Framework for Change

American Institutes for Research / 2021 / Education, Human Rights, Racial Equity

A screenshot from an animated video produced by Graphicacy for AIR, describing the barriers to solving school segregation in the United States


Graphicacy partnered with the American Institutes of Research (AIR) to translate a complex research theory into powerful visual tools for targeting inequity in schools and beyond. The result? A motion graphic video and interactive graphic that break down the complexities of segregation — including systemic racism and housing inequities.

Background and Challenge

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not for profit organization that generates and uses rigorous evidence that contributes to a better, more equitable world.” A team of AIR researchers developed a theory of change for eliminating school segregation that they hoped would help researchers and practitioners move beyond silos toward more integrated and systems-level perspectives.

But they also knew they needed to get this new information out of the theoretical realm and into the hands of people who could use it to drive change, including education policymakers, researchers, and technical assistance providers. And a compelling visual story – rather than statistics, reports, or presentations – was the best way to do it.

Building a visual story around a theory, rather than hard data or empirical evidence, would be a challenge. With little experience in these types of projects and no clear vision for the project beyond something visually engaging, AIR gave us carte blanche to lead the process. But having every option on the table had its own unique challenges.

Opportunity, Solution and Impact

There was an opportunity to create an experience that did justice to the fact that these theoretical discussions and proposals are all grounded in history and the lives of real people.

Graphicacy led an exercise for each member of AIR’s working group to visualize the complex flow of levers and drivers affecting segregation — including systemic racism and housing inequities — from their own unique perspectives and disciplinary lenses.

Our team then worked with AIR to develop a motion graphic video starting with a script and storyboard that framed the historical context of school segregation, presented modern realities, and demonstrated how AIR’s systems-oriented theory of change can drive reforms. Animator and illustrator Jeejung Kim brought the storyboard to life using an umbrella as the visual metaphor and recurring centerpiece. A mixed media animation style was used to humanize the video, giving its theoretical underpinnings a recognizable and approachable face. The finished video puts the issue into context and presents an urgent call to action for policymakers to rethink how the nation addresses segregation and its many related components.

Graphicacy also gave users the ability to drill down on the complex factors driving the issue through an accompanying interactive theory of change graphic that mirrored the imagery introduced in the video. Audiences visiting the page can click on different elements to learn granular details about the interplay of various systems and the roles of actors at the federal, state, and local levels.

some initial sketches and prototypes for a visual theory of change diagram

AIR hopes that this visualization can help other social scientists and technical assistance providers understand that eliminating school segregation requires a unified effort across multiple levels of government, countless school systems, and residential communities throughout the country. And, show stakeholders at every level, including federal, state, and local legislators, school administrators and housing authorities, that their work has real upstream and downstream impacts on school segregation.

“Any sort of siloed attempt to rectify the issue isn’t going to be enough. The issue needs to be addressed holistically to move the ball. And that’s what we’ve captured here with our graphic, which helps break down the mental and conceptual silos we put up unnecessarily. It was impressive to see Graphicacy give shape to our work and translate our abstract concepts into a visual language.”

Christopher Paek, AIR Qualitative Researcher

Interested in working on a project like this?