1: Community versus External Voices?

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:

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.

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

‘ 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.

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.

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 Africa and Asia, 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 visual communication process.

For analysis of Community Voices expressed in drawings and role plays about gender relations and women’s empowerment from participatory workshops See:

For analysis of ‘external voices’ from development agencies see:


  • 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 graphic artists, animators and film-makers from different cultures could be used to help address these limitations?
  • What software workflows (physical sketching, tablet and pc software) are most manageable and effective for an independent creative translator?
  • 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?

Data Gathering 1a: Community Voices

I started my research on community voices to enable me to focus my questions around ‘creative translations’. This meant looking through my thousands of images of community drawings, selecting series where I had enough background information and documentation of the drawings to ask and as far as possible to answer questions about:

  • How do women and men in communities communicate concepts and experiences in their drawings? How does this different depending on background, context and/or facilitation process?
  • What can I identify as common visual techniques and/or potential narrative strategies for animation that can be widely understood by different audiences?
  • What challenges of textless communication do I need to address? How can this be done?

I also wanted a variety of drawing styles, and different development themes important for my current work in order to develop a number of different story lines that might be of sufficient interest to colleagues to get feedback.

Based on my review I selected and analysed five different sets of visual data. I pasted the images I had into my Sketchbook 2: Community Voices and started my analysis and visual experimentation – copying freehand some of the drawings to get a feel for how the lines were made, and the details that were there. But I did not spend long on that at this stage as it became mechanical. A lot more detailed analysis will be done in Assignment 4, focusing on the specific story lines and translations. See detailed presentation of the data and analysis in the linked posts of:

Semiotic and Visual Analysis

The community datasets were very variable, between facilitation processes and individuals rather than contexts as a whole. Particularly in Pakistan and India where most drawings were by people at one-off workshops there were big differences in education level, many different drawing styles can be found on one group drawing. This variation was less in Africa, but there were still big variations depending on education and also how long people had been using pictorial methodologies.

Some images, particularly from tribal women in India who had never held a pen before, were very stylistically expressive – reminiscent of Basquiat or Tracey Emin, though the exact meaning needed verbal explanation.

Some images, particularly from women Gumutindo coffee farmers in Uganda were mini-narratives that could be pretty much understood even by outsiders.

Some organisations had over time developed their own internal semiotic language, resulting in very complex systems for pictorial recording and analysis, innovating with the diagram guidelines provided by myself. Anyone used to working with the organisation would be able to read these diagrams with little additional explanation.

Gender, poverty level and emotional state were widely communicated through abstracted figures differentiated by use of clothing, hairstyle, facial expression etc., even where drawings were spontaneous and done with little guidance.

Signs like arrows, dream bubbles, skid marks, tears and so on were also widely used and understood.

Concepts like empowerment, gender-based violence and leadership could be visually disaggregated into component meanings and gradations of power, abuse etc. that could be understood once the topic of the exercise was known.

That said, some of the images were very formulaic, eg with ‘sad crying figures’ meaning anything from loneliness to lack of identity and freedom. Such limitations would need to be overcome through developing symbolic juxtaposition of elements as single-image or sequential narratives.

Data gathering 1b: Visuals from development agencies and cultural context

I also looked at existing animations around development issues and common cultural design and animation styles. This was done through Google and You Tube searches and based on resources I have been looking out for in the course of my work before and since starting the course. See presentation and analysis of the data in the linked posts:


In contrast to the community drawings the visuals from development agencies, and also graphic artists in Pakistan and Africa tended to be rather formulaic following a global digital style, with some variation in colour, features etc. The most significant shortcomings from a development perspective is the widespread reliance on a lot of written text or voice over narrative in English or main national language. Although these were obviously very professional, using comedy as well as serious messages, they were not appropriate animation models for my own work.

Some of the Indian animation was more ‘artistic’ with evocative black and white styles that were more relevant for my research, but still very reliant on English.

I shall continue to look for textless examples of illustration and animation in unconventional style – my aim being to broaden the repertoire. My anecdotal experience is that people in communities – like everyone else – rapidly become accustomed to stylistic conventions and tend not to look at many of the visuals produced by professional artists working with development agencies. Sources of innovative visual and narrative inspiration will in future be included in my category of Data Gathering 2.