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Carrying It Out
Providing Information to Communities

Included are excerpts on preparing handbooks, posters, and leaflets; an article on general thoughts on communication, and checklist for making public awareness posters.

Further resources:

Applied Communication in Developing Countries. Fugelsang. Uppsala, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation. 1973.

Communicating with Pictures in Nepal. Ane Haaland and D. Fussell. UNICEF, Lazimpath, P.O. Box 1187, Kathmandu, Nepal. 1976.

Developing a Pictorial Language: An Experience of Field Testing in Rural Orissa. IT Publications, 103-105 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4HH, United Kingdom. 1992. Order No. 011DAPL

Einsatz von Lehrmitteln in Projekten der Stradtentwicklung. GTZ. (German -Use of Teaching Materials in Urban Development Projects) GTZ-Fachseminar, Nariobi, October 23-28. Eichborn, 1989. Summary of a conference of field workers on design and use of handbooks in housing and upgrading projects in the Third World.

Rethinking Visual Literacy: Helping Pre-literates Learn. Geoge McBean. UNICEF, Nepal. 1989.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 1983. Envisioning Information, 1983. Visual Explanations, 1997. Edward R. Tufte. Graphics Press, Cheshire, Connecticut. Outstanding books for the high end of the field.

Communicating Building for Safety
Guidelines for methods of communicating technical
information to local builders and householders
Excerpt from:

    Eric Dudley and Ane Haaland
    Cambridge Architectural Research Limited
    Intermediate Technology Publications
    103/105 Southampton Row
    London, WC1B 4HH, United Kingdom

[Ed: Although targeted to disaster situations, the recommendations are applicable to the broader issue of printed media and how to reach users in building improvement projects.]

“A drawing suitable for a Quechua-reading person who understands cartoon conventions and hard to read so-called designer script, but does not understand Spanish. Thus it is designed for a person who does not as yet exist.”

Figure from a booklet in the project ECU-87-004 of
UNCHS and the Junta Nacional de la Vivienda del Ecuador.

The only form of building improvement program which has the potential to result in widespread improvements is one which changes the building decisions made by the poor in their own construction projects, designed and paid for by themselves. The task is to encourage practical improvements in indigenous building practices, the primary tool is communication, and the main assumption is that outsiders have useful information to communicate.

Communication in planning

Respect local knowledge and aspirations. A successful building education project must build upon existing local knowledge and help to satisfy the aspirations of the target audience. To determine the knowledge and aspirations requires a dialogue based on mutual respect.

Involve the beneficiaries at all stages. Communication skills are required at all stages of a project and not just for the dissemination of how-to knowledge.

Before trying to teach, find out how people learn. A building improvement project intended to introduce new building practices can best start buy determining how new practices are already entering society.

“Photograph of a well-built house of stone and cement. A few people commented that this house was well built. On occasions the window caused confusion, as did the building materials in the foreground. The strong shades and the cluttered foreground and background make this photograph unsuitable for educational materials. Reproduction usually makes the problems worse because the shades and contrast will appear even stronger.”

Cutout version of the photograph. The removal of the background emphasizes the strange angle of this photograph and made it look like a coffin to one respondent. A couple of people did not recognize this as a house. One described it as a plan of a house compound. The window and the piles of material in the foreground caused confusion.

In this drawing the content of the photograph was reproduced more or less exactly with little selection of what was or was not significant. The stones were not drawn clearly but in a matter indicating a general texture. Some commented that the house was poorly built, most probably because of the appearance of the stonework. While in the photograph the stonework is no more than a texture of light and shade, it still gives the impression of a well-built house. In a drawing, a line is expected to be there for a purpose. Stonework represented by broken or incomplete lines was read as poor stonework. Similarly, both the heap of sand and the crying children, because they are carefully drawn in, took on an even greater significance than in the photographs. Respondents commented: ‘if someone has gone to all the trouble of drawing it then it must mean something.’

Figures from “Report of a Field Trip to Northern Pakistan, 1991, by Andrew Coburn, Eric Dudley and Ane Haaland.

Educational materials

Concentrate on one or two essential messages. The development project which successfully introduces one wide scale change of practice is doing better than most. The more messages that are promoted the less are the chances of any one type of them being accepted.

Adapt educational techniques locally. Educational tools and techniques must be tested and adapted locally. Although there are no universal solutions to communication tasks, there are universal problems.

Identify clear targets and educational contexts. No single educational tool, technique, or channel is going to be adequate for all audiences and tasks. All educational material should be designed with a particular audience and context in mind.

Use the real thing. Demonstration buildings can be the most effective way of communicating improved construction.

Invest in staff. Staff at all levels need to be aware of the importance of communication skills. Investment in training of field staff in developing, testing, and using educational materials is vital.

