Made in Fukushima is the product of a collaboration between US-German manufacturer of sensors for agriculture and environmental science METER, communication agency Serviceplan Innovation and digital design studio Moby Digg and photographer Nick Frank, all based in Munich. METER’s mission bridges science and humanitarianism to provide sustainable solutions to issues related to climate change and the detrimental impact of human intervention on the natural landscape.
Since 1996, METER has been supporting farmers in Fukushima with their products and knowledge. In the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster, which led to the contamination of over 25,000 hectares of farmland, METER and The University of Tokyo developed an innovative decontamination method that enables Fukushima farmers to grow safe rice again.
Made in Fukushima aims to communicate this long-term project of soil decontamination, utilising rice straw grown on decontaminated fields in the very crafting of its paper. The publication presents the stories of farmers whose livelihoods are affected by both the actual contamination and the residual stigma around Fukushima that deters buyers from purchasing the local rice crop, despite it being approved by strict official and independent tests.
With the publication of Made in Fukushima, METER hopes to elucidate its research by turning a complex and data-heavy scientific topic into something digestible. As Moby Digg puts it: “The researchers identified the problem that no one really understands the depth of the data and the effectiveness of their work. We turned this abstract data into something that’s visually appealing but also easy to understand. We use basic forms: the grid is always square and all the data points are circles in different sizes. This very reduced visual language really focuses the attention on what’s important.”
There is also a transition from data-loaded information and technical terminology to a more storytelling-focused approach that unfolds across the book’s structure. Moby Digg states: “At the beginning of the book, the content is more about background information on radioactivity, the region and the importance of rice, to provide readers with all the factual knowledge. Towards the end, the content focuses more and more on humans and their stories.” Factual information and verbal narratives interact with the sequential documentary photographs, shot by Nick Frank, to evoke the sense of a journey, with an emphasis on lived experience.
And it’s not just the stories and photographs that convey the project’s background. In every aspect of its physical makeup and format, the book engages with the environmental stakes and scientific processes behind its production. First, there is the interactive element of photo-pages that can be unfolded to reveal previously hidden data on the radioactivity in the photographed area. As Moby Digg says: “It’s like discovering a second layer, the data behind those images. First, you get the visual impression, a moment captured by photography, and then on the second layer you discover the information inside.” Directly involving readers in the revelation of the radiation data means that they can, in Serviceplan Innovation’s words, “discover and experience the invisibility of radiation.”
Most importantly, the book goes one step further in making the complex science tangible and demonstrating the success of METER’s decontamination method: Serviceplan Innovation reveals that the paper out of which the book is made “was crafted from rice straw grown on the decontaminated fields in Fukushima. It was developed especially for this project, in collaboration with traditional Washi papermaking factories in Fukushima Prefecture and one of the leading premium paper producers, Gmund Papier, in the Bavarian Alps. This unique setup allowed us to combine traditional Japanese papermaking knowledge with modern cutting-edge technology, which fits perfectly to the character of the whole project.” Moby Digg notes: “What’s also interesting is how the rice straw interacts with the photography. There are areas in the images which are white and wouldn’t be printed, therefore the paper and the rice straw comes out more prominently – a hidden link to the radiation of Fukushima.” In this way, METER’s work in Fukushima is integrated into the very fabric of the book’s design.
Serviceplan Innovation and Moby Digg also pay homage to traditional Japanese design and culture, marrying these influences to their modern approach and their respective expertise in communication and digital design. Their use of the sans serif typeface Akkurat invokes modern typography. Meanwhile, Moby Digg speaks of the aesthetic reference points: “We looked at Japanese design proportions and the treatment of white space and tried to adopt and adapt those systems in our grid. We created a grid that supports photos, data and text equally. We also play a lot with the lines, which are inspired by sensor data. The lines are a reduced version of a visual spreadsheet, containing all the data, organised in an abstract way. So there’s this combined approach of using visual and informational design.” Moby Digg continues: “The binding is also important. We use the folding which relates to Japanese binding. Also, we incorporate Swiss binding so that the book can lie flat and you can see the full images. The spine is revealed too, to show the invisible book structure.”
Keeping in mind the data-oriented approach of METER to its environmental operations, data and information visualisation remain integral to the presentation of the project in Made in Fukushima, and provide the foundations for the visual narratives that play out on the pages. For example, Serviceplan Innovation points out that “the cover and back cover visualise the decontamination of one of the fields. The front cover represents the contamination levels before the method was applied, the back cover afterwards.” Moby Digg continues: “We are using embossing and debossing to emphasise the data points. On the front, the data points are coming out and on the back, they are going into the book. This adds more haptic to the first impression the reader has when picking up the book.”
Going deeper into the visualisation techniques used to create this aesthetic and tactile identity for the book, Moby Digg explains: “All the data we used, especially for all the mapping of the radiation, is from different sources, official ones, open source and our own. We used these data sets to generate all the infographics. This process helped to create a visual style that’s interesting but also very parametric in that we can tweak the design and tweak the forms so that they make sense and represent the data accurately. We programmed a tool which allowed us, as the designers, to digitalise our design process and outcome. The tool automatically generated the infographics for us and allowed us to focus on the stylisation, instead of having to spend time to manually putting the dots right.”
With Japan holding a prominent position in the world’s gaze as we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Made in Fukushima sheds light on a pertinent topic that coincides with active discussions around Fukushima being conducted by the Japanese government.
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