How do you visualize a world you haven’t yet seen?

Earlier this year, I did some graphics work for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC), a group whose mission is to radically re-imagine family engagement in schools and other institutions. It turned out to be one of the toughest design challenges I’ve faced.

In this post, I want to share a bit of that design process with you. The back-and-forth that the process inspired — with me offering draft images and them giving critiques — was fascinating on its own. But more than that, this project exemplified some of the tensions I’ve struggled with over the years creating visual communications for social justice groups.

One of these recurring tensions has to do with the use of symbols. Infographics and other visualizations often rely on simple, widely-recognizable symbols to communicate ideas. We know instantly that a paintbrush means art, a graduation cap means education, and two tall figures and two short figures means family. These symbols serve as visual shorthands, allowing images to be comprehended quickly, and by a broad audience.

A social justice perspective, however, values diversity and inclusiveness. There is no one kind of family, no one educational path, and to simplify these ideas into universal symbols is to marginalize those who deviate from that single image. In addition, social justice is often about imagining how the world could be. That can be hard to do using symbols that are based on the world as it is — particularly if you’re not totally sure what the future you are fighting for will look like. But the farther you stray from the dominant culture’s symbols, the less you can assume that viewers will immediately recognize your meaning.

These are not insolvable dilemmas. Many artists are navigating them creatively. Here’s a story of one of my attempts. I hope it offers some useful insights; I certainly learned a lot. And since I recently critiqued another person’s visualization, it’s only fair that I share some of the critiques I’ve received — all of which, ultimately, have led to better designs.

The Job

Ann Ishimaru, a professor at the University of Washington, approached me with the job. She and her colleague Megan Bang had received funding from the Kellogg Foundation to bring together a group of nationally-recognized community organizers, educators, and researchers from around the country for a two-day meeting. The topic under discussion was family engagement — the practice of supporting families as leaders, advocates, and collaborators in schools and communities.

Ann, Megan, and their colleagues were not content with the current state of “best practices” in family engagement. Their goal was to to develop “next practices” — approaches that go beyond what we’re doing now to what is possible tomorrow. They wanted to center racial justice and the voices of “nondominant” groups, with the ultimate goal of “family and community wellbeing and educational justice.” Ann wanted to capture all this in an image to share at the meeting.

Clearly no small task.

We began with a couple different concepts. One was Tupac Shakur’s metaphor of “the rose that grew from concrete,” which is about the strength and beauty of people who learn to thrive despite facing significant life challenges. Ann wanted to expand the metaphor to explore what was happening below the surface of the concrete, as well as the broader ecology around the rose.

Another concept was root systems. The root systems of plants are often much more extensive than you’d expect, just as there is much going on beneath the surface in marginalized communities that goes unrecognized by outsiders. As a starting point, Ann shared with me the image below, showing a fungus that that attaches to plant roots. She liked the way the tendrils were interconnected through nodes, which suggested ideas about human interconnectedness and networks.

Mycorrhizosphere graphic

After some back and forth, I drafted the image below. I carefully selected flowers from different climates around the country to communicate the diversity of the gathered group. I also used flowers at different stages of growth, to symbolize inter-generational collaboration. The urban landscape signified the broader ecology within which family engagement took place, as well as the large, often inaccessible institutions that families had to navigate. Linked root systems signified networks of mutual support, and a rootedness in shared history and culture.


The image sparked some great discussion at the meeting. Basically, they didn’t like it. Perhaps the loudest critique was about the lack of people in the image. Family engagement and leadership, they said, is about human beings, and that needs to be clear. Another critique was that the use of flowers made it seem like the image was about the environment. A third critique was that family leadership isn’t just about breaking through racism and oppression (the concrete), but also about building something new. Ann summarized it this way:

“The roots of schools as we know them are stunted and problematic from the get-go. They are rooted in oppression, in colonization, in assimilation and the stealing of land. How do we reconstruct something entirely different — not a school building, per se, but a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities and then builds from there…the process of growing or cultivating that somehow helps communities to heal, to be well, to build solidarities, to envision themselves into the future.”

planet-sketchwebIn conversation with Ann and Jondou Chen, the project director, I began to sketch out a new image that showed people with roots in the ground. The people had tools in their hands, to symbolize the building of new types of institutions. But Ann and I agreed that it was getting a bit too “we are the world,” and losing any indication of oppression and struggle.