When an Urdu version of this cartoon was tested for its usefulness in conveying messages about safety in Pakistan, it proved spectacularly unsuccessful.”

Illustrating building for safety

Printed images for building education need to be designed on the basis of an understanding of how people from the target audience interpret pictures. Although the problems of visual interpretation will vary from place to place, there are some important problems which commonly reoccur.

Picture style:

Draw literally. People unused to reading pictures will interpret the images very literally.

Avoid abstraction. Abstract ideas in pictures can cause confusion.

Use three dimensions. Perspective drawings are relatively easily understood. The effect can be reinforced with shadows and objects, such as people, to establish scale and a clear viewpoint.

Stress relevant detail. Unnecessary detail should be avoided. Relevant detail should be emphasized.

Symbols and conventions:

Avoid unfamiliar conventions. If people are unfamiliar with a convention, they will try to read the picture literally.

Explain symbols. This helps develop people's skills in interpreting graphic conventions.


Only use if understood. The conventions of cartoons may be unfamiliar and unintelligible.

Avoid being patronizing. Cartoons may not be good way of conveying educational messages. People can feel patronized if presented serious information in a cartoon strip.

Connections and sequences:

Where possible, avoid them. Images are generally read individually.

Sequences can be useful when explained. Pictures in a series can be an effective way of communicating with builders in a training course, where discussion of problems and of cause and effect are part of the program.

Cultural associations:

Identify felt needs. Finding out what is important is the starting point.

Identify the codes of respectability. Who do people look up to, and what are their aspirations?

Avoid things which are alien. A drawing should be appropriate to the local environment. But rather than trying to make people and objects distinctly local, ensure that nothing looks positively alien.

Use of text and language:

Give ideas names. To adopt a new idea one must be able to put a name to it. The evolution of a visual vocabulary must develop hand in hand with an understanding of the local verbal vocabulary of building.

Use text which makes sense. As far as possible, the text should make sense when reading aloud.

Test drawings and words separately and together. Inappropriate text with a drawing can cause confusion. The drawings should be tested on their own first, and then with the text.

Preproduction testing:

Always test. Many educational materials and techniques fail. New materials should be repeatedly tested with representative samples of the target audience.

Adapt locally. If one image is meant to serve for the whole country it will usually involve making so many compromises that it could be close to useless. It will normally be necessary to prepare different material for rural and urban audiences.

Some Thoughts on Communication
John Bowers
Excerpt from: “Disasters and the Small Dwelling”, Ian Davis, Ed. Oxford Polytechnic, England. Pp 91-95. 1981.

Notwithstanding Professor Marshall McLuhan who wrote “the medium is the message”, for all practical purposes we need to draw a clear distinction between the two.

The worst crime a communicator can commit is effective communication of inappropriate or misleading messages. It is certainly worse that no communication at all, since it confuses the receivers and destroys the credibility of the communicator. So, even in an emergency situation it may be worth a few day's delay to do some rapid action research to make sure that what you propose to say will be valid, appropriate and acceptable to your intended audiences. This action research should involve a representative sample of local population in discussion groups or individual interviews, based on a prepared list of questions. It is essentially systematic listening and should aim to find out the characteristics and needs of your intended audience. Are they a homogeneous group or a variety of subgroups - richer or poorer, more rural or more urban, illiterate or educated? What are their traditional housing designs and construction skills? Is their environment homogeneous or will one area use bamboo and another mud bricks?

Having distinguished the target groups the next step should be to define your aims, if possible in behavioral terms – what do you want each group to know and do? It should then be possible to plan clear, simple messages appropriate to specific groups.

This ‘message research and planning’ may well be done by a small group or communication unit.

As agreement is reached on what should be said to whom, intended messages may well be written in short sentences on a blackboard or large sheet of paper, with rough sketches where visual representation is more appropriate. The planning group can then look at each statement and picture critically to assess its relevance to the target group.

Effective Communication

Once it has decided what should be said to whom, the next question is by whom? Who is to write the notes, handbook, draw the pictures, design the posters, take the photographs? These communicators are not necessarily the same as the people who planned and determined message. It is generally not advisable to allow a ‘specialist’ to communicate with unsophisticated audiences since he generally relapses into his professional jargon.

