CSU alumna wins award for excellence in video illustration

Science and storytelling are two words rarely used together. However, Karina Branson, a graphic facilitator and illustrator and Warner College of Natural Resources alumna is breaking this barrier. Branson’s video series Drawing Connections to Climate Change garnered her a 2021 Silver Telly award for excellence in video and television across all screens.

Karina Branson, Matt Holly, and Larry Perez celebrate with the Silver Telly Award they won for their work on the NPS Drawing Connections climate change video series (2021).
Karina Branson, Matt Holly, and Larry Perez celebrate with the Silver Telly Award they won for their work on the NPS Drawing Connections climate change video series.

The series is a partnership with the National Park Service and is intended to tell the story of climate change impacts on our wild spaces. It describes the specific places and consequences that are often overlooked when it comes to climate change.

While Branson began her career as a student at Colorado State University, through her business ConverSketch, she has now partnered with organizations all around the world including the City of Denver Office of Sustainability, New York City Mayor’s Office, The Africa Center, World Parks Congress in Sydney Australia among many others.

As an undergraduate at Colorado State University, Branson was dual majoring in art and human dimensions of natural resources. After dropping her art major to focus solely on HDNR, she was introduced to graphic facilitation in her graduate program. It was then that her professor invited a graphic facilitator to class who demonstrated a concept they were learning with illustration. From then on, she was fascinated with the method and decided to pursue it on her own.

Throughout graduate school, Branson built an extensive network with her illustration work. She attributes much of this networking success to Martín Carcasson, the direction of the center for public deliberation, who connected her to opportunities to build her portfolio. It was the career jumpstart she needed.

While still immersed in her graduate studies, word spread about her work; after completing graduate school, her demand was so high that she founded her company in 2012. Today, Branson continues to use her passion for art to bridge the communication gap between science and storytelling. She recently took time to reflect on her experience and career as a graphic facilitator and illustrator.


Q&A with Karina Branson

Why do you think storytelling in this format is so impactful?

Telling stories visually quickly creates an emotional connection and helps us connect with our audience to make it relevant. Generally, people don’t change their behaviors or actions or even question things unless it means something to them personally. For example, if I know forest fires are occurring more frequently and recently destroyed a special place that I grew up visiting then I may feel more of a drive to make a change or find out more information about what I can do about climate change.

What did you enjoy most about working with the National Park Service?

I really enjoyed working with communications coordinator, Larry Perez, and video editor, Matt Holly – my dream team. They’re so good at distilling super complex, unique aspects of climate change into language that non-experts can understand and relate to while condensing it into three and half minutes or less. I also just love the process. Now over Zoom, we meet with a collective group of people from each park that we’re collaborating with, and I walk them through the storyboards I’ve brainstormed. Together, we all make it so much better. The people we partner with at each park provide specific metaphors, anecdotes, locations or imagery that make sense for that specific place.

A digital self portrait using Adobe Fresco watercolor brushes (2020)
A digital self portrait using Adobe Fresco watercolor brushes.
Which was your favorite video to create for this project and why?

I really like the most recent one that we released, Haleakala, because I love birds! I love painting the birds because they’re super cool. I got to go down the wormhole of looking at pictures and then reading about them. It was fun too because the team was into incorporating a little bit of humor into the video. The video talks about avian malaria and how the accessible spaces for birds to escape from mosquitos are becoming less and less. There’s one scene where a mosquito is flying at an endangered endemic bird. I wanted to draw a curse bubble above the bird’s head, but I figured the park service wouldn’t let it fly. However, they were on board, and I think the humor helps soften a pretty intense story about climate change.

What was your greatest challenge in creating this project with the NPS?

The biggest challenge about climate change communication is communicating the urgency and importance of the situation. It’s challenging to create a positive outlook while making the scientific information relatable and accessible to the public. Scientists are amazing at science and they know everything about their field, but it’s hard to ask them to give me a one-breath example of what it is that they do. I am a big supporter of connecting these scientists with people who are great at storytelling to help tell those stories in a way that non-experts can understand.

In what ways is this types of storytelling impactful to preserving nature and our environment?

Climate change is so complex and there are so many aspects: human impact, geography, biology, scale and time of the issue, etc. So if we, as storytellers, are able to tell an anecdote that could resonate over time or at a larger scale, or even provide an interesting visual element, people may be inclined to spend more time thinking about these issues impacting our environment, and ideally thinking about what they can do to act on it.

Karina gives a verbal summary of key insights from the day's work in a Gallery Walk (2016)
Branson gives a verbal summary of key insights from the day’s work in a Gallery Walk.
How are you able to weave informative messages into your storytelling?

I would say the three biggest aspects that help us achieve informative storytelling are humor relevance and clear, clear language. It really comes down to creating that opportunity for an everyday connection. For example, instead of saying “climate change is here; we’re screwed,” we start I am trying to include humor into the stories too. I’m trying to make it funny, yet informative. We do this by interweaving humor with the more complex science.

Another effective technique is to clarify and simplify the language used to explain complex science. If you’re doing something technical or scientific, how would you explain it to a fifth grader? And then there’s the visuals. We review the script and see if there’s something that can be told in images instead of words.

What is something you think college students should know?

Say yes to opportunities. Try to follow your intuition or whatever feels good in your gut. Be open minded about possible paths you can follow. Even if it feels like everybody around you is saying that’s not a viable career, think about how your unique perspective, skills and ways of doing things can provide value.