How can community drawings of visions and strategies for empowerment be digitally ‘translated’ into powerful visual communication for advocacy in a way that ‘frees, transforms and multiplies rather than possesses, controls and defines’?
Empowerment itself is a highly contested concept – people even question whether or not it is a relevant concept for people living in poverty. There are often tensions between approaches based on individual personal choice and those based on universal human rights (see Empowerment concepts) These debates to some extent mirror theoretical debates between ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’ and ‘post/neo-post-modernism’ in the arts and social sciences, particularly those from a post-colonial perspective.
My own design role can usefully be seen as that of an intermediary ‘creative translator advocate’ between communities and powerful institutions. This requires a detailed understanding of both what different people in communities are trying to communicate, and the ways in which this is likely to be received by those in power.
A creative translator advocate must be very flexible to a multiplicity of possible ‘translations’ and translation media that ‘free, transform and multiply’ provoking those in power to listen and act, not sit back and passively consume messages they have heard many times before (see Translation theory).
The quest for a visual communication practice that can ‘translate’ community voices into powerful voices for advocacy requires research frameworks and methods that correspond to the empowerment aims. I propose a ‘bricolage’ approach to theory and methodology:
Bricolage is a qualitative approach that weaves together threads and ideas from different theoretical frameworks and perspectives into a more informed and multi-faceted research methodology for understanding of an issue. See Bricolage approach.
The bricolage theoretical framework is based on a post-modernism and post-colonial perspective, attempting to weave:
- Post-structuralist semiotics as a framework for investigating meanings of community drawings and diagrams. Looking at the ways in which ‘meanings’ are constructed from visual symbols, focusing on relationships and elements in a conceptual system but (following postmodernism) exploring the challenges of potential plurality and instability of pictorial (as well as verbal) meaning across cultures and contexts.
- Visual communication theory: as a framework for looking at the work of other designers and relationships between designers, audiences and messages, including theories of visual dynamics, narrative theory, systems diagramming and information and interactive design.
The bricolage approach means a very eclectic and contingent gathering of sources of inspiration. The main driver is analysis of the community drawings – my primary sources – and what is needed for their ‘translation’ for advocacy. This – together with some contingent serendipity from openness to new influences as they arise – guides my selection of work from other illustrators and graphic designers from a range of cultural traditions.
Participatory innovation: methodological bricolage
A key aim of the research is:
Reflective practice: exploring and applying visual communication theories from graphic design/info-graphic theory and wordless narratives to improve my own visual work as creative translator.
The research therefore involves my own visual experimentation and innovation:
- Bricoleur: bringing together ideas about ways of working with different local materials as a means for physical as well as digital dissemination of images. Bricolage is potentially an open, playful, mixed media methodology for ‘translations’, ‘cobbling together’ different styles and cheap local materials for image making and combines these into interactive narrative information graphics. Aiming for a ‘multicoloured cloth’ a that people from different backgrounds and perspectives can unite around.
Ideally I would have been able to test my visual experimentation directly in communities myself to do in-depth ethnographic/action/anthropological research. But due to some health issues I will not be able to travel for a year or so. But I will still be able to engage in:
- Action research: through collaborating on-line with colleagues on the ground who can try things out in communities and organisations overseas and my own presentations in development agencies in UK.