Originally published on Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog.
In 2002 the Norwegian electronic music duo Röyksopp released their fourth single, “Remind Me.” To promote it, a French motion graphics studio named H5 was hired to produce a computer-animated music video, depicting a typical morning and workday of a young woman with a job in London’s Square Mile district (England’s equivalent to Wall Street). What’s unusual about the video, though, is not the use of animation, nor the “day in the life of an unremarkable person” concept, but the fact that the woman’s story is told exclusively through the use of infographics. These include (according to Wikipedia) “labeled close-ups of everyday objects, product lifecycles, schematic diagrams [and] charts,” as well as extraneous written commentary, such as “Like a car engine, the heart depends on electrical energy to start it and keep it beating regularly.” In other words, the video informs the viewer about every detail regarding the cartoon heroine and her day… except what’s going on in her mind and soul. This video – despite, or perhaps because of, its apparently satirical intent – has so far garnered nearly three million views on YouTube. What its success proves is that people really like infographics, to the point that they’re increasingly willing to receive much of their knowledge of the world from them, and even to view them as entertainment.
What do infographics have to do with solar? I will go out on a limb now and make the claim that the biggest challenge for the solar power industry today is not a technological one. (Yes, there’s the energy storage problem, but does anyone who’s not a diehard pessimist believe that, with all the innovative work now being done, a viable solution, or several, will not emerge soon?) The problem is not even marketing in the traditional meaning of the term. The challenge is rather to communicate to the public the dream of solar in a larger sense. People want to believe in solar and commit to it, but they think within a conceptual framework, obviously abetted by the fossil fuel industry, in which solar is simply “not doable.” So for a social transformation to take place, a new public awareness has to emerge. And any widely accepted information medium that can help create this awareness – certainly including infographics – should be welcomed.
Different solar organizations could make use of infographics for a number of purposes. A solar power corporation would naturally want to utilize them to make its website attractive and to obtain buy-in from consumers for the company’s products and services. A solar association might employ them as a way to enhance the public’s awareness of solar power and its viability. And advocacy groups might even find them handy as a way to influence lawmakers and other thought leaders to support or approve legislation and regulations favorable to the industry.
Some topics relating to solar power that would be ideal for the medium would be:
- the technological basis of solar power (i.e., how it works),
- a capsule history of solar from ancient times to the present day,
- the challenges that the industry faces in the immediate future,
- the affordability of solar,
- how solar energy can power (practically) anything,
- the reasons why solar is a legitimate substitute for fossil fuels.
If you belong to a solar organization seeking to incorporate infographics into your communications, there are a few simple rules for doing it right. Keep in mind that an infographic combines a utilitarian and an esthetic purpose, so it must be, more or less equally, both useful and attractive. Striking the proper balance can be a challenge, however. Making your infographic accurate and comprehensive while forfeiting visual appeal will result in dullness. But creating an overelaborate design at the expense of clarity and readability will render it useless. (The evocative term, “chartjunk,” was coined by statistician Edward Tufte to describe exactly this latter type of flawed illustration.)
Therefore, your infographic:
- must be readable as well as viewable,
- must contain no extraneous information (and must not omit necessary information),
- must contain no excessively complex or distracting images,
- must flow logically with, to the extent possible, a synergistic union of word and image.
A good example of an effective solar infographic is the one created by GE shown below, called “The Future of Solar.” (Note: the author of the present post has no relation to GE. Click on the graphic if it does not appear legible within the post.)
It is a particularly well-worn cliché to include, as here, an image of the sun in a solar infographic, but the illustration redeems this somewhat by imaging its information as concentric circles, or “rays,” emanating from this sun – a simple and effective idea. The three circles are divided into “The Past,” “Recent Years” and “The Future,” each “ray” further clarified by tan boxes with white text. The circle closest to the sun shows the huge increase (nearly triple) in energy consumption during the latter half of the 20th Century, as well as the proportions in the mix, at the beginning of each decade, of fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewables. The second circle shows the proportion to the whole of each type of energy source as of 2009, as well as the astonishing growth of solar in the early 21st Century. The third circle illustrates the United States’ energy goals for the year 2035, as well as demonstrating the means by which those goals might be achieved (in large part through solar). The text fonts throughout are on the small side and thus a bit hard to read, but the graphics make the data relationships perfectly clear. All in all, the infographic includes quite a bit of statistical information in a digestible, uncluttered manner, so is both pleasing to look at and informative.
No single information medium could ever be sufficient to make the public – which is often (deliberately) misinformed – understand the full truth about solar. But I believe a solar organization would be very short-sighted indeed not to include some well-made infographics in its media mix.
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