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How do you turn your dreams into reality? You can start by mapping them out and visualizing them.

The High Line is a Depression-era, elevated rail line that zigzags for 1.45 miles above the west side of Manhattan. For decades it rotted away unused, dripping rust onto parking lots and auto repair businesses below. Considered an eyesore and albatross by many, the Line was slated to be torn down until a motley group of citizens intervened. Over the years, the line had slowly sprouted a spontaneous garden of weeds and wildflowers. This natural elevated greenery inspired a  handful of artists, writers and dreamers to found the Friends of the High Line in 1999, to save the Line from demolition and transform it into a unique, elevated public park.

When I first wrote about the High Line in these pages in 2004, the group had secured $15 million from the City of New York. By 2008, the Federal government had pledged $22 million, plus the City had committed an additional $97 million to design and build the park. Despite the current recession, the public funding is secure and construction on the Line is underway with the first phase scheduled to open by year’s end. How did this happen? At a time when so many public projects are being slashed, how did they pull it off?

Visualization of the High Line's redesigned southern terminus. Image © 2006. James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio Renfro. Courtesy the City of New York.

The secret was a savvy mix of community outreach, celebrity clout, creative public design and concern for the environment. As part of the strategy, the organization held a series of open meetings where it used effective visuals to present the community, media and public officials with a captivating vision of how the park could be revitalized and redeveloped. They held an open design competition soliciting any and all ideas. One winning entry featured a 1.45 mile outdoor, elevated swimming pool. Another included a roller coaster. The range of solutions and exciting visuals expressed an inspirational celebration of the Line, its possibilities and New Yorkers’ llove of the City; it was also a brilliant tactical move that garnered glowing coverage in the New York Times and drew even broader public support for the project.

The Friends of the High Line held a final design competition and selected design, architecture and landscape firms to begin the design work proper. The timeline graphic shown below was a part of the group’s public presentations. Designed by the landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, the image artfully evokes the evolution of flora and fauna over the course of four years. The graphic is an example of the power of design to fire the imagination—and in the process cultivate political power and support. The Friends of the High Line have paid careful attention to their graphic materials from the start, using compelling visuals to project their vision vividly and ultimately to pry loose the millions of dollars of public and private financing necessary to make this fantastic idea happen.

Chart used by the Friends of the High Line to excite the public and win its support. This projected timeline shows plantings and bird species they will attract to the High Line during the first four years. Image © 2004. James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio Renfro. Courtesy the City of New York.

Say what you will about the cognitive style of PowerPoint1, An Inconvenient Truth is essentially a slideshow that touched millions of people and went on to help win Al Gore both an Academy Award and a Nobel Prize. Designed by Duarte Design, the visuals describe the magnitude of humanity’s effect on planet Earth. As the presentation describes the global scale of these massive changes, it also shapes a consensus viewpoint, or at least a sense of urgency, encouraging people to take action and put pressure on policymakers. While the presentation describes the impact of humanity on the environment, it also builds the political power to change it.

Still image from An Inconvenient Truth. Image © 2006 Paramount Classics.

But what is power? It’s an abstract dynamic, an engine behind the visible world. Power can be found in relationships, in the flow of resources or information, in signs, symbols and ideas or built into the environment. There’s no doubt that visual media has the power to influence an audience, but visual media can also be used to visualize power itself. Visualizing power is a way of interpreting and understanding it. And this understanding can become a basis for challenging it. Design can be used to describe and locate power, to pressure those who hold power, and ultimately to facilitate and generate power by bringing people together. So why do so few designers take advantage of this persuasive power?

A classic tactic used by human rights advocates is to shine a light on abuses. This is often the first step toward embarrassing the responsible parties and their supporters in the push for change or taking steps toward prosecution or other remedies. Bringing hidden abuses into the light of day often takes the form of the publication of documentation of evidence of the human rights violations, describing some historical and legal context, and proposing recommendations or remedies. In this presentation, design can play an important part communicating what is happening and spawning embarrassment or outrage and finally a call to action.

Rwanda, Uganda and Congo have fought over land and resources in northeastern Congo for decades. Also known as Africa’s World War and the Great War of Africa, the conflict has involved eight African nations and affected millions of people. While the national governments reached peace agreements in 1999, the violence did not stop as local paramilitary groups became a proxy. This chart of relationships in Ituri explains relationships between local paramilitary groups, national armed groups and national governments in northeastern Congo. Human Rights Watch published the chart in their July 2003 report Covered in Blood: Ethnically Targeted Violence in Northern DR Congo. The report documents kidnapping, rape, killing and mutilation of people by paramilitary groups in the area. At the time, the United Nations and much of the mainstream media portrayed the conflict as a “tribal war” or “local ethnic conflict” for resources and territory, but as the flow of resources and training is mapped, it becomes clear that the conflict is actually a national and international struggle. The chart provides an overview at a glance of the power relationships documented in the report. While lobbying local paramilitary groups is a challenge, under-standing the role of the national governments became a basis for Human Rights Watch to lobby third-party governments to apply international pressure to the national heads of state.

