I envy early advertisers who simply had to sell new and improved soap. ‘Gets clothes cleaner‘ is a much easier proposition than ‘Biomass co-firing helps reduce the total C02 emissions per kilowatt hour of power produced, even when emissions from harvest and shipping are taken into account‘.

Such is the cross we green marketers now have to bear. But there are some pretty cool tools in the box to help. Like Illustrator and Photoshop. And with some forethought, (see the 5 tips below), you can get your readers through the stats wide awake and looking for more.

Last year I had the pleasure of working with Ottawa environmental agency TerraVeritas on a communication piece for Drax Power, one of Great Britain’s biggest energy producing plants. TerraVeritas is a a science company dedicated to investigating environmental and sustainability claims. That means they do all the hard work to dig up accurate, comparative stats to tell the story. (Which was of critical importance to me, as I was tasked with selling the benefits of adding biomass to a COAL-FIRED plant! Eeeek!) My job was to help translate these complex issues into digestible copy and images for a 16-page booklet called Field to Furnace – Displacing Coal with Biomass.

The CO2 cycle, explained

Some illustrations were designed to show a bigger picture; like describing the difference between CO2 that is in our current carbon cycle vs. additional CO2; or illustrating the benefits to farmers, job creation, shipping in one image (at the top of this article). For others I used Illustrator’s graphing tool to accurately display comparative numbers for easy interpretation at a glance.

Shipping costs and carbon for biomass

I learned a lot in the process, not least of which was a healthy respect for the science behind the numbers. If you are tasked with illustrating scientific concepts, here are a few more things to ponder for clients and creatives alike.

1. Think ahead to future uses and formats. If you’re going to all the trouble to do a 4″ x 4″ illustration for a web site, it’s probably just as easy to make it 8″ x 8″ at 300 DPI just in case it ever needs to be used it for print. Better yet, use a vector program such as Illustrator, which is resolution-independent. Video is another consideration. Building your files in layers will make it much easier to animate later.

2. Listen to the Eggheads. Don’t cheat on size and scale in comparative charts just to make your art look better. If something simply won’t fit, or will be too small to see, include an asterisk and add a disclaimer to the copy. Likewise for clients. No cheating the numbers to make your message rosier!

3. Consider the scientific acumen of your audience. If you are presenting to a board of PhD’s, you may wish to eschew graphic frippery entirely. For your average audience-in-a-hurry, make the most important points easy to see. Clients, think about what your audience may already know that will help your designer streamline the information.

4. You don’t always have to look slick or scientific. Sometimes hand-drawn or hand-written info can be the most powerful. Especially when you want to convey things in process, or show the human side of the equation.

5. Make sure you really understand the concepts. As a designer, it’s not enough to let the client do all the thinking, even if they are scientists. Wrap your head around the context for the message. Try to see it in a different way. Pare it down to its key elements and wow your client with an interpretation that’s fresh and accurate.

You might as well make friends with data. These days you can’t even sell laundry soap without putting some numbers through the wringer.

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