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Visuals? Better none than wrong!
Hundreds, maybe even thousands of visuals of CCS exist. When you search for ‘CCS’ and ‘image’ on the Internet, you get a wide diversity of drawings, pictures, graphs, screenshots and logos related to CCS. Many visuals are also used in CCS-related brochures, presentations, factsheets, posters, videos, exhibitions and newsletters. Visuals thus play a large role in communicating with stakeholders, communities and the general public. But are the visuals helping to explain CCS in the right way? Struck by the amount of complex, unclear and incomprehensible visuals about CCS I run into, I wonder if the designers are always aware of the role, effect and impact their visual can have.
Sometimes visuals are just used to fill up a page, to break blocks of text and improve the layout. But when it comes to CCS, most visuals have an informative role. They are used to explain CCS in general or specific CCS projects. The visuals are translations of complex and technical aspects of CCS into two dimensions. This translation is a real challenge. And often you can identify the struggle of the designers (engineers?!) with this in the visual. For example, when a lot of text including technical terms is added or when multiple colours or numbers are used to refer to text elsewhere – apparently the visual is not able to explain itself. When you use these visuals combined with text and legends you need to be aware that the visual does not explain your message to people that don’t read. You thus fail to explain your message to these people. When people don’t read the text well, because they don’t like to read, don’t understand the text or think they don’t have to read it, there is a huge chance that your image and message will be misinterpreted.
An example: I often run into images in which different types of CO2 storage are presented. Within one drawing, on- and offshore storage possibilities both in aquifers and depleted gas and oil fields including enhanced gas and oil recovery are explained. A legend, text (including difficult terms), colours (of underground layers) and numbers (depth) are added to the drawing. Someone who does not read these well, could interpret the image as a representation of CCS in real life. He or she thinks that the different storage possibilities always take place close to each other and at the same time. And because of the inconsequent scale used, that person can also think that the storage will be done at 100 meters deep (because the height of the trees in the drawing is about 1/10th of the underground distance to the storage places).
Misinterpretation is always a potential effect of an image. It not only depends on the visual itself but also on the person looking at the visual: his or her pre-existing knowledge about the topic, personal interest and characteristics, cultural background and score on visualising scale. The aim is of course to minimise the chances of misinterpretation. To reach this you need to keep visuals simple and limit the amount of information you want to give. Instead of explaining all storage possibilities or the whole CCS chain of production, capture, transport and storage in one image, it’s often better to make several separate images that each focus on one element that you want to explain.
The impact of misinterpretation of visuals can be large. When several people misinterpret a visual, wrong information circulates. Opponents of CCS make use of misinterpretations as well. Visuals with a lot of text and information that look complex are easily translated into proof that CCS is complex and dangerous. The fact that it is rather complicated to avoid misinterpretation is well illustrated by a recent experiment with visuals focussing on the injection depth of CO2. One of the outcomes of this test was that both visuals that were accurately and inaccurately scaled, lead to worse estimates of depths compared to text without visuals (Brunsting in Reiner et al, 2011). Best estimates of depths are done by respondents who were only informed via text about the injection of CCS. The authors therefore recommend communicating depth of injection in text and not in visuals.
The experiment proves the need of testing visuals with representatives of your target group. By asking for feedback from people you want to reach with your visual, you get a better insight into if and how the visual works. Like all communication and engagement activities, your visuals should be adapted to your target group. If you don’t want to, or cannot test them please don’t use a visual that can be misinterpreted by most and/or leading people! Really, better none than wrong!
This post expresses the views of this author and not necessarily of their organisation or the Global CCS Institute.