Chart of relationships between national governments and paramilitary groups in northeastern Congo. © 2003 Human Rights Watch.

The style of the Ituri chart is unadorned and sober: embellishment would be both unnecessary and undignified. The graphic and the report it supports illustrate power relation-ships and networks of influence with the intent of challenging the culpable parties. In many cases, advocacy goals are clear from the start and design plays its supporting role. But the design process itself can also help determine advocacy strategy; tactical mapping is a process-driven visualization exercise used to analyze a discrete issue and to form a strategic plan.

Tactical maps clarify relationships between parties in a given situation. They can be used to answer:

• Which key relationships need to be affected to move your strategy forward?

• What tactics are currently being used or are potentially available?

• How might these tactics affect key institutions, relationships, social groups and contexts you want to target?

• Which key groups, relationships or contexts are not affected by current tactics?

• What tactics might engage targets that are not currently affected?

• Who are your potential allies for building a more comprehensive and effective strategy?

The tactical map starts at the center, drawing boxes representing the victims and perpetrators of abuse. From there, one can identify the individuals and organizations that affect the situation, drawing direct and indirect relationships, with arrows showing who has influence over whom. Whether your campaign is on the Congo, the environment or shaping your own city, what seems like a straightforward depiction of facts on the ground actually results in revealing previously unseen connections and opportunities.

The tactical map technique was popularized by the Center for Victims of Torture, which coordinates the New Tactics in Human Rights Project to create and distribute resources for organizations to develop new analyses. Tactical mapping diagrams the power relationships around a given human rights situation, identifying the individuals, organizations and government agencies involved, not the “causes” of violations. The key proposition is that power does not reside in particular individuals, but in the relationships between the parties. Connections are both formal and informal, not just chain-of-command, but professional, organizational, familial and social.

A tactical map on domestic violence in the process of being created. Sticky notes and markers on the white board provide a flexible, changeable surface on which to develop a tactical map.

With the map in place, one can start to devise a strategy: examining the connections and resources that exist and taking stock of the connections among allies and opponents. Both paper and interactive versions of maps allow users to manipulate them dynamically, changing and moving actors to visually represent different relationships and scenarios. For more information on tactical mapping, visit www.newtactics.org/main.php/trainingtools.

The low-tech, hands-on process is ideal for a workshop among groups. With visuals at hand, the group can walk through an issue and its construction, see the whole as well as specific parts. With a robust mobile map in place, the next step is to review the relationships and determine opportunities for applying influence or intervention. Which relationships should a group pursue? How can you play to your strengths and help your allies to play to theirs? Tactical mapping helps determine the bigger picture and reveals opportunities where groups can combine forces and how different tactics relate to, reinforce or disrupt each other.

Tactical mapping is closely related to asset mapping, a classic community development strategy. Struggling communities can use asset mapping to develop an action plan for redevelopment. In asset mapping, participants don’t start with hardships and disadvantages, but by mapping the assets of their community-cultural, historical, economic, institutional and environmental resources, and specific skills or expertise. The actual design of the map may take any number of visual forms, high tech or low, and may be executed in a variety of collaborative media-marker on paper, sticky notes on a white-board, a collage of photos from digital cameras or cell phones, 3-D models of paper or wood. The physical form is an index of what is important in the community. This mapping has less to do with geography and more to do with the individuals, organizations and events that make a community what it is.

The key is in the point of view. Instead of focusing on problems, what's missing or what’s gone wrong, asset maps lead participants to build on existing resources, to see the whole picture. The focus on capacities instead of deficits provides a foundation for action and intervention, not to mention confidence. Instead of relying on outside experts or intervention, the community builds on its own resources.

While the asset map audits the resources of the community, it does not interrogate or confront external institutions, economic or public policies that also give shape to the community. But by building a stronger community, it establishes a solid foundation for challenging the status quo.