At this point I realized I needed to shift my design approach. Simple stick figures could never capture the full humanity of people, or the complexity of family leadership across all the different groups involved. What if I used actual photographs? This idea led to the image below, based on Ann’s description of “a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities.” What would such an education system look like? (I used photos from an older project on community organizing for these early drafts, so thank you to all the groups featured!).


Ann and Jondou liked the photos. However, they said the root system looked like a honeycomb. Also, they really didn’t like the top part. It was immediately clear, when they looked at the image, that the idea of a new institution as the end-goal wasn’t right. (I wasn’t thrilled with it myself, since it ended up looking like a cathedral, which is culturally specific and has its own baggage). Having an idea rejected like this can be frustrating, but over the years I’ve realized that this is one of the more helpful services visualizations can offer. By having their words reflected back to them as an image, they were able to clarify what they did not mean, and the dialogue moved forward in a better direction.

After some more conversation, I merged the ideas from my last two designs and came up with the graphic below. I moved the images of family leadership work into the leaves, rather than the roots. This suggested that people in communities around the country were already carrying out “next” practices, that the future goal was already here within today’s struggle. The multi-colored soils were meant to represent the diverse cultural and historical roots that fed this work. (At one point I tried to put historical images of family leadership and activism among the roots, but it got WAY too busy.)


Ann, Jondou, and their colleagues really liked the new direction, but had a few concerns:

  • The image came across as too individualistic. Each person was on their own, rather than connected to larger families or communities. As an alternative, they suggested multiple figures in groups, with arms/branches connected.
  • The landscape, at least to some, read as literally urban (rather than as a metaphor for unwelcoming institutions). They worried this was not inclusive of groups working in rural areas.
  • They wanted more age diversity among the figures, because so much of the work was intergenerational.

After a few more rounds of back-and-forth, we landed on the image below. In the end a wall, rather than a city, was used to symbolize the barriers faced by families. I drew inclusive, diverse groups of connected people, which purposefully did not read as traditional nuclear families. To be sure, it not the kind of graphic whose meaning is immediately clear to a viewer. Rather, it invites exploration, explanation, and discussion. It is as much about the feeling of the work as about the idea of the work.

Though it took a long time, and many re-drawings, ultimately the critiques greatly improved the design. In addition, the design process helped Ann and her colleagues clarify their own mission, goals, and values. Now the FLDC is running collaborative research projects in communities around the country, and I’ve been told that one group used the image to guide their discussions. They asked participants to describe how race and class have shaped their own histories (the roots); to write their hopes and dreams for their children, schools, and communities on cut-out leaves; and to use white note cards as “walls” to represent the barriers and challenges to realizing those hopes and dreams.

All around, a success, though I wouldn’t be surprised if we continued to adapt it going forward.


The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using

[NOTE: November 1, 2016. This post has been updated based on the new things I’ve learned about these images since posting the original article.]

I was doing some work for a colleague at the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, and she gave me a challenge: redesign the “equity vs. equality” graphic that’s been circulating on the web. You’ve probably come across a version of this graphic yourself. There are a bunch of iterations, but basically it shows three people trying to watch a baseball game over the top of a fence. The people are different heights, so the shorter ones have a harder time seeing. I’ve included the original image above, by Craig Froehle.

In the first of two images, all three people have one crate to stand on. In other words, there is “equality,” because everyone has the same number of crates. While this is helpful for the middle-height person, it is not enough for the shortest and superfluous for the tallest. In contrast, in the second image there is “equity” — each person has the number of crates they need to fully enjoy the game.

The distinction between equity and equality is an important one. For example, if we’re talking about school funding, advocating for equality would mean ensuring that all schools had the same amount of resources per pupil (an improvement in most cases, to be sure). On the other hand, advocating for equity would mean recognizing that some schools — like those serving students in low-income Communities of Color — will actually need more resources (funding, experienced teachers, relevant curriculum, etc.) if we are going to make a dent in the educational disparities that have come to be known as the “achievement gap.”

The problem with the graphic has to do with where the initial inequity is located. In the graphic, some people need more support to see over the fence because they are shorter, an issue inherent to the people themselves. That’s fine if we’re talking about height, but if this is supposed to be a metaphor for other inequities, it becomes problematic. For instance, if we return to the school funding example, this image implies that students in low-income Communities of Color and other marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable. They (or their families, or their communities) are metaphorically “shorter” and need more support. But that is not why the so-called “achievement gap” exists. As many have argued, it should actually be termed the “opportunity gap” because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are afforded. It is rooted in a history of oppression, from colonization and slavery to “separate but equal” and redlining. It is sustained by systemic racism and the country’s ever-growing economic inequality.

