Main question

Is it possible to ‘creatively and ethically translate’ community drawings on empowerment into short, textless animations produced on an iPad or tablet to better represent community voices in training and advocacy?


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? How far do the drawings speak for themselves? What needs translating, why and for whom?

What different visual and narrative approaches used by animators and film-makers from different cultures could be used to help address these limitations?

How far can these be adapted using iPad/Android software? What are the limitations of visual communication where text and/or more powerful software are needed?

What are the implications for a community-led protocol for participatory visual communication for producing training and advocacy resources?

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 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.

VisCom4Dev presents visual research and sources of inspiration in evolution of my own graphic and animation style as ‘translator’ of community voices into animations for training and advocacy. Focusing on concepts of empowerment, gender and leadership 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 iPad ‘translation’ and animation workflow to simplify and focus the animation process

I suggest creative participatory visual communication and narrative principles that can be applied in some way by anyone, whatever their background and education, using simple drawing tools to democratise communication between communities and development agencies and promote more inclusive, equitable and transparent decision-making and policy.

1: Visual Research Assignments and Overview

The evolution and explanation of my research and thinking can be seen in the cumulative set of OCA Visual Research Assignments.

My starting point and rationale for the research can be seen in:

Assignment 1 Research Question and Plans.

2: Ethics of 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 for training and advocacy to provoke questioning and change in different audiences. See:

Assignment 2: Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks.

Thinking About Translating Images: Notes

3: Lines Talking

My visual research starts by developing a ‘bricolage repertoire’ of ideas and inspiration of ‘the possible’ in terms of textless visual communication of concepts of empowerment and gender to adapt in my own translations:

What are community voices saying? visual and semiotic analysis of how women and men from different communities in India and Uganda communicate through drawings on empowerment and gender relations.

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

Review of iPad drawing and animation software to identify potential workflows.

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

Assignment 3.1: Gathering Data: Lines Talking

Assignment 3.2: Visual Exploration: Drawing and animation experiments

  • Pig Tales
  • Talking Heads
  • The old wife

4: Transforming Tales

(forthcoming July 2020)

I develop a range of narrative visual approaches based on more in-depth analysis of animators, and also film-makers, from different cultures who have produced powerful textless stories.

I apply some of these visual narrative strategies to produce a set of alternative short animated wordless ‘translations’ from community drawings of empowerment by women and men in Pakistan together with contextual resources on gender and poverty in Pakistan.

I then consider how these principles might be applied to drawings and other contextual information from India and Uganda and sketch out some alternative storyboards for:

See: Assignment 4.1: Translating Community Voices: A Working Draft

Assignment 4.2 Visual Exploration:Transforming Tales

Creative Translations 1: ‘The airplane’ women’s empowerment visions and realities in Pakistan.

Creative Translations 2:.Pig Tales : tribal women and the forest in India

Creative Translations 3: My wife doesn’t love me any more: a man’s lament from Uganda

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 what can be achieved on an iPad/Android tablet compared to more powerful software.

See: Assignment 5: Finalising your submission