Visualizing Palestine: Design Against Injustice

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Al-Akhbar Management

"Not Enough Water in the West Bank?" by: Visualizing Palestine in partnership with EWASH, March 2013

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Sunday, April 14, 2013

A quote at the bottom right corner of the graphic reads: “We are not in search of death, we are looking for real life.” The words are from the 1989 declaration of the Tiananmen Square hunger strike.

This was Visualizing Palestine’s first infographic and it was quite a compelling start.

More than a year later, other stunning infographics were produced. These elegant images range from a simple demonstration
of childhood births at Israeli checkpoints to a more complex image detailing the inequality of water distribution in the West Bank.

“Visuals are important because of their speed, its adaptiveness to social media, and the fact that the mind captures more from visuals than from texts,” Joumana al-Jabri, one of the co-founders, remarked to Al-Akhbar during a lunch on a Sunday afternoon that gathered most of the VP team at her apartment on Bliss Street.

The use of images and graphs to emphasize the daily injustices experienced by Palestinians by the Israeli colonial occupation is not entirely unique, but what makes the works produced by VP groundbreaking is the group’s ability to streamline and bond documented facts with eye-popping visuals.

The bread and butter of the project’s work are rooted in its embrace of a multi-disciplinary approach. In this way, diverse strands are tied together, further strengthening the emotional and intellectual impact of each graphic.

The staff of VP are very much aware of the power they hold.

In the Beginning…

The idea of VP was conceived by Ramzi Jaber in the early months of 2011. Like most good tales, it began with a journey and personal questions.

“The story I tend to tell is this: I was part of TEDxRamallah, and for a year and a half I was going from village to village, asking myself why as Palestinians are we in this mess and who is doing something about it,” he said.

On his trips, he’d hear shocking statistics, like the fact that each year, 700 Palestinian children are incarcerated in Israeli jails. To Jaber, the injustices committed in Palestine are “the most documented injustices on earth.”

“I was shocked on two levels – shocked by the whole colonial aspect and the sheer injustice, and shocked by my own ignorance,” he said.

At the same time, Jaber was in awe of the growing popularity of TED, prompting him to think about how to take Palestine’s statistics and “present it through the power of storytelling.”

In April of that year, Jaber attempted to establish such a project using volunteers. According to him, he spent months organizing two workshops that brought in researchers and designers, but zero graphics were produced. According to him, the problem they faced was two-fold: the amount of expertise required was difficult to find since this was a new endeavor and it required a stable, committed team rather than volunteers.

Soon after, Joumana al-Jabri, a designer and architect mainly based in Dubai, and Ahmad Barclay, an architect by training, were brought into the fold. Immediately, they began looking for others.

Naji El Mir, a designer based in Paris, and Hani Asfour, founder of PolyPod, a multi-disciplinary designing company located in Lebanon, became key partners at VP, as well as the main designers behind many of the graphics.

“Infographic is like an iceberg, you see one-tenths of it and there is so much below that of work being done. We needed researchers, people who sit down and do huge amounts of research and we still need more,” Jaber said.

Today, VP is a small core team of eight individuals, most in their twenties and thirties, and each providing their own unique skill set. Recently, Saeed Abu-Jaber, a young designer from Jordan was hired. In terms of research, text, and copy-editing, Zaid Amr, in Palestine, and Chris Fiorello, in Beirut, were added.

“Most of the people are from a mixed background so this adds a nice flavor to the design. We aren’t brought together by nationality or driven by jingoistic tendencies, and we are not an activist project that simply wants to save ‘the poor helpless victims,’” Barclay stressed.

Infographic 101

How does VP create an infographic?

Mainly, if an urgent news story breaks out, the team decides to develop an infographic in order to give context to what is happening. “Often, or almost always, the news is misrepresented or isn’t given context by the media. The rule of thumb tends to be that if the news is more prominent, it is more likely to lose its context,” Jaber said.

The final element, which is not the main focus of VP presently, is to highlight the absurdities of daily injustices. As an example, Jaber spoke of how Israel prohibits Palestinians holding different color-coded IDs from marriage, a restriction he had personally experienced and was keen on highlighting sometime in the future.

