Book Review: Visualising Information for Advocacy

French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida that excellent photographs have a punctum – a punch that strikes the viewer in a particular way, drawing their physical and psychological attention. It’s a nearly ineffable quality that involves the right mixture of variables in lighting, contrast, angle, focus, and so forth, to align such that, upon seeing them, we are struck beyond what words have the capacity to express. While I’m not sure Barthes would approve of the connection, I’ve always thought of this “punch” as a special quality also associated with agit-prop, graffiti, public and political art, and, more recently, activist infographics. These kinds of interventions in our otherwise distracted consciousnesses succeed relatively rarely. And given the glut of such activist messaging in both physical and social media, we’ve become more desensitized and even less likely to feel caught by these communications. Yet, these interventions that develop our awareness, touch our heart, or prompt us to action, are an essential element of any effective advocacy campaign.

It’s fitting, then, that the Tactical Technology Collective (who we interviewed in Episode #2 of The OK Cast) has published a book, called Visualising Information for Advocacy, that has a punch of its own. From cover to cover, it’s fluid and intriguing designs, clever use of storytelling, and acuity for distilling important and practical guidelines from a complex set of disciplines and research – psychology, anthropology, marketing, media and design, and communications – makes the book a perfect “case in point” for what it’s trying to teach – how to use contemporary tools and data to visualize information for advocacy campaigns. Like the advocacy campaigns it details, it is a work of painstaking care and detail, so well-crafted that a reader might be deceived into thinking it was an easy achievement. If you can’t tell yet, I’m a fan. Actually, I think this book is an essential foundation for any activist, advocate, organizer, or change-maker.

Visualising Information for Advocacy, Tactical Tech Collective, CC SA License,

Visualising Information for Advocacy, Tactical Tech Collective, CC SA License,

The authors recognize an essential problem for activists: how to communicate with those not already mobilized toward their cause. With our everyday lives pounded by a constant barrage of information, including a recent deluge of infographics and other data visualizations, activists are hard-pressed to get us meaningfully engaged with their particular cause. And of course, these meaningful engagements must do more than crack through our psychological barriers; they must also be pedagogical – they should teach us something, open us to a new way of thinking or feeling, and if truly successful, activate us. The authors, too, treat their readers pedagogically, hooking them with inspiring examples while simultaneously laying a foundation for deeper learning. They demonstrate precisely how to get an audience to engage with a new set of ideas and to mobilize them to action.

In the first few chapters, we are lead through “The Elements of Visual Persuasion” and “Forms of Influence.” The lessons are seemingly simple. For example, the elements of visual persuasion are: (1) engage and entice, (2) communicate a convincing argument, and (3) draw the viewer in. However, these memorable concepts are always grounded in narrative and visual examples. Rather than a “how-to” guide through a series of steps, the concepts are demonstrated and later returned to, indicating both a pedagogical attention to repetition and revisiting as well as the necessity of connecting abstract concepts to meaningful personal experiences.

In “Forms of Influence”, the authors detail multiple strategic interventions that can be used to drive social change. These strategies are supplemented by reminders about the art and craft of representing information visually, offering the reader the parallel sense that this kind of advocacy requires honed and practice skill, while still remaining well within their reach. Given the global reach of the Tactical Tech Collective, it isn’t surprising that their examples are also globally inclusive, each appealing more or less to a group of readers. Still, it is refreshing to be offered this variety, especially for those embedded in a particular activist context.

The next three chapters are the detailed steps of visualizing information for advocacy. They call them “Get the Idea,” “Get the Picture,” and “Get the Detail.” The first is about capturing attention and transmitting a broad, basic, fundamental idea for the campaign. “Get the Picture” is about crafting a narrative that appeals to audiences through the most pressing characteristics of the issue. The third chapter in this section, “Get the Detail,” discusses developing more rich and complex visualizations (often interactive) that allow interested audiences to easily and intuitively develop a deeper understanding of the issues. Each of these chapters explains the purpose and principles of their activity and then offers a variety of very useful and graspable techniques for implementing them.

The final chapter, “Putting it into Practice,” considers the practical dimensions of visualizing information for advocacy. Of course, it’s a bit of a misnomer, because the entire book is a guide about how to build strong visualizations. The purpose of this chapter, however, is to consider with the reader the practicalities of creating and using visualizations, rather than the design of the visualization itself. The book contains a number of pragmatic ideas, obviously gleaned from extensive practical experience because of the detail and thoughtfulness of the recommendations.

Can you tell I liked this book yet? On top of all this, the book itself is beautifully designed throughout, and the physical material seems solid and durable. The one flaw for this book stems from a few production challenges. Some of the images are slightly pixelated. These, in combination with screenshots from web pages, are a bit jarring given the attention to detail everywhere else. But, if I had to guess, most readers won’t notice, and these small flukes don’t really compromise the overall quality of the content and production.

This isn’t a book built to sit on a shelf looking pretty (though it could do that pretty well too) – it’s a field guide. It belongs on the table of every NGO, community center, and activist meetup spot. Further, I’d like to see it in classrooms for design, social worker, communications studies, anthropology, political science, urban studies, and education. Visual literacies, especially the creation of visual artifacts, are a necessary skill for the professions many of these kinds of folks will enter. More importantly, they are exactly the kinds of tools activists and advocates need to encourage movement toward justice and equity.

Visualising Information for Advocacy is a book meant to be read through and then used later as a reference. Whether you’ll be designing the visualizations yourself or hiring out, this book will help you ensure the visualizations you develop have maximum impact. Take a peakGet it. Read it. Use it. And check out their awesome resources.

Oh, and if you do, be sure you let me know what you think of it in the comments below.

Alex Fink

Editor & Host at The OKCast
In addition to hosting the OKCast, I am a Ph.D. student in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota. I study methods of making research to document injustice and resistance available to young people to create social change. My particular focus is on the political economy and ecology of data, including data collection, data use, data access/sharing, data economics, and the ideologies surrounding it.

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