Information Design - Visualizing Action (TTC)

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Dec 27, 2013 02:40 PM |
This is the second part of the Making Change analysis on information activism. It explores the role of the presentation and design of information to translate information into action.
Information Design - Visualizing Action (TTC)

Visualising Information for Advocacy - Tactical Technology


Visualizing Information for Advocacy

Redesign the production, presentation and representation of data to stimulate citizen action.

- Demystify the technology, strategy and tactics behind information design
- Train people on how to use them for their projects.
- Empower people and increase political participation at the grassroots

Part 2: Information Design

Tactical Technology aims to demystify strategies that stimulate citizen participation through the production, presentation and representation of data. Their 2010 program: Visualizing Information for Advocacy focuses on finding "the right combination of information, design, technology and networks" (2010) to communicate issues and stimulate action. As explored in the last post, campaigns must not only inform citizens, but must persuade them into acting. The way information is presented: the symbols, shapes and sequences plays a big part in creating deeper connections between the consumer and information. Using more visual advocacy examples, I will list three elements that underpin this connection: symbols, design and consumption culture.

I. Symbols

Marks or characters representing an object, function or abstract process

Lance Bennett’s work on civic engagement (2008), identified two features in information that motivate citizens to act:

a) Familiar values and activities
b) Action options that facilitate decision-making and the participation process

By personalizing data and finding symbols that embody these values and action options, the citizen is more likely to engage with the information. Throughout this post we will look at some examples, outside of Tactical Tech, that are applying these principles.

Example 1:
Dislike Poverty Campaign- Un Techo para mi Pais (TECHO) Latin America

First example is this is the campaign by the Chilean NGO Un Techo para mi Pais. The organization’s main objectives are to a) to eradicate poverty and b) build a strong body of volunteers that epitomize a new way of understanding citizenship in the region. They are very popular among youth, in part due to their communication strategies and their use of social media. Recently, the ‘No Me Gusta’ (Dislike) campaign was featured in Spanish graphic design activism blog: Grafous, and the non-profit marketing website Osocio for its creative use of 'slacktivism' to mirror the young citizen's attitude towards poverty.

Slacktivism: "actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. liking or joining a campaign group on a social networking website"

Techo 1

Techo 2
No Me Gusta campaign, Un Techo para mi Pais. Photo courtesy of Grafous:

The images juxtapose pictures of slums and an adaptation of the Facebook Like button - a familiar symbol of affirmation and approval among youth- into a Dislike button: enabling expression of discontent. This is coupled with the phrase: “if you dislike this, you can help by logging onto (...)”, channeling this disapproval into a plan of action. The campaign shows a thorough understanding of its target audience: including the visual culture of social media users, their digital habits and their satisfaction driven behavior (embodied by the like button). It ridicules the user by facing him with two realities: the ineludible situation of poverty versus his redeemable slacktivist idleness. This strategy proved to be effective and attracted the attention of potential volunteers; asserting the middle class, tech-savvy identity of the TECHO volunteer throughout Latin America.

Nonviolent methods and
Civic Participation

  • Capture attention.
  • Increase visibility of activism.
  • Reduce the stake of participation
    for citizens
  • Attracts 'risk-averse' citizens and
    creates 'safety in numbers'.
  • Success of campaign is more likely
    (if 3.5% of population participates)

The use of familiar symbols is one of the 198 strategies listed by Gene Sharp in Part Two of The Politics of Nonviolent Action (explored in a past post). In the same spirit, Tactical Technology’s project 10 tactics provides “original and artful” wide communication non-violent methods to capture attention and disseminate information. This includes slogans, caricatures, symbols, posters and media presence, which besides from grabbing attention also reduces the stake of participation for citizens. According to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, these methods increase the visibility of activist efforts, because they create a sense of ‘safety in numbers” and hence draw the “risk-averse” into the movements. Furthermore, their study shows that if a campaign manages to capture the active and sustained participation of only 3.5% of the total population, it is likely to succeed (2008).

While this statistic shows that enhancing the visibility of social change campaigns is an extremely resource-efficient strategy, on the other hand, it confirms information is in the hands of a privileged minority. The information-poor activist is completely reliant on the values and symbols the middle class chooses to downstream, unless information is designed by grassroots organizations who can localize it -one of the main objectives of Tactical Technology.  The flow of  ideas and conversations among the middle class, though not inclusive, is already stimulating the spirit of information dissemination.  However, representations of data are not enough to trigger cognitive associations between the citizen and the issues. We must also consider the design and aesthetic features of these representations and how they inspire civic engagement.

II. (Graphic) Design

Communication, stylizing and problem-solving through the use of type, space and image.

MG: Presentation continues to be a problem. We have focused a lot on this, but it continues to be an issue when people have and are using information. You can’t assume people will get it and you need to think about what kind of information you have and what kind of audiences you want to see it, etc.

