Seeing the Numbers

“When 300 million people do unconscious behaviors, then it can add up to catastrophic consequences that nobody wants, and no one intended” photographer Chris  Jordan said in the TED video below. His photographic work aims to translate the statistics of what is happening in our culture into images, as he says “into a more visual universal language that can be felt.” I recently toured an exhibit of his enormous photographs called Running the Numbers at University of New Hampshire and found it breathtaking and moving.

Each image can stand alone as a work of modern art, but the moving part of the experience comes when reading what each image represents. For example, one image represents the 1 million plastic cups used on airline flights in the US every six hours. This adds up to 4 million cups every day and virtually none are recycled or reused. Seeing the scale of all these cups in one huge image makes the scale of consumption and waste in a way just learning the numbers does not. His web site has more images on a range of issues, for example, 320,000 light bulbs that equal the amount of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the US every minute, and 2 million plastic bottles, the amount used in the US every five minutes.

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Jordan’s belief is that if we can feel these issues more deeply then they will matter more and “once we feel it, we can face the big question of: how do we change? How do we take responsibility for the one piece of the solution that we are in charge of?” For those advocating for change, this points to the critical importance of being able to translate trends and statistics about the issue into communications that move people, not just inform them. How can you use visuals, stories, graphics, or other means to help your audiences see and feel what the numbers mean?

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