Reprinted with permission from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. View the original article, which was published in Cut/Paste Vol. 4.
This spring the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sobering report, compiling the available knowledge about human-caused greenhouse gas emissions with predictions about our warming planet. Though it’s written for high-level scientists and global policy-makers, there’s a page that’s instantly comprehensible to any reader. With a chart designed by MCAD Associate Professor Arlene Birt ‘02, it depicts the steady rise of global temperature since 1900, with an overlay of human timelines that illustrates how those impacts are already being felt by people born in 1950, 1980, and 2020.
“That chart gets at some of my objectives as a designer, which is to communicate clearly while putting the data into context,” Birt says. “When I think about my daughter’s future, looking completely different than my mom’s and my grandparents’, I think that’s the emotional pull that could help us to shift our behavior.”
Making hard data connect to our human experience has become a specialty for Birt, who is building a global reputation for translating complex information about environmental sustainability into memorable visual stories. A founding faculty member of MCAD’s MASD Program and founder of Background Stories, an infodesign consulting firm, Birt recently talked with CUT/PASTE about why creatives need to be involved in solving humankind’s greatest crisis.
It’s not often that graphic designers get called out for their great work, but both the Washington Post and Financial Times have published stories about the impact of the infographics you created for the UN IPCC’s report. What’s that been like?
For the past year and a half, I’ve been working with more than 60 climate scientists from around the world to develop and collaboratively design these figures for the U.N. Synthesis Report, which had to be approved, line by line, by 195 governments. There were so many different rounds of approval that at some point there were more than 30,000 government comments with about 6,000 of them focused on the figures. It's been exciting to see my name out there, but it’s also been an intensive process. It’s going to take some time to recover.
What’s it like being an artist in a world of scientists?
When I first started working with the team, I would be on Zoom calls with twelve different climate scientists all throwing ideas at me, the only visual person. Even though I knew they were speaking English, I could not follow the conversation! There was so much scientific language that learning how to understand it was a steep learning curve. There’s a moment with any project where I think, “Oh my gosh, I am so lost”—but it’s also exciting, because I know that through the process, I can help these groups find a way to translate this complex material in a way that non-specialists will understand.
Why do we need artists at the table? How do you think visual storytelling can help move the needle on climate change?
There’s more space for artists and creative people in this work as the world realizes that it’s just not enough to throw words and data at people. We need creativity and the humanities, not just to make things pretty, but to make it engaging. Our world today is more focused on visual interfaces, and people are becoming more accustomed to consuming information that comes to them through visuals. Connecting pieces of information in a visual way creates a story that can then connect to people more personally. The more you help people see themselves within the data, the more likely you’ll be able to nudge them toward behavior change, and toward a better world for all of us.
This report has been billed as a “final warning,” the last IPCC report to be released while the world still has a chance to keep temperature rise below the tipping point. Where do you find hope?
About the U.N. Synthesis Report itself, I am really impressed by how much science knows about where we’re headed. Scientists are notorious for adding caveats around their phrasing, but the science on climate change has been evolving so rapidly over the last seven years, since the last IPCC report, that what we know what we can track and what we can prove. It’s actually quite impressive. We know what needs to be done. So now it's about how we motivate us humans to take action, and advocate for policy makers to do what needs to be done. I believe that humans have a lot of potential to shift and make change when we want to. I tend to be an optimist.