Liz Mcquiston, author of the 1995 and the 2004 editions of Graphic Agitation explored how art and design brings political and social issues to the fore. She argues that the increasing ubiquity of digital technology since the 90s, plus a popular ‘do-it-yourself’ culture, is creating a new environment of political protest that empowers individuals to take ownership of the creation and consumption of information. This is in line with Richard Wurman’s argument on the rise of the prosumer: digital users who are not only consuming but are also producing an unprecedented amount of information, which states that larger volumes of information, coupled with the expressive potential of art and design, makes personalized relationships with data possible, having it cater to our interests, needs and contexts (2001).

Example 2:
Design for Protest by Hector Serrano (University Cardenal Herrera)
Information design is creating ready-made avenues for civic engagement by breaking data down and providing step by step guides for implementation. For instance, students from the University Cardenal Herrera in Spain collaborated together in the project: “Design for Protest”, led by Hector Serrano, graphic designer and activist. The concept was to design “effective and functional” tools of demonstration, rooted in the rising number of protests around the world during the economic crisis. The students created communication tools: from foldable banners to protest umbrellas that allow protesters in Spain (and around the world) to convey their messages in creative, quick and affordable ways. This is the perfect conflation between consuming information proposals and producing new information from the grassroots to intervene in the public space.

Paraguas (Umbrella). Photo courtesy and How-to: Design For Protest: Paraguas

Light Banner. Photo courtesy and How-to: Design For Protest: Light Banner

Pocket Protest. Photo courtesy and How-to: Design for Protest: Protesta de Bolsillo

The field of information design is creating ready-made avenues for civic engagement. It is breaking down data and providing step-by-step guides for implementation. Although the Design for Protest project is not creating a permanent source of information, it is providing feasible alternatives to display information both in short-lived protests as much as in long-term campaigns, facilitating action-taking and abiding to the second feature of Bennett's hypothesis: providing action options to aid decision-making. Ganesh commented how these tool kits are also a mean Tactical Tech uses to secure sustainability and continuity:

MG: We have many available resources: from tools and guides (mobile in a box, security in a box, etc.), to the website. It is very focused on the digital tools that support what you want to do with your campaigning. You have a plethora of websites telling you what tools to use but not how to use it or how to think about how you want to use them for campaigning. As a result you have campaigns that are not well thought or that don’t use the appropriate type of technology, or driven by the technology first than what they want to do. This is one of the ways in which it continues.

III. (Culture) Design

Localizing information design

The ‘prosumer’ model aligns with an active model of citizenship we describe in a previous post. It fits citizens who are active and willing to find resources, and create and disseminate information that resonates within their context. Yochai Benkler’s work on information production  (2006) Also touches on how cultural production enhances democratic practices in network societies. He argues that creating cultural meaning of the world has two important effects:

a) Sustains values of individual freedom of expression.
b) Provides opportunities of participation and cultural reassertion.

Ganesh’s account of the experience of Tactical Technology in the Middle East also highlights how cultural remix is a form political and creative empowerment:

MG: It is interesting how the Arab version has evolved. We had support to extend Ten Tactics in the Arabic region, but we didn’t want to do translations and tell people what to do. We wanted to see how people are thinking about information activism in their region, what kind of products would be useful to them. We’ve already printed 2000 copies and we are left only with 140. It is really popular because people really want to do this. We’ve met with 5-7 groups in the Arab region we’ve known for a long time. We said: here’s money (originally meant for translations) take our resources, anything you’ve found that we’ve published and: customize it, remix it, break it up and put it back together again; turn it into a resource that you can feel you can use with your communities. Partnering up, you must keep in mind their mandates and their communities.

Localizing design and aesthetics is essential to keep the connections between data-citizen relevant. This is explored from the perspective of post-colonial computing by Irani et. al; a project that aims to understand how ‘good design’ must be consistent with cultural identities and the transformative nature of cultural formation between the context and the individual (2010).

Example 3:
Proudly African and Transgender by Gabrielle Le Roux (In collaboration with Amnesty International and IGLHRC)

An interesting example of this is the work done by Gabrielle Le Roux, in collaboration with African trans and intersex activists (IGLHRC). A showcase of portraits and uncovered narratives of transgendered Africans in East and Southern Africa: that reasserts interesex and transgender identity in a society were these issues remain taboo and hence under the radar.


These visuals were exhibited in Europe by Amnesty International, and showcased in the Black Looks community (who participated in Tactical Tech’s 2009 InfoCamp) as well as in the WITS Centre for Diversity Studies research on Politics of Engagement: an interactive collaboration on social change through art-activism and research.

Example 4:
Camp Acra et Adoquin Delmas 33 - Haiti

An example less inclined on aesthetics but focused on visual documentation is the Camp Acra et Adoquin Delmas 33 blog, from Haiti. A site in which Camp Acra members are documenting their settlement and growth after the 2010 earthquake through essential information and images, fostering community building and communal identity reassertion.

