Akvo as an organisation is an inspiration to many. A lot of my colleagues have been admiring Akvo from the outside, before they found a way in to join us. It got me wondering about what it is that makes Akvo so attractive to people. Obviously the work we do plays a major role in this, but is there more? Has it anything to do with the attitude we have towards open source? Is it because we are such a globally spread organisation? Or has it to do with the way we approach the sector in which we work?
From our first iteration, Akvo didn’t conform to the sector. We’ve always looked for ways to stand out from the crowd. Not just through the tools we create, but also the way we present ourselves. The innovative manner in which that’s been done has enticed much interest. Mark Charmer, our PR and communications director, was involved in the conception of our approach, and as he is about to leave Akvo after being involved with it from the start, it feels like a good time to recap our five most creative moments. Let’s count down.
The Yes or No Game
When Mark visited Burning Man in 2013, he came back a changed man. The event had given him new ideas, insights and perspectives on the world. He started talking about the art of asking questions. “Questions are really interesting, because the right question, framed and phrased carefully, can help people solve problems, work out what’s right and decide what’s wrong.” He’d explain how he would like to have a rig that he could wheel into a room, which would have two pulsating buttons saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ complete with gameshow sound effects.
We never got to develop this three dimensional version of The Yes or No game, but I did build a keynote presentation, that works like an app on an iPad, that does the same thing. Mark used it extensively for the subsequent six months to help the decision making process within Akvo clearer and more transparent.
Keeping track of our business cards is a lot of work. We make sure everyone who needs cards, gets them. We collect their contact details, lay the cards out, get them printed and distributed. After a while, people need to update their cards because they have a new role, address or phone number, and the whole process starts over again. Apart from the amount of time this takes, the cost for printing these cards is quite high, as they are a bespoke size and we use traditional printing methods.
Back in 2012, Mark had a conversation at a party Akvo hosted in Washington DC, which gave him the idea for our Cool Cards: a card with just a name on it. No contact details. No branding (though the colours and font we use are part of the Akvo visual identity). These cards are cheap to lay-out — there’s only a name on them. Nowadays all you need is a name and an internet connection to find out the things a traditional business card tells you. The cards don’t go out of date because of changes in role or other details, and we can get them printed quickly and cheaply at a local digital printer. They are useful in different kinds of circumstances and they make great conversation starters.
In 2009, we launched the WaterCube in partnership with SIWI and IRC. It was quite literally a glass cube, in which a sofa and some comfy chairs were the backdrop for interviews with visitors of Stockholm World Water Week. The team captured over 100 video interviews at the event and put them online.
It put the power of online video on the conference floor. People were no longer just talking to each other, but they were engaging with and accountable to the outside world. It’s something that had been bothering Mark, and the WaterCube really made a difference. It has made many appearances in Stockholm since, as well as Barcelona and Cape Town. At World Water Day in The Hague in 2013 we renamed it WaterCouch — there was no physical cube this time — but the concept remained the same. The interviews from the WaterCube and WaterCouch are still available to watch online.
Akvo movie posters
In August 2007, when Akvo launched at Stockholm World Water Week, we did so with quite a dramatic entrance: the Akvo movie posters. They dazzled. People would come up to the team just to tell them how much they liked our posters. They asked for spare posters to take home and many actually got stolen from toilets and walls around the venue.
Mark worked with artist Vincent Wijers on the design of the posters. They challenged assumptions about poverty and development. Mission Rope Pump, for instance, reflects a bold, cool new generation of African heroes who can transform their own situation. We’re still quite fond of these posters, as they shaped so much of the way people perceive Akvo. They even inspired us to do a new, modern, real take on the stories we were trying to tell back then.
Akvo partner hero stories
In 2013, we had built up quite a portfolio of case studies. We felt it was important to share these stories with the world in a way that made people feel empowered – not sad or distraught – like so much photography associated with international development programmes does. Instead of focussing on beneficiaries, we decided to show teams of people around the world who are using our tools to help reduce poverty and improve living standards. They are real life versions of the people in the Akvo movie posters. They are the Akvo partner heroes.
We had been working on the execution of this idea for a while, when a photo that Mark found in a surfer magazine he picked up in Santa Barbara in November 2012, instantly took our idea to the next level. We decided to photograph teams in the context they work in, but pose them in front of a white backdrop — like the ones used in photographic studios. It helps to emphasise the importance of the team and the work they do, but doesn’t distract from the environment in which they work.
It took some persuasion to convince the wider team of how this series of photos was going to work, but once we did they became an instant hit. Since 2013, there have been more than 15 partner hero stories from across the world. All taken by local photographers, they show how much good is being done with our tools across different sectors and continents. In 2015, we took the white backdrop to Korea World Water Forum, where people could take their own picture in front of it.
Mark’s leaving feels like an ending, but it is not. His legacy is a foundation of inspiration and wonder; of transparency, flaws and all; and the artistry in the unconventional, the slightly unusual and the uncommon. It’s all now part of the fabric of Akvo, and we think it always will be.
Linda Leunissen is Akvo’s graphic designer, based in London.