23 October 2010

Information Design for Advocacy: Beirut Workshops

Beirut Map

Civil society in Lebanon is blossoming. The number of registered NGOs has increased dramatically in recent years and as advocacy campaigns become more sophisticated, there is a growing appetite for learning new techniques for conveying ones messages. I was invited by the US State Department Speaker Specialist Program to work with the Social Media Exchange (SMEX) in Beirut to conduct a week of workshops for local and international NGO staff on visual thinking and information design for advocacy.

Building on my work and my 2008 booklet Visualizing Information for Advocacy: An Introduction to Information Design, I devised three day-long workshops which were announced as follows:

Visual thinking and story telling for advocacy and outreach

Your campaign has a story to tell. This workshop will show you ways information design can be used to tell your story with greater clarity and effectiveness. Presentations will feature examples of information design for advocacy and workshop participants will take part in visual, idea mapping exercises to learn the process first hand. Starting with some design basics, participants will learn how the elements of design can build a visual story and lend power to a message. Participants will learn tips for creating powerful presentations and about design techniques that can be used to visualize situations and help plan tactics and strategy.

Working with data for analysis and campaigning

Data can provide evidence, make patterns visible, and help us visualize change. It can even surprise you by revealing new perspectives or previously unknown situations. New technologies have unlocked a world of high quality, freely accessible data on the web -- and made it easy to create collaborative data sets of your own. This workshop will look at examples of how data can be used for advocacy work, and how to use design and visualization to make your message clear, compelling, and engaging. Presentations will discuss tools for data collection, storage, processing, and visualization. Participants will learn about some of the best practices for using data and about some common pitfalls to look out for when about using data and information design for advocacy.

Mapping for advocacy

Maps tell stories about people and places and help us visualize the changing world. NGOs can use maps to tell their stories to their constituencies, funders, decision makers, and the general public. This workshop will look at examples of how maps have been used by NGOs around the world to promote a variety of issues and campaigns, large and small. We will also explore both high- and low-tech tools and techniques used to create maps. Participants will learn about some possibilities for using maps for advocacy, and where to begin map projects of your own.

Due to popular demand, we added an additional visual thinking workshop. And in addition to the workshops, I delivered two evening lectures oriented to professional designers and design students. The first lecture, presented at Polypod, a multi-disciplinary design studio, focused on my personal design practice working with civil society organizations and activist groups. The second, at the Lebanese American University included a broad overview of information design for advocacy. A few NGO professionals who could not attend the day-long workshops were able to attend the evening at LAU as an alternative. I also delivered a version of the presentation about my work to a class of graphic design students at the American University of Beirut.

Each of the day-long workshops was divided into three sections: Why, How, and Exercises.

  • In the Why section, I discussed some of the principles of information design for advocacy and talked through examples of campaigns that have used design effectively. We also looked at a few examples of poor design and discussed why they were less effective.
  • In the How section I broke down some of the techniques, terminology, and thinking involved in the process of creating graphics and analyzing the campaigning context.
  • The final section of the day consisted of interactive sketching exercises, with participants working first alone and then in groups. Each section lasted about two hours and was followed by a period of questions and answers and a coffee break.

Participants were exposed to visual thinking models for both internal analysis as well as external outreach and advocacy. Sketching exercises included: simple story-telling in three panels “before, during, and after,” tactical mapping analyzing the issue of street traffic and diagramming power relationships, devising a visual campaign with a particular target, and a collaborative project to create a “Green Map” of Lebanon looking at sites of environmental interest, richness, and concern as a platform for a visual campaign for youth.

Workshop participants responded very positively. Different elements of the workshops appealed to different audience members, some enjoyed the discussion of best practices and example projects, while others felt they got the most out of the sketching, model campaign development and hands-on exercises. Participants who were timid about asking questions during the presentation portions, became quite animated during the exercises, particularly around the visual analysis of the causes of traffic in Beirut, an issue that affected everyone in the room.

Though the workshops and lectures were conducted in English, the participants represented a range of ages, backgrounds, and organizational affiliations. Staff from mostly secular local and international NGOs attended, as well as local artists, activists and designers. The two evening lectures were oriented towards professional designers and design students and were also well attended.

Overall feedback was positive and the participants appeared energized by learning about new advocacy possibilities. While I was still in Beirut, one attendee emailed to say she was inspired to get touch with a local designer to collaborate on a campaign. Another workshop participant recently posted an information graphic on smoking in Lebanon. Joelle has been active on the no-smoking campaign for a while, but the workshop on designing data may have helped crystallize her thoughts.

A few participants requested a list of software tools, so I drafted a list of free tools which SMEX circulated. After my overview, some participants wanted a more technical, step-by-step software tutorial. This had not been part of the planning for this set of workshops, but could well make for a good follow-up session if a computer lab is available. Such support could also be provided on a one-on-one basis as a program of technical assistance or on a self-guided training module.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to present my work and thinking in Beirut and I think it was a success. I also learned quite a bit about the country and region and some of the challenges facing the NGO community there. I had some great meetings which I’m still unpacking. I hope to return again.