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Telling the story of palm oil

The story of palm oil isn't a simple one. It's found in around 50% of the stuff we buy and yet no one seems to know it. It has over 200 different names and shows up in everything from shampoo to ice cream. It has a supply chain that spans almost every corner of the earth and it's become the poster boy for habitat destruction in the past couple of years.

But the issues surrounding palm oil certainly aren't black and white.

Back in August, The Guardian asked us to help them bring the story to life through an in-depth, interactive feature. The aim was to help users understand the global supply chain and to see both sides of the story. With such a polarised debate already surrounding the issue, it wasn't going to be plain sailing.

This is how we approached it.

The story

With every project we take on, we start with the story. Working closely with the team at the Guardian, we spent several weeks mapping out exactly what content needed to be included and exactly how it should be structured.

Being such a sprawling issue, we decided to base the site around the supply chain itself; from virgin rainforest right through to the products on our shelves. We thought that by taking this linear approach, we'd be able to guide the user through the varied subject, without overwhelming them with a complicated navigation system. By leading users through the many stages of the supply chain, we felt the user would be better able to appreciate the different sides to the issue.

The design

The Guardian already create a lot of great content, so we wanted to be sure that this interactive had a strong visual identity to help it stand out. At the same time we didn't want the style to get in the way of the content itself and trivialise the serious subject matter.

We wanted to use a whole range of methods to tell the story and keep users engaged and interested, and so we worked with the journalists at the Guardian to develop a way of bringing the subject to life which included illustration, audio, photos galleries and maps, and even video shot on location in Indonesia.

We went on to develop a clean interface, in keeping with the Guardian's new design and iconography. This was paired with a strong colour palette which drew heavily from the distinctive red colour of palm oil. The washed out treatment for the launch video led nicely into similar themed chapter headings, and really let the red titles pack a punch.

The build

To bring the data to life, the interactive makes heavy use of the D3 data visualisation library. By combining the palm oil production and import data with geographic data from Natural Earth, we were able to create visualisations of how movement of the product has changed in the last 50 years. D3 was also used to create the pie charts revealing business use of palm oil and, with some sneaky scripting, we were also able to develop some one-of-a-kind 3D bar charts to show the monetary value of the rainforest.

Keeping mobile at the front of our minds was also key for this build, as we knew many Guardian readers would be accessing the site from their mobiles and tablets. Having created background videos for the chapter heading sections to provide the user with an enhanced experience, we kept static images and graphics in place for mobile. This way of staggering the content being delivered, depending on the device they were using, meant we were able to provide an optimised experience for everyone visiting the site.

The result

Whilst it's never going to be able to cover every intricacy of the palm oil story, we're really pleased with how many of the issues this interactive broaches. Despite all the recent attention the palm oil issue has received in the media, there was no easy way for someone to learn about the topic. We feel this site really does fill that gap by gathering much of the information in one place and presenting it in an easy-to-digest and engaging way.

The final site has the feeling of a Guardian-branded piece whilst also maintaining it's own unique style, and it certainly captures the Guardian motto of 'the whole picture'.

In the first week alone the interactive gathered around 6,000 shares and drummed up a lot of attention on social media. It was also featured on the front page of the Guardian site as well as the Environment and Sustainable Business sections. We're looking forward to seeing more results over the next few months!

You can view the story of palm oil here.

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