Arlene Birt was one of the founding faculty in the MASD Program. I recently asked Arlene to update us on the exciting work that she’s been up to.
In addition to being a public artist and educator, you describe yourself as an infodesigner and visual storyteller. Tell us a little bit about the kind work that you do.
I focus on communicating complex social and environmental content to non-expert audiences. I work with data, visuals, illustration, narrative, and principles of behavioral change. Sometimes the work I do results in infographics, data visualizations, animations, installations, and a host of other implementations. I also run an infodesign consultancy called Background Stories, with a small team of designers who support all of this work to communicate sustainability using visuals.
How did you get into sustainable design?
A passion for social & environmental sustainability, and how it intersects with visual communication led me to sustainable design. Throughout my undergraduate education, I pursued the intersection of communication and visuals. Initially, that led me to advertising, and then I transitioned to using the power of marketing and visual communication to focus on positive social and environmental outcomes.
You were one of the founders of the MA in Sustainable Design program. Tell us about your role in making that happen.
I taught and developed courses focused on communication and visualization. While I’m now officially part of the Arts Entrepreneurship undergraduate program at MCAD, MASD has a special place in my heart.
You’ve recently started working with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Congratulations! Tell us about how that happened and what you will be doing.
I’ve joined the IPCC team that works with the 30+ volunteer authors (climate scientists) from around the world who assess the research on climate change and compile the high-level findings into a synthesis report. The IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report is the final ‘capstone’ report in the current Assessment Report cycle (AR6) and will be approved by 195 governments of the IPCC and made public in September of 2022.
I’m on board to co-design visuals (mostly data visualizations) together with the authors for an intended audience of policymakers. The authors are an amazing group of people and a significant portion of my time so far has been to navigate the scientific language to better understand how all aspects of climate science work – in order to communicate that to our audiences.
My aim is to help non-specialists be able to understand some of the high-level findings of the science behind climate change.
When most people think about sustainable design, they think about designing more sustainable products. How can people who are not product designers engage in sustainable design?
We need all sorts of creativity, across all disciplines, to help move sustainability — including social justice and environmental sustainability — forward. Changing climate will (and already is) touching all of our lives, across every sector, and we’ll need all hands on deck to reimagine the world to adapt to this new environment.
The world is becoming more aware of what you already know — we’re in a climate crisis and the outlook is not good. What makes you hopeful?
Knowing that we (humans) have been able to take great strides in the past makes me hopeful. In this increasingly warming world, we as a society need to be creative about how we adapt to the new environment we are living in. This is true now and into the future because even if we stopped emissions today, it will take our global system (aka ‘nature’) a long time to get back to what we’re ‘accustomed to’.
Essentially: human creativity makes me hopeful. I strongly believe that the power of creativity is an essential complement to science: in particular to add a human dimension and capture audiences’ imaginations.
What advice would you give to people thinking about going back to graduate school during these challenging times?
Social and environmental sustainability has to become a growing part of all of our lives. We are already experiencing dramatic impacts of climate change, and these will continue to get worse the longer it takes us (as societies) to change our current resource-intensive lifestyles.
The world needs creative individuals who also understand science and how humans think and act. There will be no shortage of need for sustainable designers in the world, now and in the future.
Thank you, Arlene!