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Climate Icons

Garry Peterson points out a recent effort to develop an "iconic image" for the battle against climate change. The product -- a map of the earth highlighting a dozen locations where the earth system is nearing a tipping point due to climate change -- is rather disappointing.

From a graphic design perspective, the problem is obvious from Peterson's post, where the proposed icon is presented shrunk down to the size of a business card. There's a continuum of visual representations, running from a "data map" on one end to a symbol on the other. A "data map," such as a standard topographic map, is a compilation of information. It is meant to be interpreted and queried with reference to particular problems, to have its details inspected and pulled out. A pure symbol, on the other hand, is meant to be taken in at a glance -- think, for example, of the way you instantly recognize a letter of the alphabet by its overall shape. A symbol, however, has no inherent information content. It simply exists to efficiently trigger an already-known association.

What the climate icon group is looking for is not quite a pure symbol, as it needs to communicate content as well as being a trigger for a known idea. Nevertheless, an effective icon will stand closer to the pure symbol end of the spectrum. It will be something that can be grasped at a holistic level. Here the proposed icon falls flat. The proposed icon is basically a stylized locator map. When you can't read the writing, it communicates very little information -- no indication is given of what exactly is happening at the marked locations. And there's no obvious pattern to where the hotspots are occurring. If it had turned out, for example, that the hotspots were all in the tropics, then the map would have had some visual impact by communicating a simple message about what part of the world is the most at risk. As it stands, however, the icon needs explanation. To be an effective icon, it needs to represent a single clear generalization about the effects of climate, rather than pointing to a bunch of seemingly randomly distributed locations each with their own story.

The hotspots approach does, however, suggest that perhaps the global is not the proper level for creating climate icons. Each of the hotspots has the potential to be turned into a compelling icon around one type of climate change impact. The fight against climate change may be best fought by focusing in on one or two of the impacts in order to capture the public imagination with a specific and easy-to-understand story.


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