When five years ago I fell in love with the concept of virtual water I could not imagine I was going to undertake a journey full of so many encounters. And I could not imagine that, from that point on, my personal and professional compasses would point so firmly in the same direction.
That journey has been a catalyst for two major discoveries: the way we use water and the power of design. I became a more conscious water-user and I became aware of how powerful design can be in order to communicate with clarity, in order to enhance understanding through knowledge and beauty. I wanted to be a virtual water ambassador and I wanted people to listen to what I had to say.
My first major self-initiated project on that fascinating scientific gem [virtual water] was called ‘The Global Water Footprint of Humanity’. It lasted one year and it became the final-year thesis of my two-year Master in Information Design at Central St Martin’s in London. The project got recognition at the INDEX: AIGA Aspen Design Challenge ‘Designing Water Future’ and since that time I have received invitations to international conferences on design and communication.
I found it hard to showcase my work without referring to what I had discovered in piles of scientific water reports and I can well remember the astonishment in the eyes of every single person in the audience each time I gave my talk. I experienced the power of words when they are in synch with strong images, I discovered the power of being passionate about a cause and the importance of communicating that passion together with facts, diagrams and pictures.
I experienced the power of telling stories and I felt that this power does not lie simply in embedding diagrams or charts in a larger body of text but it lies in using a visual platform as a stage.
A stage where words and images dance in sync in order to guide the audience through a journey. As designers we can decide how much freedom the user will have while navigating the information, but we have to make sure the audience will not get lost in a mass of data. We want to make sure that at the end of the journey our listener will leave the room possessing a new insight. This principle can be applied to any context: if we are trying to communicate a message, if we are trying to design information, whether we are dealing with news, health information, statistics, scientific or business reports.
A year ago I started thinking about translating my talks into a short visual story, what I call an infographic story. I felt the need to begin a new self-initiated project that this time could reach as many people as possible. That story would sum up what I had discovered around the subject of water, including research developed by the Water Footprint Network and the book written by Professor Tony Allan on virtual water. What do I mean by an info-graphic story?
Nigel Holmes, one of the first information designers who brought data visualization to a large, mainstream audience, tells us that the purpose of information graphics is to inform, to explain, to help foster understanding and to help people see the data, the numbers, the process. In their paper entitled Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data, Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer, part of the Stanford Vis Group, write that ‘data visualization is promoted more and more for its ability to tell stories yet these data stories differ from traditional forms of storytelling.’ They do differ. And the reason is because of the unprecedented number of ways in which we can generate, communicate and explain information.
Storytelling is a way of thinking about organizing information, it is perhaps one of the most powerful results we can get when we organize information successfully. In order to communicate my message I had to select the data carefully, find the right words and tone, design the images, convey quantities and – most important of all – rise to the challenge of balancing all the bits, in order to get my message across, so that the readers could be guided by the story flow without losing their way.
I had very clear in my mind the information I wanted to convey and I started by writing a draft of the story. I wanted it to be concise. The challenge has been much harder than I expected. I am not a scientist but I was writing about science, and I needed to communicate in simple language what I believe to be an extraordinary piece of knowledge. I wrote 15 versions in the span of several months and in this process the feedback from David Stonestreet has been crucial. David is senior editor at IB Tauris and we collaborated when he commissioned me to design the book Virtual Water by Professor Allan, a few years back. His knowledge on the topic and his professional experience helped question every single word I was using, cut out the unnecessary, get to the nitty-gritty of the story. Version after version, I felt I was reaching the simplicity I wanted.
While I made progress in the editing adventure, the visual narrative was taking shape in my head and the design began. I spent loads of time on a storyboarding, trying to unlearn everything I knew, trying to feel what the reader might feel while reading the words and looking at the images for the first time. This was another special adventure and Tom Halsør played a fundamental role. Tom is an information designer who has been in the field for more than 15 years working on an incredible variety of projects ranging from designing board games to visualising statistics, from paper-based to interactive pieces of work driven by a strong focus on the user’s understanding. We are both very interested in perception and cognition and he has been something between devil’s advocate and Jiminy cricket (il Grillo Parlante).
At a certain point my storyboard, drawings, graphics, diagrams, words were ready but not alive – they were lying still, on the pages of my sketchbook. For the scrolling, moving, appearing, disappearing, zooming, falling, I needed a tech wizard, a super geek who could implement the story by following meticulously my instructions and by adding experience, knowledge and tricks that only a geek can suggest. I was soon in the position of being a client who needed a web developer. I was lucky. I came across a series of award-winning websites and one of them was designed by Basilico Interactive, an Italian company based in Brescia. Yes, an Italian one! It took me a second to decide to drop them an email and commission the job. I felt even luckier when I met them (Michele co-founder and project leader, Ivan designer, Valerio developer) on Skype: easy, friendly, passionate. I could not have achieved the result I wanted without the willingness and patience they promised, and proved, to have. Lots of patience.
In the beginning it can all sound very cool when you ask someone to collaborate on an interesting self-initiated project, to develop your design, to listen to your needs, to think about the user, to think about the reading experience, to learn the meaning of every single word you are communicating and on top of all this, to follow you 100% into the graphic details. It might turn into a nightmare! But it did not. Instead it became a wonderful dialogue where our brains cooperated to achieve a common aim. I was in search of simplicity: my aim was to provide an effective reading experience that could guide the user through the words without distracting from them. I wanted words and images to dance together and the reader to be part of the dance. So if code is poetry my tech wizards wrote some cool verses at the pace of HTML5, CSS3, Scalable Vector Graphics, parallax scrolling, cross browsing.
After months of work I am now ready to launch and I hope you will enjoy the infographic story. Most of all I hope you will spread the message as soon as you have discovered what an insane amount of water we eat.
Read the infographic story @ www.angelamorelli.com/water
For a full-animated version use Chrome, Firefox, Safari. On Internet Explorer 9-8-7, Opera and iPad you will get a static version. In the next months we will work on a non-static version for iPad.
Oslo, 24 settembre 2012