Taking off on a CIAT study, iMPACT makes a case for the promotion of design thinking in non-profit organizations.
We are being bombarded with more data and information than ever before. This information overload—estimated by a 2009 University of California-San Diego study at 34GB of information per day for the average American—is likely to be several times that today.
Here’s an interesting fact, though: most Americans do not consider themselves overloaded with information, and are perfectly comfortable dealing with so much of it. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 77% of Americans said they liked having so much information, a figure that went UP 10 percentage points from 2006!
This means that people, especially millennial, are comfortable dealing with so much information and do not consider it debilitating. Now what does that mean for people who are putting out information for the public?
The key may lie in a recent study conducted by Colin Khoury of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The study paired scientists with graphic artists, to work on communicating ideas on socially relevant produce- and agriculture-based challenges. The idea was to explore the efficacy of collaborations between graphic artists and scientists as a vital component in science communication. The scientists first presented the results at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
What emerged was interesting: Scientists were forced to distil complex thoughts into accessible messages, and the graphic artists loved the challenge of representing science as art.
One of their recommendations was to make graphic design an important part of science communication—be it in academic papers or press releases—especially for socially relevant research.
It would seem that the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words still holds, so this column can simply be created as a graphic!
Is there anything for us, in the social sector?
Our lessons may lie in the study. The social sector is also looking to simplify complex concepts, and our need for eyeballs is likely greater than that of the scientific world.
The sector, as a whole, has made several strides design-wise. Annual reports of non-profits already feature infographics, and some have also gone for multimedia reports. Including graphic design might come in handy in various situations, including, but not limited to, social media and presentations.
However, the most significant change may occur in terms of how we start thinking. In the CIAT study, scientists said they appreciated the direct nature of the design process, which helped them frame their results appropriately, and designers said that they appreciated the challenge of combining design and science.
When you adopt design thinking, some other things happen:
- Connections and correlations become obvious
- Solutions are easier when problems are represented visually
- Thought becomes succinct and to-the-point
For non-profits, thinking visually might help cut to the chase, perhaps examine our path and plans, and make the connections that text is rarely suited for. This does not necessarily mean splurging on a graphic designer. It just means that members of a team start thinking in design terms. While several free drawing tools available in the market, it might only be a question of connecting the dots.
Integrating visualization into our communication will mean starting to think about design as we think about text: right from the start of a project. The most lasting change will come from integrating design thinking into the DNA of the organization, and moving away from a photo+text template.
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Sample exercises to get started on a design journey:
- Depict the organization’s vision/mission in a single graphic.
- Draw icons representing the different departments, in proportion to the number of employees in each.
- Describe any project of the organization in a graphic.
 John B. Horrigan, “Information Overload.” Pew Research Center, December, 2016, Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/07/information-overload
 Khoury CK, Achicanoy HA, Bjorkman AD, Navarro-Racines C, Guarino L, Flores-Palacios X, Engels JMM, Wiersema JH, Dempewolf H, Sotelo S, Ramírez-Villegas J, Castañeda-Álvarez NP, Fowler C, Jarvis A, Rieseberg LH, and Struik PC (2016) Origins of food crops connect countries worldwide. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Proc. R. Soc. B) 283(1832): 20160792. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0792. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.0792