Virtual Lesson

Photo: Luke Brummer.

How many liters of virtual water does it take to make one pot of tea? Close to 90 liters, depending on where the tea was grown. The virtual water content of a product is the volume of freshwater used to produce it, illuminating the fact that—from source to glass—much more water goes in to making a product than the amount of water it contains. This is what inspired German designer Timm Kekeritz to create a simple graphic to display the amount of virtual-water it takes to produce certain everyday products.

Kekeritz, an interactive designer who has practiced professionally for 10 years, had always focused on water conservation. But after reading Dr. Arjen Y. Hoekstra’s paper on the amount of indirect virtual water in items like tea and coffee, he designed a poster that made the topic easier to visually comprehend. The popular infographic has since been published in multiple magazines including SEED, IDN, and Gestalten Verlag and inspired the creation of the iOS application Virtual Water. We spoke with the designer about his thoughts on virtual water consumption and the app intended to spark conversations about our disappearing resource.

University of Kansas Students: What drew you to designing the infographic?

Timm Kekeritz: I stumbled upon by professor Hoekstra and found his paper about the virtual amount of water in a cup of tea that you drink in Amsterdam; what it takes to get all the tea from South America, ship it to the Netherlands and then have that cup of tea in a cafe. I was stunned by the amount [of water involved in this process]—and I just drove into the research and scientific papers. It was really interesting.  Somehow I got to the spreadsheet that laid out examples of various products and how much virtual water was used to make those products, and I thought that’s really interesting information, but the spreadsheet just doesn’t do it.

KUS: Has the portability of the mobile application helped users consume efficiently? How has the application changed the way this information is spread to other consumers?

TK: Basically our idea was the conservation starter, but nobody had the poster with them. From my experience, it was a great tool to get your phone out of your pocket and say, “Hey, look how much water is in a chicken steak.” On the other hand, the digital medium gave us the freedom of also accommodating different units American gallons and ounces. In the printed world, we would have to print two posters but in the app it is just a switch. I believe the app concept is a great way to use information graphics because it makes it even more tangible if you can move the slider, scan through lists, and select something. It is a different way of interacting with information.

KUS: Have any companies or organizations challenged the information in the graphic?

TK: Yes, there was a professor from the U.K. who also published a book on virtual-water, and he kind of challenged a few numbers, especially around coffee and milk. His numbers were actually bigger, and he said it took way more water to produce them. He didn’t challenge the poster, but he challenged professor Hoekstra’s numbers. We discussed that a bit and the professor pointed out that the numbers are really just averages.

KUS: How do you think design correlates to promoting environmental issues such as water conservation?

TK: I think it’s a great way to communicate environmental topics, because most of that stuff is kind of abstract thinking. It always has to have something relatively tangible, or something that is easy to understand at hand, to explain the issue. I wouldn’t say that it is promoting it, but it is just making it easier to communicate the whole issue. Not everybody takes the time to read a paper, but looking at a poster is something everybody can do.

KUS: Do you think that one day your design will be changed to reflect less virtual-water per item because people will have realized that we can’t waste so many resources?

TK: One of the biggest ways you can actually change something is by using common sense. I think that the poster itself won’t actually change behavior. But it is like one drop of the entire communication around making environmental issues known to the wider public.

Audio Interview:

An inside look behind one designer’s infographic that has changed the way the world looks at virtual water. The interview provides more details on the Virtual Water iOS app and its design conception. Timm Kekeritz, creator of the Virtual Water app, is an interactive designer and founder of the Raureif Design Consultancy. 

Luke Brummer and Sean Tokarz, students in Simran Sethi’s journalism class at the University of Kansas are learning to communicate complex issues via social networking. This is part of a series of posts from a class exploring the intersection of social media and social justice and using water and design as its primary lenses of inquiry. 

Follow the conversation on twitter, #metropolisH2O.

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