CPWF Mekong Communications Coordinator Terry Clayton reviews a recent publication and finds it—beautiful.
When was the last time you picked up a beautiful book? I don’t mean a book with beautiful pictures, there are lots of those. I mean a book so beautifully laid out and illustrated that it seduces eye and mind into turning the pages to learn more. Such a book is the recent publication from a Mekong Challenge Program project titled: Guidance Manual on Agroecosystems Analysis in Cambodia.
Judging by the title, you would not be expecting anything out of the ordinary. In terms of content, you would be right. What is extraordinary is the presentation of the content.
First, the content, which is divided into five main sections on tools for analysis (spatial, temporal, livelihoods, economic and decision making, and systems). Each chapter has its own table of contents allowing readers to turn directly to a topic of particular interest. Within each section, each topic has a simple explanation, a checklist, and a brief description of key steps illustrated with diagrams, tables and figures. The Manual adds to the substantial body of work on agro-ecosystems analysis and planning by bringing fisheries and livelihoods into the picture. Now for the presentation.
It’s difficult to find a graphic designer who understands book design and layout. Most graphic designers like to do ad work. It’s faster and ad clients tend to be less picky and pay more. Hence, they generally have little knowledge or skill in laying out text, tables, figures and diagrams. Designer, Robert Brown is clearly an exception.
Keep in mind this is a manual, a book designed to be used in a working environment, which might be an office or a field site. It needs a sturdy hard cover to protect the pages within and hold up against the battering a manual will suffer in the course of a day in the field. A hard cover also serves as a handy work surface or lunch tray. It needs a spiral binding so the pages will lay out flat. The pages themselves need a thick paper to withstand constant turning and occasional coffee spills. It needs lots of ‘white space’ to make navigation easy and provide room for annotations.
White space is something few people understand. White space is neither ‘empty space’ nor ‘blank space’ and most definitely not ‘wasted space. The use of white space paves the way to a better understanding and clearer communication of ideas. It is ‘creative space’; space that gives eye and brain time to reflect on the content, enhances readability, and brings harmony and balance to a page.
Unlike so many manuals, tables, figures and diagrams are given ample space. You won’t be squinting at tables in 10 point type here. Large tables are given a foldout. Likewise, diagrams are given space to breath, making them more accessible to interpretation. Throughout the Manual, text is mostly 12 point with generous line spacing. All these features invite its owner to annotate freely thereby personalizing the Manual in a way not usually possible.
The Manual is illustrated front to back by local Lao artist Chongkham Phonekeo. His gentle line sketches depict the livelihood activities of the farmers and fishers meant to benefit from all the analysis tools described; a subtle reminder of who we are really working for.
While the book is beautiful, so is the thought of producing manuals that are useful for educators, development professionals and government officers. If we are moving more towards ‘outcomes’, then manuals like this will help. In fact, the Manual has already had impact. Extension officers in Cambodia’s Department of Agricultural Extension have been using the Khmer version for two years already and the Ministry announced they will use the Manual as their official toolbox for data collection for situation analysis in all the communes where they work.
The Guidance Manual illustrates how project outputs can be transformed into useful and engaging materials through good graphic design at a cost no greater than what people normally pay for the standard textbook design. This is a work of ‘information art’ on par with the work of Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. You will want your manuals to look like this from now on.
Learn more about the CPWF research project that led to the creation of this Manual:
- Overview of Project Number 71 ‘Commune agroecosystem analysis in the Tonle Sap’
- Final Project Report
Citation: Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), Cambodia and CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF). 2012. A Guidance Manual: Commune Agroecosystems Analysis in Cambodia. Phnom Penh. Cambodia.
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This book was a long time in the making. Three years to be exact. It was an output of Project Number 71 “Commune Agroecosystem Analysis to Support Decision Making for Water Allocation for Fisheries and Agriculture in the Tonle Sap Wetland System” which began in 2008 and was completed in 2010. The Manual was finally published in 2013.
In the early stages of the project, the research team was discussing ‘needs’ with staff from Cambodia’s Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) when the idea of the book first camp up. The DAE had already prepared a manual on commune agroecosystem analysis and saw the CPWF project as a chance to expand the scope of the manual to include analysis tools for livelihoods and fisheries. Commune level agroecosystems analysis had been adopted by the Ministry in 2004 and conducted in over 500 communes. The concept of commune agroecosystem analysis has received wide support from donors, including IFAD, the EC, several international NGOs, and more recently from the Challenge Program on Water and Food Mekong with funding from AusAid.
In developing the content for the Guidance Manual, the research team worked closely with the DAE and local communes where the material was tested, revised, tested and revised again. Because of the need, the DAE published an early version in Khmer in 2011. Meanwhile, work continued with design and layout. Sonali Senaratna Sellamuttu took over as PN71 Project Leader in 2009 and now leads another CPWF funded project on optimizing reservoir management for livelihoods. It was largely due to Sonali’s patience and persistence this book finally went to press.
We’re glad it’s here. It’s an invaluable handbook for anyone or any agency that wants to gather basic data for baselines or other project goals and it’s built on a solid foundation of work by the Department of Agricultural Extension. Aside from the value of the content, CPWF Phase 2 project leaders who have seen the Manual want to use it as a model for other guideline manuals. We hope others will too. There is no reason the useful and practical cannot also be beautiful.