Instead of targeting specific officials or relationships, the Overton Window looks to public policy itself as the way to affect social change. The Overton Window describes a model of how ideas become policy. Joe Overton coined the theory while vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank promoting free markets, less government regulation and reduction of taxes and union influence. It's based on the premise that policy decisions are made by choosing from a narrow range of options considered politically feasible at a given point in time. It follows that think tanks should not focus on direct policy advocacy, nor on passing specific legislation or winning elections, but on creating political possibilities. Once an idea is sufficiently popular, the theory holds, it becomes possible to implement it as public policy. The task then is to popularize ideas, make them familiar and digestible, and in doing so move them from being perceived as extreme and radical to seeming acceptable and even sensible and popular, ultimately becoming actual public policy. The question is how to move ideas from one threshold to the next. Often what constitutes public debate in the media takes its cues from statements and positions of public officials, and this generally exists within a narrow range of acceptable opinion. Thus the task for the think tank is a matter of tweaking this consensus, shifting "conventional wisdom" and deliberately engineering “common sense.” In fact this is extraordinarily similar to how the design, images and products that surround us inform what we come to view as “normal.”

The theory also makes a good case for the importance of promoting radical ideas; radical ideas make less radical ideas seem less extreme, even reasonable in comparison. Propaganda and persuasion in this context are less about changing people’s minds than about drawing out what already exists, spreading acceptance, nudging existing ideas, creating a foil and ultimately shifting “the middle.” It’s a difficult theory to prove (certainly plenty of unpopular ideas have become policy), but there are also plenty of examples that seem to fit. For instance, equal rights and protection for women have come a long way from being considered by policy makers as “radical” towards becoming conventional wisdom in just a few generations. There is certainly plenty of evidence that popular sentiment shifts public policy, which in turn shapes popular sentiment. The Overton Window is also a testament to the power of ambient imagery. Ribbon campaigns, election lawn signs and Web site buttons are often pooh-poohed by designers as trite and unpersuasive. However in aggregate and over time these affect the atmosphere within which ideas swirl.

Changing the world by popularizing ideas and pushing people towards resources in their midst, is part of what Green Maps Systems does. Graphic designer Wendy Brawer produced her first Green Map in 1991. The Green Apple Map of New York City charted 143 ecologically and culturally significant sites: community gardens, parks, greenmarkets, eco-centers, green businesses and buildings, transportation options and toxic hot spots. It was well received and quickly inspired a second edition. As Brawer says:

“This Map encourages people to explore and understand our city-helping expand our community of environmental stewards who understand the interconnections between the natural and built environments. It can help build a network of links among people of different ages and backgrounds by highlighting places that are important to our common future. It promotes and fosters replication of successful projects. Moreover, it challenges the assumption that this intensely urban setting has little redeeming ecological value.”

Green Map Systems was born in 1995.

The LoMap is a Green Map of lower Manhattan displaying points of interest drawn by 250 youths from different neighborhoods, backgrounds and age groups. It was published in English, Spanish and Cantonese.

While following some basic rules and using the suite of icons developed by Green Map Systems, each map project is fairly autonomous. Green Maps are locally organized and designed, and independently produced. Much like an asset map, Green Maps highlight local resources, create a fresh perspective from a different point of view and expose ways to get involved. The maps may highlight parks and green spaces, bike paths, notes on wheelchair accessibility, composting or recycling centers, sites of energy production and consumption, toxic sites, etc. From Tokyo to Toronto, Jakarta to Milwaukee, the maps promote sustainability and greener living worldwide: Over 350 Green Map projects have been published to date in 54 countries. Chances are there's a Green Map project near you.

Through its international network, Green Mapmakers may share their maps, ideas and experiences. At the end of 2008, the organization took this one step further and launched the Open Green Map, a collaborative way to plot sites and make maps online. Like the Friends of the High Line, Green Mapmakers use design to shine a light on existing unexplored or underutilized treasures in their cities and communities, in the process visualizing a different world and moving map users towards making it happen.

Information design helps us navigate and interpret the world around us and the flow of data from an increasingly digital world. The examples in this article take this idea one step further by organizing information into visuals that facilitate tactics for challenging power through disruption, persuasion, the creation of incentives, sharing information, sowing the seeds for legal remedy or prosecution, strengthening individuals and communities, or building capacity and awareness.

Graphic design as an advocacy tool doesn't just interpret or help us navigate the world, it seeks to actively intervene in it, to take sides and make change in the world. By illustrating power dynamics, envisioning a better world and bringing people together, it helps create it. And so we create the maps that help us get to where we truly want to go. ca

Editor’s note: Many popular Design Issues essays are available in the book of the same name, edited by me and co-published by CA and Allworth Press. —DK Holland

1. See Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, 2nd edition, Graphics Press 2006.

John Emerson is a designer, writer, programmer and activist in New York City. His writing on activism and design has been featured in Communication Arts, Metropolis, Print and the Wall Street Journal and is collected at http://backspace.com/notes.

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