What visual, animation and narrative strategies are most useful for an independent animator aiming to ‘creatively and ethically translate’ community drawings and photographs into short, textless animations to better represent community voices for a wider global audience?

Why VisCom4Dev?

Much of my professional consultancy work has focused on development of a pictorial participatory methodologies for community-led change. For more details of the GAMEchange participatory visual methodologies and implementation in different parts of the world see:

Focusing on visual communication potentially enables:

  • clarification of complex ideas and concepts
  • immediate and memorable communication
  • more information conveyed in a much smaller space and  time
  • resources accessible to all and more equal communication across inequalities of literacy and power
  • reduced need for translation across national and international language barriers

The outputs of these participatory pictorial processes have proved extremely powerful in terms of changing attitudes and behaviours of and between participants from communities and development agencies and governments.

Moreover, the potential of visual communication is likely to increase:

  • Rapidly growing numbers of men and women in rural as well as urban communities worldwide, particularly youth, now have smart phones and are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other national social networks.
  • The rapid spread of technology and cheap on-line software and apps potentially enable people in communities as well as staff in development organisations to produce visual information for learning and advocacy.

Women from Jamghoria Sevabrata tribal areas of India draw how they can solve problems with livestock.

Women from ANANDI, India draw their visions for women’s empowerment

Women coffee farmers in Bukonzo Joint, Uganda draw changes in decision-making

A man coffee farmer from GreenHome, Uganda explains challenges and actions on adultery and alcoholism.

A man coffee farmer from Uganda explains challenges and actions on adultery and alcoholism.


‘ the medium may not be the message’

Many of the drawings and role plays are very immediate and expressive – including drawings by people who never held a pen before. But the drawing style and content may be by local availability of particular media (pencils/ biros/ markers, lined/blank/coloured paper, role play props). The participatory workshops are also very time-constrained where the aim is empowerment of participants, not ‘effective’ design. This means that the visual outputs may not do full justice to the messages and meanings they represent.

‘Just pretty pictures by illiterates’

Visual outputs are rarely in a form that is easily communicated to people who were not participating in the process. A lot of the impact of the community-level imagery is lost because lack of visual literacy by people with formal education – ie those in power – mean they often miss the deeper meanings and sophisticated analysis behind the drawings.

Top down ‘professional design’

There is currently a profound gap in development agencies between those who participate in and implement participatory processes on the ground and those employed specifically to design ‘development messages’. Many visual materials produced for development agencies on empowerment and other topics are very standardised in appearance and simplistic in their messages. Their top-down (and often rather patronising) approach means that even important information risks being ignored.

Increasing exclusion

The most ‘professional’ design relies on written diagrams – often in English or French! Large numbers of the most marginalised people – from minority ethnic groups, poorer backgrounds and many women – who cannot read and write and/or do not speak any of the major international languages. Many also do not speak the main national Asian or African languages.

See Development Agency Concept Animations
and links to infographics, logos and emojis

Blog contents

This blog is the product of my work for Open College of the Arts BA degree level 3 ‘Visual Research’, guided by Dr Emma Powell.

1: Visual Research Process

VisCom4Dev presents visual research and sources of inspiration in evolution of my own graphic and animation style as ‘creative translator’ of voices from specific participatory community workshops into animations for a wider audience beyond the immediate participants. Focusing on concepts of empowerment and gender justice from participatory workshops in Asia and Africa, I compare and discuss visual communication techniques employed in:

  • drawings and role plays by women and men from poor and marginalised communities – including people who cannot read and write.
  • inspiration from animators and film-makers producing powerful textless visual narratives with simple line, shape and image editing.
  • evolution of my own ‘creative translation’ and animation workflow to simplify and focus the animation process.

The visual research process is never linear, but involves simultaneously following a number of interlinked strands of enquiry and skill development. For an overview of my research process, evolution of my thinking about visual research elements and Assignments see: 1: Visual Research Process


  • What practical and ethical issues are involved in ‘creative visual translation’ of community voices by external actors?
  • What visual communication strategies do women and men in different communities use to represent empowerment and gender inequality? How far do the drawings speak for themselves? What needs translating, why and for whom?
  • What different visual, animation and narrative approaches used by animators and film-makers from different cultures could be used to help address these limitations?
  • What animation workflow (physical sketching, tablet and pc software) is best for making an independent animation process manageable and effective?
  • What are the limitations of visual communication where text is needed? For whom?
  • What are the implications for a participatory protocol for creatively translating community voices for a wider global audiences?

Creative Translation:

Empowerment and development are highly contested concepts, requiring participation and negotiation of diverse interests and conflicting power positions. 

I propose a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology that enables multiple ‘creative translations’ of community voices to provoke questioning and change in different audiences. See:

Assignment 2: Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks.

Thinking About Translating Images: Notes

It also involves considering the nature of the Creative Process and how that can contribute to producing multiple translation possibilities for different purposes, then communicate meaning rather than simple replication of community drawings in animated form. See:

Creative Process (forthcoming)

Lines Talking:

Animation Principles

My visual research starts by developing a ‘bricolage repertoire’ of ideas and inspiration for ‘the possible’:

What are community voices saying? visual and semiotic analysis of drawings. See:

Animation approaches styles and techniques used by animators working in simplified styles without text in different cultural contexts.

Assignment 3.1: Gathering Data: Lines Talking

Lines Talking: visual experimentation with different styles and simple animation techniques on the iPad based on selected community drawings and photos.

Assignment 3.2: Visual Exploration: Drawing and animation experiments

Transforming Tales:
Visual Storytelling

I review and consolidate the research on animation approaches and principles, extending this to:

  • look visual narrative strategies developed by animators, and also film-makers, from different cultures who have produced powerful textless stories.
  • develop my own professional animation skills using pc software.

I apply these strategies and skills to produce a set of alternative short animated wordless ‘creative translations’ from community drawings and other contextual resources. See:

Assignment 4: Translating Community Voices: A Working Draft

5: Participatory Visual Communication

(forthcoming September 2020)

The final part summarises my research and conclusions and suggests:

  • a checklist of questions and prompts for future ‘participatory creative translation’ work that can help other designers aiming to ethically represent voices from the community in advocacy processes.

This includes:

  • my conclusions on audience and potential limitations of visual communication where text might be needed for training and advocacy with powerful stakeholders
  • technical conclusions on animation software and workflow.

See: Assignment 5: Finalising your submission