On Communicating Complexity

When we transitioned our farms from conventional to regenerative organic agricultural practices, we were faced with the challenge of communicating this change both internally and externally. We needed a way to communicate the company’s vision and values across languages, cultures, international borders, to both employees, clients as well as to the general public. In a radical way, we needed to change the way we communicate about what we do and how we do it.

Inspired in-part by learning maps produced by a company called Root and artwork commissioned by the founder of our company in 1971, we began a project to align the vision and values of our company around sustainable, regenerative organic growing practices we had committed to at our farms.

We needed to find a way to communicate the systems, the complexities of the relationships within the organizations, while also appealing to aesthetic values. Depicting the complexity of systems thinking could risk looking like the leaked US military strategy in Afghanistan or, conversely, the abstractness of, say, a Jackson Pollock painting (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Undefined differences between systems diagrams and art.

At the same time, we wanted a style that was culturally relevant to both our Mexican and American roots—not, as our CEO put it, “a corporate carnival” pieced together by generic illustrations. Importantly, we also needed employee buy-in, not simply something forcefully pushed from senior management.

After much research and outreach, we identified a suitable artist, Catherine Eyde, and held a facilitated two-day workshop with employees and artist participation. The workshop focused on the shared vision and values of our organization, involving various exercises requiring critical, reflective thought as well as creative drawing and mapping of the organization. Key takeaways of the workshop focused on shared values of family and health, themes incorporated into the mural. All data was compiled, crunched and delivered to the artist, along with employee depictions of our organization and value chain.

Over the course of a year, I liaised with the artist in facilitating the production of a 5’x8’ mural. I used Google documents to share everything from photos of plant seedlings, beneficial insects, the soil food web, employees in the field, facilities and so on.

The original mural now hangs in our main conference room, often referenced during meetings. An identically-sized back-lighted version is also used at industry trade shows in our booth on the expo floor (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Expo floor display with learning map as backdrop.

Rather than rattling off a list of what we grow, a commonly asked question, everything we grow is depicted within the arms of the central figure; a depiction of the pirate bug (Orius insidiosis), used for thrips control, might invite a discussion around beneficial insects, organic agriculture or product quality; the image of our main offices might open a discussion about solar photovoltaics (PV) or renewable energy (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Painted and photographed depictions of our main offices and solar PV array.

The painting has also served as the backdrop, using Prezi software, for presentations about our organization, where presenters can zoom in and out of general themes, revealing deeper meaning of what is depicted within the mural.

Last, high resolution photographs of the mural were used to produce an animated explainer video, in both English and Spanish, narrated by both male and female speakers, to facilitate a deeper understanding, so the viewer may–to paraphrase William Albrecht–see what they’re looking at.

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3 thoughts on “On Communicating Complexity”

  1. I really like this approach – it connects on such a local level and for those of us not living locally to your locations the style of graphic definitely allows for a connection to be made. My first glance of the illustrations made me feel like I was right in your community and part of it. I like the fact that you’ve had local input, use local languages and considered gender aspects as well. This allows for all your customers and communities to feel like they are part of it. Just wondering do you have different illustrations as the various seasons change / important festivals arrive e.g. Day of the Dead that you can then show an even tighter relationship with the community ?

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  2. Thanks for the feedback! Unfortunately, we only commissioned one painting from the artist. But different areas of the mural invite different discussions. For instance, for incorporating seasons change I would incorporate the cloud and wind and sun; depictions of festivals would extend from the community areas within the mural, both in the US and Mexico; the geographic map might also be used to depict seasonality or festival locations within North America or beyond.

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  3. Great piece! Thank you for posting James.

    I also strongly believe that the arts can make a huge contribution in the fight against climate change and in promoting sustainable practices in general.

    More particularly, I really like how you have used the arts to promote the transition of your company from conventional to regenerative organic agricultural practices. Also, you could have just commissioned a painter to create this mural and dealt with this person on your own. Instead, you involved employees in the project and I imagine that this has greatly increased the levels of engagements of your colleagues throughout the organisation and helped embed your message.

    There is a huge untapped pool of creativity out there which, if it was channelled effectively could make a significant contribution towards tackling climate change for instance.

    Your post enticed me to learn more about how the arts can help promoting the crucial importance of tackling climate change. I came across this report from Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) which explores the role of culture and the arts in the global debate on environmental sustainability. http://asef.org/images/docs/Culture%20make%20a%20difference.pdf

    This dossier focuses on the role of the artists and cultural workers, as catalysts of change in society.
    ASEF set up a programme called Connect2Culture in 2008 which recognises the importance of engaging with a number of stakeholder and aims to raise awareness of climate change through culture and the arts as well as promote the opportunities brought by this global challenge.

    This initiative is now rather old but since then, other initiatives aiming to communicate about climate change have been set up by a number of organisations or individuals. This article from the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/climate-change-hbo-modern-family explains that “new tools and ideas” are needed to engage larger global audiences with this issue and mentions the example of artist Olafur Eliasson whose project, Little Sun, aims to bring solar lamps to the 1.6 billion people who lack access to electricity. I thought that you may find it interesting to explore this artist’s work a bit further. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/artists-claim-sustainability-power and https://littlesun.com/ .

    Good luck with your transition programme.

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