OCHA hosts UN Designers Group in Geneva

A few months back, I wrote about how Geneva is a melting pot of communication professionals with plenty of active groups meeting to exchange ideas, challenges, and solutions to a constantly evolving field of work. I’m proud that ITU brought together the UN (graphic) designers group late last year with an inaugural meeting in November. Among the UN participants, it seemed that OCHA was ahead of the curve in integrating design into their work and so we were asked to host the second meeting. In May, we were finally able to get our butts in gear to host the meeting. While the first meeting was informal and over lunch, this time around lunch was still on the table, but we also wanted to put a little bit more structure and decided to focus on a key element of how design is used in OCHA’s work, particularly in times of emergencies. This usually means turning lots and lots of data and information from natural or complex disasters into easily accessible and understandable formats that can be used for advocacy, awareness-raising, planning and decision-making.


We explained how design is integrated into the humanitarian response process and how more and more visual design and communication is becoming an area in which other technicians (i.e. information managers and communication generalists) need to understand and be involved in despite the lack of knowledge and know-how. The basic idea is that there’s now so much information that comes through in times of disasters and emergency, it’s hard to make sense of it all and for it to tell a story that can help people understand the severity of the situation or to use this information to make the best decisions possible.


Not only is timing, data-reliability and access a challenge, but so is the issue of standardization and consistency. This means being able to do quick designs based on templates and standards because different people get involve in the design process at difference times during an emergency. But this also has an impact on the branding and consistent communication by the organization. One of the main challenges is to ensure that products meet a certain standard to ensure that an organization’s ‘brand’ is upheld and that people can trust the source of information because, in addition to the quality of the content, the visual identity and look/feel is also what provides value to the reader/user.

Thanks to the OCHA team for a great presentation, and to all the ones who attended the second lunch / meeting!

Posted by UN Geneva Graphic Design Community on Friday, May 22, 2015

There’s also always the constant challenge of “making things pretty”, which is what most people think of designers in this field, vs. “making things useful” – why would you take a 20-page document and turn it into something “pretty” only to have people read it… does that mean if it wasn’t pretty then people wouldn’t read it – what does that say about the document? An interesting discussion point around this was the fact that designers are always asked to help on ‘formatting’ which is actually different for ‘designing’ something. If you’re interested on the influence design (not formatting) has on our lives, “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman is a must read…

There is no need to sacrifice beauty for usability or, for that matter, usability for beauty.

The most interesting part of the meeting was still over lunch where we talked about how people got into design (a lot of people didn’t come strictly from a design education), the challenges/stigma designers face in and outside of the office, and how visual communication is now part of ‘mainstream’ communication and what that means for designers. Like the Facebook page to get info on the next meeting and to stay in touch with the group and get news about design stuff.


OCHA by the numbers inspired by this peacock

I had to learn a couple of things when I joined OCHA’s Visual Information Unit just over one year ago: deal with strange visitors at my window and interesting requests. For the first few months at my new office, I had this peacock and its family, allowed to roam freely on grounds of the UN, showing up either knocking its beak on the window or trying to jump on to the scaffolding. Not only was this unsettling, it was also the time when I was asked to work on the ‘OCHA by the numbers’ graphic for the 2013 annual report.

It was kind of like “hey you’re the new guy… here’s a project that you can work on for the annual report”. I was like “no pressure, right?” especially since annual reports are usually a big deal particular when it comes to justifying how money and funds were spent over the course of the year and a way to look for more. On top of all this was the fact that I was just given a MS Word document full of numbers and stats that I had to make sense of. And it didn’t help that the peacock would pass by everyday to look into our office window.


Maybe it was the way the bird has two distinct looks to it, and since this was for the corporate report, that I decided to split the graphic into two sections to highlight to readers what were the priorities for the organization and how the funds were spent. While the big numbers and country silhouettes provided visual interest to the one-pager, I really enjoyed working on the bar charts made of little squares which each represent USD 10 million – not the easiest thing to do as a bit of math was involved to make sure that the number of row and columns fit nicely in the space I had. One thing I found most interesting working on these charts was the comparison between how much funding was required by the humanitarian community to respond to crises and disasters and how little OCHA uses to achieve its mission to:

  • Mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors in order to alleviate human suffering in disasters and emergencies.
  • Advocate the rights of people in need.
  • Promote preparedness and prevention.
  • Facilitate sustainable solutions.

Download the PDF version here on the 2013 OCHA Annual Report website… Some credit should go to the peacock for the inspiration!

Twitter and the changing landscape of communications

Normally thought of as something to do for fun or to keep for personal stuff, social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are now places not only to share photos and status updates, but to find information, news, and communication (dare I say, “engage”) with people. While “communication” was (or still is?) thought of as a one-way channel, social media platforms have leveled the playing field and traditional media (and advertisers) are trying to figure out how to be competitive in this environment.

At the first-ever UN Social Media Day (#SocialUN) in New York a couple of weeks ago, Adam Snyder, from the global PR and communciation firm Burson-Marsteller, gave a one-hour presentation with a convincing argument that the media and communication landscape is changing with the use of Twitter in politics. I really enjoyed his presentation (see below vid for the whole thing) because provides a lot of examples, stories, and western pop culture references when he talks about how social media is increasingly important in global affairs.

#SocialUN included discussions and presentations on digital diplomacy, social media trends for 2015 and best practices. The one-day event was jointly organized by the UN Department of Public Information Social Media Team, the Consulate General of Canada, the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, the Consulate General of Switzerland, the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations, the New Zealand Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the New York Chapter of the Digital Diplomacy.

A full list of what took place at the first-ever #SocialUN event is below:

The 25 Best Connected World Leaders 2014

Humans United


Who works at the UN? How did they get there? What are their hopes and dreams? That’s what I want to try to answer with this month’s theme for my photo project. The monthly theme has really focused my photography and it’s been an interesting ride with only two more months left to complete my year-long project. While October’s theme of taking a photo of (almost) every meal I had was quite inward-looking (and made me change the things I eat), I want November to be outward-looking… and what better theme than to do portraits of people working at the UN and find out a little more about them.

The United Nations is a very large (and bureaucratic) organization founded in 1945 after the Second World War by 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. The UN has 4 main purposes:

  1. To keep peace throughout the world;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations;
  3. To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;
  4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.

As you can see from the above photo taken just outside the gates of the United Nations Office in Geneva, the UN can sometimes seem like a very closed and serious place. Yet at the same time, the staff and people who make up the UN also are very human, passionate, and have altruistic reasons for working for an organization that is known to promote and strive for a peaceful world. Just over one week into the project, what I find most fascinating is how a lot of people got their start in the UN!

Here are a few questions I asked to spark a discussion:

  • What inspires you?
  • How did you join the UN?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • What excites you about working for the UN?

To keep a sense of consistency throughout all the portraits, I’ve kept them black and white. See the photos here – http://eyesee2013.tumblr.com/archive/2013/11