Is it possible to create resources on concepts of leadership without using text? If so, what visual and narrative strategies can be used? What are potential limitations?

VisCom4Dev presents the evolution of my graphic style and process for visual textless resources on development concepts that ‘translate’ community voices into illustration, animation and infographics for training and advocacy to influence those in positions of power in private sector, governments and development agencies.

Focusing on empowerment and leadership I compare and discuss:

  • drawings by women and men from poor and marginalised communities – including people who cannot read and write
  • work of artists, illustrators and animators producing powerful images and narratives with simple line and shape
  • creative thinking principles and exercises from literature on sketch-noting, creative drawing and concept mapping.

I suggest creative visual communication principles that can be applied 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.

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
  • 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. 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 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 in tribal areas of India draw problems with livestock

Women coffee farmers in Uganda draw changes in decision-making

Men coffee farmers draw challenges and actions on adultery.


‘ 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.

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 Assignments and Overview Plans

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: 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 ‘creative translation’ of community voices for training and advocacy. See:

Assignment 2: Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks.

3: Lines of Power

My exploration starts with visual and semiotic analysis of community drawings from three contexts with participants from different backgrounds with contrasting drawing styles: India, Pakistan, Uganda

I then look at different line styles of: STIK, David Shrigley, Tracy Emin and Jean-Michel Basquiat and visual principles employed in emojis and empowerment logos.

Finally I apply these different styles to develop a series of ‘creative translation’ drawings:

Creative Translations 1: Lines of Power

See: ( Assignment 3: Gathering Data forthcoming February 2020).

4: Leading Stories

(forthcoming July 2020)

The next stage of my exploration looks at different narrative approaches to developing short animations and strip infographics.

Based on Leadership drawings from Tanzania and narrative techniques used by stick animators and cartoonists, I develop a series of:

Creative Translations 2: Leading Stories

See: Assignment 4: A Working Draft

5: Participatory Visual Communication

(forthcoming September 2020)

The final part draws some conclusions in the form of a checklist of questions and prompts for future ‘creative translation’ work that can help other designers aiming to ethically represent voices from the community in advocacy processes.

See: Assignment 5: Finalising your submission