Temporary Expert – Reflection on Energy Field Guide

For the first project in Temporary Expert, we each created an Energy Field Guide on a randomly assigned form of energy. Mine was plant-based diet. Other people worked on nuclear energy, electromagnetic energy, human biopower, and tonglen breathing, among other topics.

You can see a draft of my field guide here. The overall message is that you can control huge energy systems with a more plant-based diet. You can eat less meat or no meat, and in the process, be part of using less land, water, and energy that otherwise unchecked is environmentally unsustainable.

We spent about three weeks researching, a week interviewing a working participant in our field, and a week or so producing the final guide.

Here are a few reflections on the process.

  • What did you learn?  What was inspiring? What parts?

I found it satisfying to go beyond the topic of plant-based diets to include many other kinds of energy, such as land, water and power. After discussing systems-thinking in class, I found it more intuitive to make this leap. It was also out of self-preservation of my personal interest in the topic, as I did not want to repeat common knowledge about vegetables being healthy for you. Expanding my topic helped me stay engaged, and I hope does the same for other people, too.

On a larger scale, I was inspired to find that my research is part of recently heightened conversation around climate change. Over the years, there have been many articles, reports and studies about food production and climate change. But in the last two weeks, two significant reports came out. One was published by the United Nation’s panel on climate change, and the other report by a group in the science journal Nature.  Taken together, they say that humans have 10 years to change how markets work to prevent catastrophic climate change by 2040, and that global food production is not environmentally sustainable unless people eat less or no meat. I was more prepared to read the reports without feeling depressed because of my field guide research.

Coincidentally (because my energy topic was randomly assigned), I had also recently stopped eating meat myself, after reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer (a book that influenced me and many others to rethink eating so much meat). Therefore, my topic found me to be a receptive candidate for further research into diet. I also felt optimistic about whether people would really change their diet based on what they read. I had done it.

As for creating the field guide itself, I had two minds about it. Either I felt like a natural, or I felt trapped by myself.

As a natural, I could feel my years of professionally honing language for non-profit programs quickly come back to me. What can be said to invite someone be part of something they’ve never done before? You can’t make people care for a reason that’s totally new reason to them. But you also can’t tell them something they’ve heard a million times. What do they already care about? What new perspective haven’t they heard yet? Another lesson came in handy from the past. You can’t make someone change. But what you can and should do is assume they are in a position of empowerment over their life, whether now or later, and that at any moment in the right circumstances, they can choose to see something in a new possibility for themselves and the group. All of these balance points played out in my mind as I structured the field guide and wrote down the copy.

In the moments I felt trapped, I felt like “of COURSE I would make something that looks like this.” The style, tone, and format were all within my comfort zone. I did not feel like I created something that intentionally used an existing genre or format outside my own personal taste, that made an interesting contrast or further supported the content of the field guide. I had considered using a women’s magazine travel guide checklist, like the one below. But with the time we had, and my existing skills and tools, I wasn’t sure marrying this structure with my research would land for the reader. It might work for a different energy topic.

In the end, I did make a field guide in which the genre or format does match the research I gathered and my organization of the content — it’s just something that I would totally make. I’ve created a handmade, collaged, coherent and comfortable jumble of text and visual hierarchies that come across as trusty, friendly, warm, cynical but optimistic, and open for the reader to think for themselves. I now much more admire people who are able to work within many visual communication languages.

  • How did you manage your time? Could you realistically improve that? What would you do differently in general?

I managed my time no better or worse than usual, in that I was able to pace myself the weeks leading up to it but also spent a good amount of time producing the final piece the two days beforehand. One thing that really mattered was being able to talk with someone about a couple conundrums in the moment. For example, I was stuck on which visual thread would tie together all of the pages. In hindsight it seems simple, but I really had to hammer out with someone else how there would be individual hands for the first three spreads regarding what you can directly control, and then increasing numbers of people for the energies you control together with others. I also had to talk out loud for a while about what the title of the field guide would be. I felt like I was in Mad Men, throwing around ad campaign copy ideas. Next time I would embrace that I’ll need to talk out loud about conundrums, and plan to be near people to do so.

  • What feedback did you receive?

Overall I’ve heard that people enjoy it, and want to share it with other people. But those are people who I know… when I have a final copy, I’ll share it with people who I don’t know. After talking about distribution possibilities, I’ll make a final user testing plan to get a last round of feedback.

  • How did you balance research and experimentation? Which is easier? How can you focus more on the areas that you shy away from?

I did not experiment with visual ideas until I had my research in a good place, as I felt more confident allowing form to follow content.  Also, producing images or fabricating physical forms can take a lot of time. Typically, I spend more time thinking, writing, sketching and talking out loud with others to consider or eliminate which images or form factors will best support the goals and message of a project. I don’t usually think through my ideas by producing more drafted images or forms.

However, looking back, I can see the brief moments where I could have practiced putting my developing research into different genres or form factors. This might have influenced the direction of my research in an interesting way.  I could make time to do this with Topic #2.