New words have enormous power. We've seen them shift political debates, illuminate social identities, and mediate conflict. Articulate Matter is a vocabulary with newly designed words that highlight everyday air pollution indicators and their related health effects. Ubiquitous but invisible, air pollution affects us daily. And yet, despite the development of higher-resolution tools to detect it and describe it scientifically, we have little day-to-day vocabulary to make sense of its patterns and lessen our exposure.
We experimented with different channels for this new vocabulary—particularly the Better Breather Program, a system of incentives managed by health insurance providers. What new words might a marketing campaign create to lure subscribers? What words might health care providers coin to embed the long-term health and financial cost of particular pollution? We developed words that addressed the unspoken motives of these different stakeholders, focusing especially on ways to make pollution actionable.
Our concrete design outputs included a long list of new pollution vocabulary, a service blueprint for health insurance based on new words, their possible ad campaigns, and an illustration of possible futures in which citizens had begun to leverage these words.
We collaborated on the conceptual development of this project, and I produced video, photographic, and audio media to ground this language in real-world contexts. We met regularly with NASA scientists, and prototyped our vocabulary with other designers, primary care doctors, local environmental justice organizers, and the International Well-Building Institute.
In treating pollution as weather, we risk reinforcing a sense of powerlessness to affect it. The Better Breather Program offered two systemic leverage points in our theory of change: First, by reframing the science behind prolonged exposure to pollutants in economic terms we increase the pressure on insurance providers to advocate for cleaner spaces. We could imagine a future in which health insurance providers bring lawsuits against excessive polluters. Second, insurance incentives offer a springboard for other appropriations of pollution vocabulary: product designers aiming to qualify for subsidies, pollution forecasts read by meteorologists and radio personalities, and political organizers seeking to express the immediate and long-term impacts of pollution exposure.