Why VisCom4Dev?

Much of my professional consultancy work for international development agencies 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:

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.

However communicating these community voices to people and a global audience who were not present or do not understand the spoken or written language presents a number of challenges.

At the same time most graphic design and animation produced by and for development agencies is disconnected from the community level, often reliant on writing or verbal messages in international languages. This makes these messages ‘top down’ and externally imposed – even where people in the community might agree. It also means that the large numbers of people, particularly women, who have no formal education and do not speak majority languages are marginalised.

About this Blog

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.

Guiding Question

As an independent animator which animation approaches and strategies are most relevant for ‘creative and ethical translation’ of community voices on empowerment for a wider global audience?

The blog presents a ‘bricolage’ of diverse experimental animated vignettes exploring multiple ‘creative translation’ possibilities based on drawings, photographs and video from participatory community workshops in Asia and Africa.

Producing professional finished animations was outside the timeframe of this research. The aim was rather to develop a portfolio of different animation possibilities based on a range of international animation approaches and styles. And through my research process to identify workable creative strategies and animation principles that:

  • are visually driven so that they can be globally understood without relying on text or spoken languages, and thereby needing translation into hundreds of local languages.
  • communicate not only the style but also the meaning of the original sources
  • can be used by an independent animator like myself who does not have the support of a large design or animation team.
Visual Research Process and Assignments

The visual research process was never linear, but involved simultaneously following a number of interlinked parallel strands of enquiry and skill development. Each stage depending on and adapted to the findings of the previous stage, and to opportunities and issues arising from relevant consultancy assignments.

The sections on this blog represent the outcomes of this parallel interlinked investigation, rather than a linear sequence.

For an overview of my research process and Assignments documenting evolution of my thinking about visual research elements see:

It is hoped that the blog will provide inspiration to others to also experiment more widely with different creative approaches in their work. As well as presenting potential styles and directions that my own future visual communication and creative translation work might take.

My research started by contextualising the questions, potential contributions and underlying challenges driving my motivation and practical work.

Assignment 1 Research Proposal

The first stage was review and selection of drawings, photographs and video on community concepts of empowerment and gender justice from my consultancy documentation on participatory workshops in Asia and Africa. I compare and discuss visual communication techniques used by women and men participants – including people who cannot read and write. I consider:

  • which drawings ‘speak for themselves’ and how?
  • what changes/additions might be needed in order be understood by outsiders and a global audience?
  • what other contextual information eg photos, video and written documentation can contribute to understanding and communicating meaning in ‘creatively translating’ the drawings for a global audience?

I then looked at ‘external voices’ from development agencies, particularly animations, to compare visual communication strategies, and contextualise my own experiments.

Assignment 3.1 Gathering Data

Empowerment and development are highly contested concepts, requiring participation and negotiation of diverse interests and conflicting power positions. One approach would be a participatory design process with people from different backgrounds at community level (See Visual Communications Advanced Practice Assignment 4). However due to COVID-19 revisiting communities producing the selected community drawings or conducting a new process for this research were impossible within the timeframe.

I therefore develop a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology that enables multiple ‘creative translations’ of community voices to provoke questioning and change in different audiences. The focus is on my broadening inspiration and skills for my own creative process in animating alternative narratives on the basis of the selected community drawings and contextual documentation. Because of technical communication constraints with communities on the ground, feedback is through on-line social networks from my consultancy and other animators.

Cognitive Map: Participatory VisCom revisited
Cognitive Map: Participatory VisCom revisited

Animation is a potentially powerful form of visual communication, particularly when combined with audio. To do well takes a lot of time and skill – a 1 minute video at standard 24 frames per second needs 1,440 drawings. Maintaining consistency as well as dynamic movement between frames requires very good drawing skills. Animated feature films take years with a large workforce of animators and sound designers. Done badly even the most serious issues can make an audience crease up with laughter.

The next stage of the research was therefore to investigate how the many styles of animation internationally used different animation principles to increase the visual power of their animations, as well as manage the time requirements. I was very eclectic, following up on multiple on-line search chains, motivated by the fact that the most inspiring and relevant examples were often found unexpectedly:

  • styles and approaches from the same regions as the community drawings – India, Iran, Pakistan and Africa, with particular interest in independent animators, Iranian feminist work and charcoal animation of William Kentridge.
  • big professional animation studios – Disney, Ghibli and Eastern European studios.
  • framing, editing and narrative strategies used in film to guide the viewer’s eye, create suspense and arouse different emotions, particularly around sexual violence relevant to my community drawings.
  • contemporary independent Western animators working in natural and digital media and stick figure animation, particularly visual-driven animation without text or spoken language. Here I did more in-depth analysis of animations I found particularly relevant for my own work: stick animation of Alan Becker, satyrical work of David Shrigley, rotoscoping of Gianluigi Toccafondo, Peter Millard, Lisa Pau, David Lynch and Jonathon Hodgson.

In parallel I reviewed digital software options that can simplify and automate the drawing process. I started with experimenting with iPad software as a means of quick exploration, brainstorming and drafting. Before then developing skills in software used by professional independent animators for my more polished vignettes.

I experiment with different creative animation styles and workflows to produce series of animated vignettes based on the selected series of community drawings and alternative narratives suggested by my contextual documentation.

I continue to use iPad software for initial brainstorming and experimentation, but use professional software: TVPaint that I selected on the basis of on-line practical animation training courses from independent animators.

I limit myself to 2D frame by frame animation using natural media and digital drawing, rotoscoping of my own and found video and animation of my own and found still images.

(forthcoming March 2021)

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