This metaphor is actually a great example of deficit thinking — an ideology that blames victims of oppression for their own situation. As with this image, deficit thinking makes systemic forms of racism and oppression invisible. Other images, like the one of  different animals having to climb a tree, or of people picking fruit, suffer from the same problem. How would we make these root causes more visible in our “equity vs. equality” image?

Well, if we began with the metaphor of the fence, this would require making clear that the reason some people have more difficulty seeing than others is not because of their height, but because of the context around them. Below is a sketch of this idea. In this image, some people are standing on lower ground (a metaphor for historical oppression) and are trying to see over a higher fence, a metaphor for present-day systems of oppression. (I also put a hole in the fence, made by the person on the right, to symbolize the creative and often subversive ways that people find to work around systems and get some of what they need.)


However, I still don’t love this new version, because nothing is being done here to address the real problem: the fence. So I drew this third image for fun. Though by this point it’s losing a lot of the original images nice simplicity.


iisc_equalityequityIf you want to play around with this metaphor yourself, check out the 4th Box toolkit. Recently, the people at the Center for Story-Based Strategy and the Interaction Institute for Social Change worked with artist Angus Maguire to recreate the fence image, producing the beautiful version to the right. It went viral, and they noticed a lot of people remixing the image to expand on the concepts. So they collaborated with Maguire again to create an adaptable visual toolbox, which makes it easy to create your own image in the “4th box” as shown below. They’ve been using it to inspire both in-person and online dialogues.


I still see a lot of drawbacks to the core metaphor, however, so I’ve been on the lookout for others. One I’ve heard, which I think works better, references runners on a racetrack. On an oval track, the outer lanes are actually longer than the inner lanes. If everyone started at the same place, some would have to run farther than others. So, naturally, we start runners at different places along the track. Here’s a mock-up of this metaphor, though it assumes that you already know about the different lengths of each lane:


Beyond this, I haven’t had any major breakthroughs, and the idea of life as a “race” isn’t very appealing to me. Fortunately, I was not the only one trying to figure this out. Meyer Memorial Trust and Northwest Health Foundation had similar concerns, so they launched the Equity Illustrated contest, asking Oregonian artists to take up the challenge.

First place winner Salomé Chimuku rejected the simple metaphoric approach all together, noting that “equity isn’t about watching baseball.” Instead she offers a series of cartoon portraits of friends, with quotes from each illustrating a different aspect of equity. The result has the quality of a conversation. Here’s a sample. You can download the whole pdf HERE.




The third place illustration, from Matt Kinshella, is also pretty great. It keeps the simplicity of the fence image, but puts aside the baseball metaphor for a more concrete example — one close to my heart as someone invested in community work.


It may seem that I am reading too much into these images. Certainly they were all created with the best of intentions. But metaphors are important. They help us understand new ideas by referencing things we already know. At the same time, they shape our experience, opening us up to some ideas while closing us off to others. The mental shorthand we use to understand “equity” will affect how we go about fighting for it.

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, I’ll end with this image from Sam Killermann, which I find pretty amusing, and which you can buy in poster or t-shirt form.



Black Symbols Matter

The one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder has many of us looking back in wonder at the powerful social movement that has coalesced over the past three years. Neither police violence in Black communities nor resistance to that violence are new. But something new has emerged: a new focus for anger and despair, a new source of critical hope, a new catalyst for social imagination and creativity. There are surely many reasons that a movement has developed at this particular moment. The wide availability of cameras on phones has been a key factor. But another factor has certainly been the skill with which organizers have deployed symbols, hashtags, chants, metaphors, and images in order to communicate — quickly and powerfully — the underlying values and goals of the movement.

Every social movement develops a cache of symbols. These symbols give coherence to dispersed grassroots efforts. They tap into our emotions and encourage us to learn more. We use them to mark our collective identity and to capture the attention of media outlets, with their famously short attention spans. Sometimes, these symbols and the meaning they carry can be the most long-lasting effects of a social movement — just think about the raised fist symbol that came out of the Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s, and its continuing importance. In the timeline below, I chart the evolution and spread of the Black Lives Matter movement’s symbolic repertoire, beginning with the protests following Trayvon Martin’s death. I could never capture them all, of course, so please be in touch to add some that are meaningful to you.