Empowering Bricolage

Empowerment concepts

Like many development concepts the meaning of ’empowerment’ is highly disputed – even whether or not it is a relevant concept for people living in poverty. There may be tensions between relativist approaches focusing on ‘choice’ and universalist approaches focusing on human rights.

The linking thread of this research are the conceptual and theoretical issues involved in ’empowerment’ and for a practice of participatory visual communication that can ‘translate’ community voices for advocacy.

What does empowerment look like? how can the principles of visual dynamics and narrative design improve ‘translations’ of community voices into persuasive wordfree visuals for advocacy?

The aim of the visual exploration is to look at:

  • how creative application of visual dynamics of line, shape, colour and placement can help explore, clarify and articulate different possible ‘translations’ rather than imposing one particular view.
  • how creative application of narrative principles can help combine these drawings into sequential narratives like 1 page comics and 60-second animations and interactive info-graphics.
  • how the creative process itself can be empowering in terms of self-reflection for participants themselves and promoting inclusion, communication and respect between people from very different backgrounds – the poorest in communities who have had no formal education to leaders in powerful institutions. And the participatory visual communication principles and techniques that could be employed.

The underlying theoretical, research and also practical approach is that of ‘bricolage’.

Format for my written and visual work

My work will focus on how my own professional practice as facilitator and communicator of participatory processes in international development can be improved through incorporating the theories and practices used by designers and illustrators of info-graphics and wordless (or near wordless) animation and interactive experiences.

The written report will outline my conclusions about:

  • how visual communications and practice of selected designers and illustrators can be applied to participatory pictorial processes, the benefits, challenges and limitations

My own visual research will be uploaded to this blog with the supporting posts and resource links including:

  • visual portfolio on concepts and strategies for empowerment, leadership and coffee livelihoods – three  interactive animated info-graphics based on selected community drawings that can be understood and disseminated on-line across audiences and contexts
  • a draft protocol for good practice in participatory visual communication as an animated interactive info-graphic using as few words as possible

Theoretical framework

Development theory

Visual communications theory

  • Communication theory: the principles and methods by which information is conveyed
  • Interpretivism/postmodernism: qualitative and open approach, mixing different artistic styles and media
  • Post-structuralism: focuses 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.

Research methodology

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. I envisage the research going through a number of phases which may overlap and interlink rather than being purely linear:

  • Semiotics and textual analysis: study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation – applied to community drawings and my photos of role plays from past work. Looking at relationship between representational and symbolic drawings and the textual documentation of the relevant diagrams. To identify which signs/concepts are common across different social categories (women/men, age, ethnicity) and context and where the main areas for misunderstanding or misinterpretation may lie.
  • Reflective practice: exploring and applying visual communication theories from graphic design/info-graphic theory and wordless narratives and my own ideas to my own visual work
  • Bricoleur: bringing together ideas about ways of working with different local materials as a means for physical as well as digital dissemination of images
  • Action research: (hopefully) through collaborating with colleagues on the ground who can try things out in communities and organisations overseas and my own presentations in development agencies in UK.

Draft literature and resources review

Key resources from communities

I have selected community drawings from five different participatory processes which I have facilitated or been very closely involved and so have good visual materials and documentation to work with:

This selection will enable a good cross-cultural comparison, and also point to a number of different ways in which drawings and photographs can be used as the basis for wordless info-graphics and disseminated by the organisations involved. The info-graphics I produce may combine images from different processes to increase their cross-contextual understanding.

Participatory methodologies

Visual communications theory

Communication theory

Graphic design styles
Infographic design
Wordless narratives