On World Ozone Day yesterday, we look back at our interview with Scientist-come-illustrator Brian Foo from Mission’s Environment Issue.

By Natalie Pappas.

Natalie Pappas: Why did you decide to focus on climate change?

Brian Foo: Besides the fact that climate change is one of the most significant issues that uniquely affects everyone around the globe, I found it baffling that, at least in the United States, there’s such a gap between scientific consensus and public perception of climate change. Since my background includes data science and scientific communication, I felt I could more uniquely contribute to this issue than to other issues that may be less data-driven or scientific.

NP: What inspired you to create a coloring book to increase awareness about climate change/environmental issues?

BF: Coloring books are unique in that you are both guided by the activity but invited to contribute your own creativity through the act of coloring. In this sense, it’s both active and passive. Writers and journalists are often forced to boil climate change issues down to a chart or a few paragraphs, where the reader is passive and can blindly accept or reject the content. A coloring book forces you to actively engage with the data and science of the issue for potentially hours at a time. It’s harder to deny the science of climate change when you put in the effort of researching the topic and “seeing it for yourself.”

NP: How did your experience as a data artist and computer scientist help you create this coloring book? 

BF: My computer background as a data artist helps me think about the best ways to communicate the climate science topics visually through data and color. My computer science background allows me to execute these ideas to produce the activities you see in the book. I make none of the coloring activities by hand—all are done through programming with the actual data. I also provide all the source code on my website for anyone to see, scrutinize, or expand on.

NP: What demographic or age range are you hoping to reach?

BF: I didn’t have a particular age range in mind, but there’s clearly an overlap in the demographic of the adult coloring book audience. Just based on the writing and scientific terms, I’d say the content is appropriate for middle school and up, or younger if accompanied by an adult. I’ve had particular interest from A.P. Environmental Science high school teachers interested in using the books for their classrooms.

NP: Do you think kids or adults will be more responsive to this way of learning?

BF: I don’t have any statistics for how many people prefer learning through words or visuals, but for an adult like me, I would prefer this way because I’m very much a visual learner who prefers activities rather than reading. In general, I think most people would benefit from learning with a mix of words and visuals.

NP: What is the goal of the coloring book?

BF: Besides the obvious purpose of communicating issues around climate change, I’m hoping this book can also act as a catalyst for people to ask more questions and do more research when learning about any topic. For younger generations especially, as there are more and more fractured sources from where they can get their information, it is important to give them the tool of “data literacy” to seek the facts for themselves. Even I, who thought I knew a decent amount about climate change, learned so much by simply going to the sources of different charts and figures and understanding how they were created.

NP: How does the coloring book work? What are you filling in and how is it structured to teach whoever’s drawing about climate change? 

BF: The book is roughly organized into three sections: the causes of climate change, the impacts of climate change, and potential ways to mitigate climate change. Each section has a few coloring activities that fall into different categories. One category is a “color-by-number“ activity—for example, you are given a map of the United States made up of small circles with numbers in them. As you fill in the circles with the colors corresponding to the numbers, it will slowly reveal a map of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

Another type of activity uses time as the primary way to deliver the information. For example, you are asked to see how fast you could color 20 football fields. Most likely you won’t be able to finish coloring all 20 football fields in under a minute, which is approximately how fast global forests are being destroyed without being replaced.

Since this is a coloring book, I try to lean on what coloring books do best: use color and time in creative ways.

NP: Besides increasing awareness, how will this book also help or inspire people to be more environmentally proactive?   

BF: In addition to awareness, I hope to give people the tools to continue to learn, research, and communicate on the topic of climate change. When making this book, one exciting thing for me was learning more about the process of science: how climate scientists collect, interpret, and draw conclusions from data and observations. This not only makes me more aware of the topic of climate change but allows me to articulate the science to others and helps me to make more informed decisions for me as an individual.

NP: How would you respond to people who do not believe in climate change? How do you prevent it from becoming a political statement instead?

BF:  I try to focus on the data and the science rather than making a statement— in other words, to “show not tell.” It’s harder to argue with data than with words. However, there will always be opposition to the topic given the current political climate. I’ve found that if someone who denies climate change cannot argue with the data, they would question the source of the data or even the science itself. Once we enter that debate, I’m not sure where we can go from there. So I hope to at least help address the people in the middle who can be swayed by learning the science.

NP: Where did you get your data from? What kind of research did you have to do? 

BF: This book only uses data and research from authoritative governmental sources such as NASA, NOAA, and the EPA, and they are heavily cited in the book and through documentation on the book’s website. I didn’t have to do any primary research, since I’m not a climate scientist. Much of my research had to do with finding the proper sources of information, figuring out how to properly process the data, and determining the best way to translate the existing research and science into coloring activities in the book. My processes for using data and research to create the activities in this book are 100 percent transparent and documented in detail. Also, the code used to generate the art in the book is freely available to use and extend.

NP: How did you work on translating complex data and climate change facts into accessible drawings? How did you come up with the drawings?

BF: For each coloring activity, I would start by simply exploring the data for myself and researching any existing ways, good or bad, scientists visualized their research. From there, that’s where a scientific process is replaced by a creative process that varied from one activity to the next: a lot of sketching and erasing, and a lot of trial and error. One thing I’d always need to ask myself when designing an activity was “Why is this a coloring activity rather than simply a chart that I can just show people without wasting their time?” This gets back to the question about why am I making a coloring book in the first place. I’d always have to remind myself of what coloring books do best: use color and time in creative ways.


Image credit: Brian Foo