always subjective, always a way to read and re-interpret one of the various versions of the realities that we inhabit. We also came to the understanding that there is not one ‘right’ way to do representation, that we have to try a number of things out, that an artistic collaboration is also a dialogue in finding a compromise with the artists, their styles, their experiences and how these bring value and color to the picture.

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and…

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

Written by

UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

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