Use visual “benchmarks” when trying to communicate change

July 22, 2013

As nonprofits and as cause campaigners, we are constantly trying to bring about change to better the lives in our communities. Change, or the threat of change, is often uncomfortable, even scary, for people. Change can also be challenging to communicate.

Visual benchmarks can be used to shock, or they can be used to get people to think again about how something familiar and how it has been altered. Take climate change, for example. People are familiar with seeing skylines and are comfortable with images of them. Enter sea level rise. When a skyline is depicted in a future era partially underwater, people will look twice. In a positive twist on the visual benchmark, both The Economist and The New Yorker magazines have run covers with images of the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with an LED in it.

Before and after photos can have the same effect. In the 2012 climate change documentary Chasing Ice, National Geographic photographer James Balog takes on time-lapse photography of glaciers around the world on a scale never done before to show indisputable evidence of glacial retreat to convince climate skeptics with dramatic visuals. Gary Braasch has similar photos on his site,

Someone came up to me after my recent Netroots Nation talk on visual storytelling and encouraged me to check out the “Ugly Indian” campaign aimed at beautification of trashed streets in a few cities in India. I did check it out and, lo and behold, I saw some great before and after pictures that aimed to inspire others to take up the cause of street beautification. Their Facebook page shows the transformation of places from ugly to beautiful, instilling residential pride. Seeing people working together making their corner of the world a better place – what a great approach to visual storytelling, taking you from problem to “problem solved” in one quick visual sweep.

Do you have any examples of visual benchmarks? We’d love to see them!

Liz Banse