Crafting the ecocene

Where this work fits in an ecocene design economy framework

This design fits in the “action” and “change” elements of my ecocene theoretical framework. It is outward-facing, meaning it is designed to be consumed by others, to convey a message of how a mass extinction could be mitigated.


This project was a brief to create a cartoon/graphic to complement a presentation of the Marine Ecosystem Assessment of the Southern Ocean (MEASO) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of Parties (COP26). I have already been published both as a researcher and graphic designer in the area of climate change responses from Antarctic Governance, so I was feeling pretty confident in the scientific concepts I would need to express. The design challenge for me lay in how to represent the ecosystem processes in the carbon cycle, and Antarctic ecosystem scenarios, in a way that clearly represented the scientific ideas as well as being aesthetically cohesive and beautiful.
I drew from two areas of arts and design to inform the prototypes that I initially proposed in my first meeting with Jess and Andrew. The first was informed by the various graphic representations of ecological processes that are published in scientific articles and government reports:

A  schematic representing the various biological, physical and human processes that are significant for polar regions and oceans (taken from the IPCC Special Report (2019) chapter 3).

In this style of design, there is a series of geometric shapes and block colours. The horizontal lines creating the perspective of a cross-section of a land, sea and rock setting where the various representations of processes take place. The processes themselves are represented by computer-generated arrows and labels. It is written with the same typeface as the rest of the report. This gives the impression of the schematic being a visual representation of data, resembling a scientific diagram (although the schematic above sits outside the rigorous rules of a scientific diagram), where the impressions of the designer are secondary to the processes being labelled on the schematic. It acts as a visual summary for the rest of the report – rather than a value laden object.

A  schematic representing the various biological, physical and human processes that are significant for polar regions and oceans (taken from the IPCC Special Report (2019) chapter 3).

So for my first prototype, I took the ideas of this style of schematic, but wanted to make sure that the processes represented in the cartoon/ comic were not so reliant on labels to explain what the ecological processes represented. I wanted to create a visual shorthand for ecological processes. Informed by Molly Bang, I created an image built entirely from geometric shapes that were representative of how I felt an ecological process worked. It was not labelled, but had visual representations of ocean fertilisation from whales as well as different watermasses – two important biogeochemical features of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean.

With my first iteration of this visual style complete, I began to go to the opposite extreme – complete freehand representation and layering for this absolute hot mess:

This style is what I would consider my basic intuition. A watercolour base layer that I draw freehand over, making loose shapes and patterns to represent life processes is the most free and creative style of my drawing. The use of multiple layers and textures in this prototype was also informed by my analysis of how extinction is represented in The Rabbits (1998). Shaun Tan uses texture in a masterful way as an impression of rich biodiversity, which turns into block colours and dead space as the landscape dies. I wanted to create layers to show the richness of the Antarctic ecosystem, which I could then eliminate as a future with warming beyond our limits.

Meeting with Jess and Andrew with these prototypes then gave me a jumping-off point for where I wanted to head with the final product. They liked the hand-drawn, loose nature of the second, as well as the clear structural representation of ecological processes of the first. So I looked at art and design movements that had strong, block representations of biodiversity that still maintained the spirit of rich ecologies; specifically art nouveau, the arts and crafts movements and contemporary and early-Christian Irish/Celtic arts.

(c.1st decade 9th C. A.D(?)). Book of Kells: ms. A. I. 6: fol. 29r: Liber generationis, Liber generationis. [gospel book]. Retrieved from
Artist unidentified. (1860-1880). Sunflowers Quilt. Retrieved from

Like Tan’s work in The Rabbits (1998) these styles used rich textures to represent biological processes – the continuity and circularity of a stable ecosystem in the ways that the patterns could go on in perpetuity. Unlike Tan though – these styles don’t employ impressionistic brushstrokes to achieve these textures, they use the repetitions of block colours and shape formations. That’s something I could use to show the ecological processes at play, without sacrificing the “hand-drawn” or artistic expressions I wanted to convey in my comic.

Cartoon saloon is highly proficient at creating hand-drawn patterns as a visual shorthand for biodiversity. This screenshot from The Wolfwalkers shows a loosely symmetrical pattern of dense roots and leaves framing the silhouette of the wolf. The layering of darker roots, trunks and leaf patterns over lighter patterns creates a sense of lively and rich forest ecosystem.

The art nouveau stained glass window informed the way I used circles and rectangles in a grid formation for my comic, as well as the colour scheme. Enshrined in a church, the stained glass window is an example of using geometric shapes and block colours to create a work that captures the spirit, as well as the content of a story.


So, with a good idea of what sorts of thing I wanted in the graphic (patterns, strong block structures but still with a distinctly hand-drawn element of the work) I started making iterations of the grid. The first iteration was on my blackboard, where I wrote out the key elements of the text that needed to frame what was needed in the comic, and then designing a grid to fit the message needed.

I particularly wanted a strong vertical element to represent the clear role that the Antarctic and Southern Ocean play in heat and carbon drawdown. Where schematics often need an unrealistically shallow ocean to maintain reasonable proportions on the coast, I wanted to make sure that the process was visibly deep and globally significant. So I started with a grid with an angular sequence of blue shades stretching the length of the comic. Then I put six small, square panels where each blue shade represented a different feature of the ecosystem. In this iteration, the futures scenarios were laid out like the final scenario, but with a much more impressionist depiction of the icescape. I needed to employ more defined shapes as visual echoes in the work.

Going back to my inspirations, I decided that the work needed less angular and more circular elements. I switched the rhombic shapes from my last iteration to a series of circles at the top and bottom of the vertical panel. I also found that – rather than just use colour as a signal of the ecosystem role, I could use a base rectangle to enclose two circular panels for the final frame. This process defined how I drew the penguin, whale, giant spider and benthic organisms in my final comic. Rather than making sure they were realistic in the depictions, I made sure they were true to the grid

Then I needed to draw my ecological assets. The values of the colours were determined by the colours that came from the watercolours of the grid. I drew making icons and patterns with the animals I chose, colouring them digitally with block colouring. This enabled me to create portraits of the animals I was conveying in the circular panels, and patterns of the same animals in the background rectangular panels – I thought of this as making a kind of key for the futures imaginings I created for the final two panels.

The whales and penguins, and the patterns of whales and penguins.


Most of the play I thought of was in the pattern making and layout of the recurring patterns of the ecosystem. Making all the shapes fit consistently, and then creating shapes with patterns – rather than drawings – took a lot of playing and problem-solving. I played a lot with the layout of the text to make sure that the reader could make sense of the comic and what it was trying to say, as well as making the text consistent and accurate with the science.

In the end, I was proud of how my work conveyed a scientific message and its integrity, while also capturing the spirit and patternmaking of the artists who have focussed on the patterns and continuity needed for a stable ecosystem and life on earth as we know it. I am excited to create more comics in this space – particularly on conservation and rewilding projects.  

This is a commissioned work to compliment the presentation of IPCC report authors of the significance of the Southern Ocean to global climate stability and the need to keep warming below 1.5 degrees.

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