A distinction is often drawn between direct or face-to-face communication, and indirect media communication. In general the face-to-face channel, using the spoken word and live demonstration, has powerful advantages. It is the normal channel of intercourse with possibilities of immediate empathy and feedback. Thus it may be more effective and economical to train local demonstrators than to put time and money into media. Where physical action is the aim, listening, seeing and doing are likely the most effective learning methods. Yet the face-to-face channel has two serious defects: its limited reach (to small groups and individuals), and the high information loss and distortion involved. (Singh and Haque, 1970 Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, India; report from 43% to 70% loss and distortion in the oral transmission of simple messages from district-level through block-level to village-level workers.) Both of these can be overcome to some extent by media. Extending media such as radio and written materials, can reach larger audiences while written language and pictures can record and retain information and retrieval. So the ideal is an integration of both channels, using various media to complement and reinforce each other - a multimedia approach. In all cases, before the media are finalized they should be tested.

Problems of Visual Communication

There is a tendency to assume that written materials are more or less useless in largely illiterate communities, and that pictures are more effective. There are three fallacies in this seemingly logical argument. First, there are very few communities in the world which do not contain a smattering of literate members who are ready to interpret the written word. Secondly the understanding of drawings, photographs, etc. is largely a learnt skill and research in many countries has revealed that illiterate and semiliterate adults have serious problems in interpreting two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional realities. Thirdly there is a difficulty of representing reality in drawings, or indeed in photographs.

Some rules of thumb for graphics:

Representation should be realistic, objects should be depicted as they would appear in real life.

Objects are likely to be recognized by well-known ‘cues’, these should therefore be clearly visible in pictures.

Exclude irrelevant and distracting background detail.

Where possible show the whole person or object rather than a cutoff hand or head and shoulders.

Objects overlapping in a drawing may be seen in the same plane and not one behind the other: avoid overlap.

Conventions of perspective are not generally perceived, e.g. converging lines will not convey distance.

A small person in the distance will be seen as a small person (e.g. a child) not as a large person further away.

Sophisticated literate symbols (e.g. exclamation marks, crosses, arrows) are likely to be meaningless or to be interpreted literally (e.g. an arrow).

Sectional drawings, bird's-eye views, diagrams, flow charts and similar abstract or symbolic representation are most unlikely to be interpreted.

Indication of movement in static images either by posture or by flow-lines or arrows is unlikely to be understood.

Although an audience is fascinated or amused by a graphic (like a movie) it does not mean that they understand it or will recall its message. The decoding of television images by illiterate adults is likely to raise similar problems.

Visual representation can be assisted by the interaction of the visual image with written text or the spoken word in an illustrated book, talk, sound film or television broadcast. However only specific tests will show whether this interaction is mutually supportive and helpful or simply confusing.

Language and style

Communication is complicated by the fact that there are more than 3,000 languages in the world, many of which have variant dialects. Even assuming a common language there is still the question of style and levels of complexity both in speech and writing. Experience suggests that illiterate adults do not use or understand the abstract terms and technical jargon which have been acquired by the ‘educated’ man - words such as ‘health’, ‘conservation’, ‘responsibility’ or their equivalents in literary forms of their own language may have no meaning for them, although they may have profound experience of the realities to which they refer and may be able to convey their understanding of these realities in concrete terms or by similes or fables. The ‘educated’ man must therefore adjust his style of speech and writing without patronizing or talking down to the illiterate or semiliterate.

Reading ability and readability

People obviously have different levels of reading ability which can be crudely graded from illiterate through semiliterate to functionally or high literate. In order to communicate its meaning, the readability of a written text must match the reading ability of the prospective readers. Skill in writing for semiliterate readers can be improved by training and perhaps helped by a number of crude ‘rules’:

Listen to your readers talking, and while observing the conventions of the written language, write in a style as near as possible to your readers’ ‘speech’.

Use words that are familiar to the readers with meanings that are common to them.

Use short words generally in preference to long words.

If you must use unknown or unfamiliar words, explain them and repeat them.

Keep sentences short and simple - generally not more than one subordinate clause per sentence - one sentence for one idea.

Use concrete nouns in preference to abstract, active verbs in preference to passive, and where appropriate personal nouns and pronouns in preference to impersonal ones.

It may not be profitable to carry the simplification of style too far either into staccato words and phrases scattered over the page or to the point where sentences become simply dull or dully simple.

Remember if the subject interests the reader he will make great efforts to read the text.

Design, typography and printing

The reproduction and printing is a crucial stage in media communication. Style and quality assume importance. The method of type composition, the printing process and the paper quality, as well as the design and color of the cover, may well determine whether a book or pamphlet is read or ignored or whether a poster catches attention. Attention in the receiver is essential to effective communication.

Checklist for Making Public Awareness Posters



  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • Is the method of dissemination appropriate?


  • What to change or stop?
  • What to change it to?
  • What can the person do?
  • (How do you assess effectiveness?)


  • Is the graphic technique appropriate?
  • Is it clear and easy to understand?
  • What are the costs? Who will do it?

Collage of public awareness posters.

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