Artifact Review

The artifacts included in this review are campaigns that deal with specific issues of water conservation or plastic consumption. I collected 23 artifacts, of which 8 were print-based, 7 were time-based videos or presentations, 4 were physical objects, and 4 were digital and interactive.

I then carefully examined the message, or the rhetoric, of each piece. I grouped the artifacts according to their rhetoric in four different ways:

  1. campaigns that use statistics
  2. campaigns that encourage action
  3. campaigns that invoke social norms
  4. campaigns that are amusing or funny

Trends: Statistics, Encouraging Action

Use of Statistics

The most common trend was the use of statistics. As my participatory research has shown, the use of carefully chosen statistics in context can be quite impactful to a viewer. Some artifacts used statistics in a more interesting and relevant way than others. The 2009 Watershed exhibit, for example, is a physical artwork made up of 1,500 water bottles, the number used in one second of U.S. consumption.

Copyright MLSK, exhibit, 2009

Similarly, Chris Jordan’s artwork, “Plastic Bottles,” shows 2 million bottles, or the number used in the U.S. in five minutes. These types of visualizations can leave a powerful impression on viewers.

Copyright Chris Jordan, from “Running the Numbers,” photography, 2007

On the other hand, this technique also has the potential to backfire. Audiences shown that the behavior is common and widespread might continue drinking bottled water either because they see that it is acceptable, or because they believe that any individual action on their part will not matter. A piece that does a better job of combining statistics with a strong emphasis on possible solutions is “The Story of Bottled Water.”

Copyright The Story of Stuff Project & Free Range Studios

Messages which encourage action

As I learned from 
my literature review, campaigns which present a problem to audiences must also provide clear, simple ways for people to take action. I was surprised that only half of the artifacts 
I reviewed encouraged the audience to take specific action.

Of those that did, the message was communicated in different ways. The most common approach was to explicitly tell the viewer what to do; this is often used by video pieces. Another, more implicit approach is shown by StepGreen, an interactive application developed by researchers in Carnegie Mellon’s Human Computer Interaction Institute. This project allows users to commit to and track eco-friendly actions, and see the results of their personal behavior over time. Interestingly, the StepGreen website is the only campaign I found dealing with water conservation and plastic issues which allows individuals to track their actions.

Copyright HCI Institute at Carnegie Mellon University


Gaps: Social Norms, Fun and Amusement

Invoking Social Norms

Invoking social norms, especially “injunctive” norms, or what other people think a person should do, is another way of encouraging action. Social norms have been shown to be quite powerful motivators; however, only five of the artifacts I examined used social norms, and only three used norms in an explicit manner.

One of these pieces, the “Trashed: Heal the Bay” website, took a novel approach. Visitors to the website can “trash” their friends, meaning they send out a link that leads the recipient to a website. After a few seconds, virtual trash begins to pop up on the website and it becomes covered with images of plastic bags, plastic bottles, etc. The curious recipient can then go to the Trashed website and learn about plastic pollution off the coast of California. This website uses social norms by enabling people who care about pollution to tell their friends. And because it is fun to use, there is also a chance that it will be utilized even by those who aren’t normally interested in environmental issues.

Copyright Heal the Bay,

Fun and Amusement

This was another technique that seemed underutilized, as most of the campaigns took a rather serious viewpoint. One artifact in my grouping, though, stands out from all the others because it does not attempt to use information or education. This is “Bottle Bank Arcade” by The Fun Project. The idea behind all of The Fun Project’s work is that people will perform an action if it is fun to do so. In this case, designers turned a bottle recycling station into an arcade game-like experience, with funny noises and flashing lights.

Copyright The Fun Theory,

While the idea is provocative and has gained a great deal of attention in the design world, I believe that such novelty wears off quickly. Projects by The Fun Theory seem to be aimed at creating a short-term effect rather than affecting long-term behavior change. I do think that humor and amusement, however, can be very successful tools when used to direct audiences’ attention toward an issue, as seen in the “Trashed: Heal the Bay” example.

I would like to see campaigns utilize this rhetorical technique more often. As Don Norman writes, “Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism” (Emotional Design, 26).

Emotional Tone

Each communication piece creates an overall “mood” or emotional tone. For my final grouping, I arranged the artifacts according to whether the tone was mostly positive, somewhat positive, neutral, somewhat negative, or mostly negative (see diagram below). The resulting emo-tional scale showed that about half of the artifacts were mostly or somewhat negative, a few were neutral, and about a third were somewhat positive or mostly positive.

From the research that I have done in my literature review, I think that campaigns will be more successful if they employ a mostly positive tone. My readings have shown that guilt and sadness can lead to avoidance or feelings of helplessness. I think that the landscape could use more positive messages. This should in turn encourage audiences to take action, not out of guilt but 
out of a belief in their own ability to create positive change.


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