activism climate change design

Communicating the climate visually

A few years ago I ran a short series on communicating environmental issues visually, looking for original ideas. We all know the cliches – polar bears, melting ice, the earth from space. These images aren’t good enough. They are distant, abstract, and unengaging. They don’t suggest that climate change has anything to do with us, or that we will be personally affected. In the case of the ubiquitous earth image, that perspective on the planet is only possible from space – not the best starting point.

The imagery around climate change is predictable and easily ignored. Catching people’s attention doesn’t need bigger or better images – melting ice in IMax – but different sorts of images. A perspective that is personal, that connects emotionally, that is human, and that involves things that we know and understand.

That’s been my hunch at least, but I was pleased to see a new resource that’s put some proper research behind this. Climate Visuals is a research report that draws on focus groups, surveys and interviews with communicators to try and pull together some principles around how we present climate change visually. They offer seven principles, including:

  • Show real people. Forget the staged photos, especially of politicians. Real people who we can identify with, ideally one or two rather than groups.
  • Show climate causes at scale. One person in a car does not communicate climate change. Six lanes of queuing traffic, and we’re getting the point.
  • Show climate change impacts at the local level. Images that show how a changing climate will be felt right here where we live are powerful.

There’s lots more to explore in the report, including which images move those on the political right more than those on the political left. Interesting, don’t you think?

15811610084_a9fae66c14_zOnce you’ve browsed the seven principles in the report, have a look at the accompanying Climate Visuals website. It has a number of galleries of pictures illustrating what they’re on about, and many of them are Creative Commons licensed (like this blog) so you can use them yourself. There really is no excuse for digging out that polar bear on a bit of ice again.

Climate Visuals is another useful piece of research from Climate Outreach (formerly COIN) and is essential viewing if you’re in the business of communicating climate change.


  1. Jeremy:
    I guess our anthropocentrism requires putting us in the picture. This couldn’t hurt and now there are more inspiring images available to tell of the positive adaptations taking place.
    Thanks, very nice.

    1. Yes, I suppose it is anthropocentrism is large part. But that does make more sense than ‘saving the planet’, however worthy that may sound. None of us engage with earth at that scale. We just live on our little bit of it, and we need to bring it home and make it local.

      Ultimately, a lot of people are going to want to know what’s in it for them, and mass appeal means we have to go along with that to a certain degree.

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