“visual representations of information gives context to numbers, uncovers relationships and engages the viewers in ways that raw information could never do”
David McCandless

As David McCandless,data journalist, information designer and author of The Visual Miscellaneum points out: “visual representations of information gives context to numbers, uncovers relationships and engages the viewers in ways that raw information could never do” (2009). Having these representations mingle with culturally specific undertones provides opportunities to create solidarity ties between the citizen and its culture, as well as the add of “individual glosses” through action, critical reflection and participation (Benkler, 2006). However is this need for an aesthetic approach to information and culture representation a result of our consumer behaviour? Is it problematic that activism is catering to a model of promotion and presentation of information to incite participation? The next section will look shortly at the consumption culture in information activism.

IV. Consumption (Culture)

Is information design catering to consumption habits instead of citizen needs?
As seen, information design is grounded on the premise that the representation of data must create deep connections with its audience in order to incite a reaction. However, is this the result of  a culture of consumption?  Let’s not forget the citizens targeted by visual campaigns are also consumers in constant interaction with the market. Kozinet’s study of virtual communities of consumption (1999), is in line with Wurman's description of the behavior of a prosumer:

Behaviour of consumer vs. information prosumer

Kozinet - Virtual communities of consumption Wurman - The prosumer
Discerning consumer Displays curiosity in information
Less accessible for one-to-one processes Suspicion over information gate-keepers
Producers of large amounts of cultural information “New-found hunger” to find information related to its interests

Moreover, the Kozinet suggests a few strategies of how to interact with the consumer that also fit the strategies presented by Bennett at the beginning of this analysis:

How to connect with the consumer vs. citizen

Kozinet - Virtual communities of consumption Bennett - Features of information for civic engagement
Segmentation of consumers
Tailor information to values and activities familiar to the citizen
More interaction with consumer Suggest action options to facilitate decision-making and participation
Create loyal networks of consumption

With this parallel in mind, we asked Ganesh the extent to which info-activism resembles market consumption models:

MG: You need to think strategically about how it’s going to get picked up, where you want to promote your information, how you want to publish, present it; and push it. The problem with NGO, activists and independent individuals is that they are not as empowered financially [...]. If you look at the corporate section, journalism, etc; you have huge institutions and a lot of more finances behind this stuff. NGOs have one shot to make it work. That’s when people like us come in, to demystify, give people training and create platforms.

Comparing activists with ‘virtual consumption communities’ questions the extent to which corporate and social impact models are feeding of each other to present information and succeed. A deeper analysis of this relationship falls out of the scope of this post, but it is worth mentioning when exploring activism in information network societies. As Ganesh clarified, info-activism is not related to marketing, but visualizing information in attractive and interesting ways is crucial not only to persuade, but to make activism accessible and enticing. Today, ten years after it was founded, Tactical Tech maintains a critical approach to their work. It is now moving on to a next stage, beyond the mere representation of data and paying closer attention to the type of information that enhances impact and influence of their tactics.

MG: We have definitely moved on thinking about interesting ways of looking at this. Our questions are more critical and political right now. The nature of platforms, the nature of information sharing, what is the true face of social media? There is so much information and data right now. Once information is out there how do you actually make it evidence for evidence-based advocacy. We are trying to play with that idea a little bit. It's not only about having impact but also influence.


Part 1 and 2 of this analysis have explored the process of transforming data  into civic action. In part 1 we re-visited the question of information communities. We found that diversity in political opinion democratizes the debate in the public space. Information strategies must focus on making information from the grassroots visible and strengthening offline networks that facilitate information dissemination. In part 2, we explored the strategies behind the presentation and representation of this information.

Three main findings came from this analysis:

a) Non-violent visual advocacy is more likely to reduce the stakes of participation for the common citizen making political engagement more likely.
b) The role of design for short or long-term advocacy is to simplifythe process of civic action, facilitate decision-making and makethese projects self-sustainable.
c) Our consumption habits in the market are shaping how we process and interact with information in the public space. The possibility of consumer behavior permeating modalities of activism reinforces the need to explore the most interesting strategies for information dissemination.

From the perspective of the Making Change project’ it is interesting to explore this method to social change as a breach from the ‘spectacle’ criticism outlined by Shah. He argues that in contemporary activism, only a limited production of images enter the network - images in many cases detached from the material realities and experiences that shape the change process in the first place. This tendency results in paraphernalia over the visual, disregarding the crises that led to the inception of protests. The findings from this analysis indicate that visual persuasion is essential to capture the attention of citizens, and hence, the need for a pinch of ‘spectacle’ in data presentation cannot be overlooked.  The challenge info-activism now faces is making data’s dissemination self-sustainable in offline communities through the strategy and design of its campaigns.

Furthermore, the data, stories and narratives Tactical Tech is working to uncover can only be effectively transformed into action through a reconfiguration of the data-citizen relationship. Information strategies, besides from focusing on how to make data enticing, must also focus on the recognition of a status quo of idleness around how we consume, produce, question or interact with information. Tactical Tech has gone a far way at spearheading this line of thought and spreading graphic resistance through civil society, however this is not sufficient unless this recalibration occurs at the individual citizen level.


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  2. Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press, 2006.
  3. Bimber, Bruce, Andrew J. Flanagin, and Cynthia Stohl. "Reconceptualizing collective action in the contemporary media environment." Communication Theory 15, no. 4 (2005): 365-388.
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  7. Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.
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