VisCom4Dev explores ways of visually communicating empowerment and development visions, analyses and strategies of women and men in poor and marginalised communities – including people who cannot read and write – to influence those in positions of power in private sector, governments and development agencies. To promote more inclusive, equitable and transparent decision-making and policy.

How can community pictorial visions and analyses of empowerment be ‘translated’ into powerful voices for advocacy? Which wordless story-telling techniques and interactive info-graphic design principles used by illustrators and designers are most useful? How can these be integrated into participatory empowerment methodologies and participatory visual communication practice?

Why VisCom4Dev?

Much of my professional consultancy work has focused on development of a pictorial participatory methodology for community-led change: Participatory Action Learning for Sustainability (PALS) see my GAMEchangenetwork blog. Focusing on visual communication potentially enables:

  • clarification of complex ideas and concepts
  • more information to be conveyed in a much smaller space and  time
  • the resources to be accessible to all, promoting more equal communication and participation across barriers of literacy and power   inequalities
  • requires little or no 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 participants from communities and development agencies and governments.

Moreover, increasing numbers of men and women in rural as well as urban communities worldwide now have smart phones and are on Facebook, twitter, Instagram and other social networks, particularly youth. This opens up many new opportunities for large-scale low-cost mobile download of information on development issues by people in poor communities and rural areas. The rapid spread of technology and rapid growth in development of on-line apps and software potentially enable people in communities and staff in organisations to document and produce visual materials for other people at different levels of the processes they are involved in. However, despite the potential, there are currently some serious challenges:

  • ‘just pretty pictures by illiterates’: because the drawings and images from women and men in communities are produced in very time-constrained participatory workshops where the aim is empowerment of participants, not professional design, they 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 – who see just a lot of ‘pretty pictures by illiterates’.
  • 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 who 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. The most’professional’ design relies on written diagrams – often in English or French!
  • increasing exclusion of large numbers of people – generally from poorer backgrounds and women – who cannot read and write and/or do not speak any of the major international languages.

VisCom4Dev presents research and innovation on new participatory pictorial ways for ‘translating’ community-level drawings and narratives around complex concepts and communicating these outcomes for advocacy to a wider audience. See Assignment 1 Research Question and Plans.

The evolution and explanation of my research and thinking can be seen in the cumulative set of OCA Visual Research Assignments (top of right hand menu) that form the linking thread for this blog. It is hoped that bringing this information together on this blog may also inspire others to experiment further in their own work.

‘Translation Bricolage’

Empowerment itself is a highly contested concept and effective development processes require participation and negotiating diverse interests of different stakeholders with different skills and perspectives, and different power positions. I propose a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology that enables ‘translation’ of the conceptual complexities and differences between stakeholders at a practical level. See: Assignment 2: Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks.

Visualising empowerment

My exploration starts by considering the visual dynamics of empowerment: what does empowerment look like? Starting with images of empowerment and disempowerment from women and men in communities I have worked with. I look at ways in which more expressive empowerment images could be produced using simple marker pens, biros and cheap notebook paper through use of line/mark-making, shape and colour. I take inspiration from visual design theory, logo design and illustrators producing wordless images and cartoons. See: Assignment 3: Gathering Data (forthcoming November 2019)

Empowerment stories

Here I look at the wordless storytelling by comic and animation illustrators and how the drawings and photo series from women and men in communities can be made more impactful and dramatic narratives of empowerment and disempowerment through different types of composition, layout and sequencing. Again using ‘bricolage’ methods that can be used in communities and workshops. See: Assignment 4: A Working Draft (forthcoming February 2020)

Participatory Visual Communication

The final part brings together conclusions and frameworks as an animated interactive info-graphic with guidelines on participatory techniques for visual communication including: 

  • Selected ’empowerment translations’ based on audience feedback are produced for mobile phone download and made available on You Tube for global accessibility.
  • Interactive ‘participatory protocol’ info-graphics for designers working with communities. Including ways that people in communities themselves, and local staff can use simple local materials and links to free software to communicate messages effectively without the need for high levels of technical skill or budget.

See: Assignment 5: Finalising your submission (forthcoming September 2020)