Designing environmental infographics with PhD students at env.infohackit Birmingham

Designing environmental infographics event with my team
There's something I just love about designing infographics, and so I was very happy when Peter Moore Fuller, Designer Director of Made Agency invited me to participate in the recent env.infohackit event at Birmingham University. The idea behind env.infohackit is that teams of designers and PhD students work together designing environmental infographics over an intense 12-hour period.

The overall aim of the event was to help the attending PhD students develop their ability to communicate their research in the compelling visual form that infographics have to offer. However, there was also some friendly competition in that all the teams were competing for the coveted 'first prize' on the day, which would also mean having the opportunity to present their winning infographic at envEXPO later in the year. I also saw the event as an opportunity to meet with some other local creatives and dip my toes back in academic waters.

Meeting the other creatives

The event was hosted on Birmingham University's Edgbaston campus, in the Nicolson building located adjacent to the beautiful Winterbourne House and Gardens. I arrived at around 8.30am and walked into a room already buzzing with what looked like very eager PhD students (I think the free coffee will have helped!). On looking at the PowerPoint slide being projected against the wall I saw that the event had actually started the day before. I had a mild panic about being a day late, until I met with Peter and he explained that the students had spent the previous day getting a solid grounding in how to use Adobe Illustrator. Peter then introduced me to the other designers taking part in the event, Patrick ( and Kevin (, who were both really nice guys. We talked about not knowing exactly what to expect, but we were all looking forward to getting started.

Meeting my team

After a brief welcome, Peter informed us that our task was to work together as a team to produce an infographic in the time remaining (which was roughly 12 hours). The theme of the infographic could either be drawn from the research of individual PhD students, or could reflect a broad theme of shared interest among the team. Peter then allocated Patrick, Kevin and myself to our teams; I was put with Sam (studying oil field reclamation), Hannah (transport and telecommuting), Ulrike (microfossils and climate) and Milan (using social media to predict pandemics). It soon became clear to us that there was a broad theme among our team's research of global environmental change, and we decided to focus on something to do with climate change. After discussing a few alternatives we decided that we would create an infographic that conveyed information to primary school children about the impact that small, daily activities could have on the larger challenge of addressing a changing climate. What took slightly longer was creating a team name, but in the end we settled on SHUMO - an acronym of our first initials.

Creating the Team SHUMO infographic

We had a clear idea of our audience, and so we started discussing ways that we could connect with them. One of the team mentioned that we could present our data using the hook of 'becoming a climate superhero', and we therefore decided to create five different heroes for each of our routine activities. All of my team were new to Illustrator, and had 'enjoyed' the previous day's training to varying degrees. Milan had renamed it 'Adobe Frustrator', which made me laugh as I remembered my own early experiences with the software. However, we decided that we would each take responsibility for representing the data relating to one of the five areas/heroes. On top of this, Sam decided she was up for the challenge of creating the superheroes that would accompany each section.

In both my freelance and in-house work I am used to taking on responsibility for everything, so I enjoyed the change and challenge of having more of a 'Creative Director' role. I spent some time moving between group members, helping them do things like set up grids and learn useful shortcuts for different Illustrator tasks. Even though I didn't expect them to stick to the grids I suggested, I wanted to convey that what really helps when working with creative tasks in Illustrator is a sense of structure, and that although it takes time to learn how to use it quickly and effectively the time invested is ultimately rewarding.

As each of the team were making the individual components of the infographic it was my task to put it together. I collected the graphics from each of the team and made decisions over typography and colours. I didn't have time to really consider any of these, so for me it was very much a case of producing something good enough without obsessing over the details. This was actually quite freeing, and it was actually really good getting immediate feedback from everyone on what they liked and didn't like. One thing I enjoyed was Milan's constant mantra throughout the day of "keep it simple". He may not have warmed to Illustrator but he definitely had the right mindset for design work!

After 12 hours had flown by, punctuated by breaks for lunch (cold buffet, with soft drinks), dinner (hot buffet, with beer) and Peter's QI-style countdown klaxons we were done. The improvement in each of my teammates' abilities in Illustrator was really impressive to see. It also turned out that Ulrike had been using Illustrator CS4, which meant she was working without some of the tools and functions that were available to the rest of us. She, together with Hannah, Sam and Milan, had all come a long way in a short time, and had even managed to create a great PowerPoint presentation to help 'sell' our infographic.

Presenting the infographics

Peter gave a typically humorous summary of the past two days before inviting each team up to present their infographic. We were the last team to present our work, and so we enjoyed seeing what the others had come up first. I have to say that the quality of not only the infographics but also the ideas that informed them was fantastic.

One of the teams (The Pipe Pundits) didn't have a designer working with them, but had still managed to create an intricate and very clever schematic-styled infographic relating to risks around pipes. I thought that would be the winner, but the other teams then showed their infographics which were just as impressive.

The next was a minimal and classy 'Sunday supplement' style infographic about how human polluting activity can lead to endocrine disruption in fish (Patrick's team - amusingly called the Gender Benders because one of the main impacts being a change/disparity in fish sex ratios). Patrick explained the ideas behind the design, using naturalistic ideas of cycles, flows and funnels to dictate the overall aesthetic.

There was then a very entertaining and nicely put together infographic debunking the idiotic climate tweets of Donald Trump, put together by Kevin and his team. Kevin also came up with the great title of "How to overcomb climate change, folks!". I was amazed by the quality of ideas and detail in each of the infographics. Each of them had a very different style, and ours was no exception!

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The rest of Team SHUMO did a great job of presenting the ideas and process behind our infographic to everyone else (I was quite frazzled by this stage and more than happy to take a back seat!). The other teams seemed to enjoy the fact that each of our superheroes was based on a specific Team SHUMO member (I was the 'Leccy Lantern', obviously). Our infographic was possibly lighter on actual 'information' than some of the others, but this was a conscious decision as we wanted to focus more on 'actions' than facts. The facts we did include were presented in ways that were consistent with our superhero theme; we didn't sequester CO2, we 'crushed carbon!'. After some questions from the audience it was time to grab another beer while the judges conferred.

And the winners are...

After teasing us via his PowerPoint mastery (and giving a prize for the best Day 1 vector illustration), Peter revealed that the winners were... Team SHUMO! We were a little shocked, as I don't think any of us had expected to win. We were all very pleased though, and I think everyone was proud of what we had come together to do and had achieved, in just 12 hours. After being given a bottle of celebratory fizz we posed for photos and chatted before saying our goodbyes and heading out into the misty, drizzly Birmingham night.

Thoughts on the day

I am really pleased that I took part in env.infohackit. The passion and interest of everyone at the event was clear to see, not only among the academics but also in Peter who was an excellent and accommodating host. Seeing the growth in my teammates' abilities was fantastic, and I was pleased to hear that they were thinking about how they could use their new-found skills in communicating their own work. For me personally, I enjoyed playing the role of facilitator and director and had a lot of fun working with Sam, Hannah, Ulrike and Milan. I even learnt a thing or two about letting go of my own perfectionism and seeing what is possible in just 12 short hours. It was great to be on the winning team, but I would have been just as happy with a day well spent if we hadn't won. I met some great students and it was really good to get to know some talented Birmingham-based designers in Patrick and Kevin. Now my team go on to present at envEXPO, and Leccy Lantern wishes them the best of luck with that and with their PhDs!

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