Once a topic is selected and fleshed out through various brainstorming sessions, the researchers gather the data and verify sources. From there, it is passed on to Barclay who molds it into a story.

The hardest part, according to Barclay, is the ability for one close to the data to take a step back and try to look at the bigger picture. He pointed out that there may be topics that simply can’t be visualized easily, topics and data that are segregated by borders, complicated stories that are hard to simplify on a static, two-dimensional image.

“It’s a good and bad exercise, in the sense that how do you get to the core message that strikes people and is rooted in analysis and facts? How do you tell the story to engage and motivate people, without becoming jingoist? How do you get people to understand an idea better or that the continuation [of injustice] isn’t inevitable?” he emphasized.

Abu-Jaber, the newest hire, said, “The beautiful thing is choosing. Finding that point of the story that grabs you. I like the process. It is quite fantastic because you’re learning something new while you’re designing. Essentially, you need to educate yourself.” For Abu-Jaber the work with VP offered a much more meaningful experience than his previous experiences working in fashion and magazine design.

“The work I used to do before made me feel dead inside. But this has a point and I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. This is like design activism,” he chuckled.

After this stage, a brief is made and shared with the designers, who proceed to translate the words into an alluring visual. The visual product is reviewed in order to ensure that the story is still intact.

“The facts are always the red-line. We actually go beyond, and try to maneuver the story to put the context in because you can take the facts out of context. So we maneuver it to include context, and puts the fact right where it needs to be,” Jaber said.

Once all parties are satisfied, it is published online.

The final step is to track the graphic’s impact, seeing who shares it and what type of debates it generates. This entire process can take anywhere between three days and three months.

The structure behind the process came out of a lot of trial and error, or as Jaber joked, “more error than trial.” But a structure was shaped, and in the spirit of the project, it was presented as an infographic available online for others to see and use.

Yet even now, the production isn’t entirely without kinks. “We need more effort, more people,” Jaber stated, “People who are dedicated, committed, and have the required skills. It’s harder than getting money.”

Funding, the bane for every organization on the planet, is particularly an issue, especially for a team that is independent from political backing. The VP team are planning to tap into crowd-funding campaigns through sites like Kickstarter, rather than the traditional grant route. This way, they hope, will continue to ensure the project’s ideological independence.

Visualizing International

Since its first graphic, VP has steadily been building a strong following, particularly within the NGO, civil society, and international solidarity sectors. For Jaber, it’s a sign that VP is on the right track.

“Success to me is that our visuals are being used effectively. I’ve heard that people have used them in conferences and in schools. They use our visuals to deliver a message, and the more that effectively happens, the better,” he said.

As another sign of success, the graphics by VP have been translated into more than seven languages, such as Arabic, French, Spanish, Korean, and Finnish. They have penetrated parts of the mainstream media, popping up in Al Jazeera English, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. And there is still more to come.

“Our next plan is to move into other media. We are very keen to go into animation, dynamic infographics, or even crowd-designed graphics,” Jabri stated.

But it is the ambitious concept of Linked word Visualizing Justice that has the most potential. The idea builds from the successes of VP and first conceived during an American tour by Jaber.

“We were being contacted by lots of people around the world who wanted to use the same form of visual styles for their causes and communities. They saw that communications is what rallies and mobilizes people together. So we wanted to provide tools and platforms for people to do the same thing in other cause. That’s our plan, but right now we are barely surviving as it is,” Jaber explained.

“Visualizing Justice became our platform that allowed us to transfer knowledge and become an umbrella for other groups to visualize topics other than Palestine – such as Visualizing Syria, Visualizing Burma, and Visualizing Water,” Jabri said.

Jaber reflected on the end-game for VP. He pointed to how the end of Apartheid was brought about by the achievement of a “world-wide understanding.”

“When people understand, it translates into action. Positive change is happening, whatever it is,” Jaber said with a wide smile.

The Japanese technological-fashion designer Issey Miyake once wrote, “Design is not for philosophy, it’s for life.” Can design really change realities and lives? In the case of Visualizing Palestine’s designs, it seems to ring true.

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