Building IlliteraCity


Project Literacy – a global campaign that seeks to end illiteracy by 2030 – is a cause I was keen to support; I’m dyslexic and, on a small scale, can identify with some of the difficulties people can encounter if they are illiterate. I was excited to be part of their latest awareness campaign, fronted by actor Idris Elba, which aims to shine a light on the social problems caused by low literacy.

My brief was to create a strong, visual representation of these problems via a 3D paper sculpture, which would then be transformed into an online interactive city for users to explore and learn about the challenges posed by global illiteracy. In preparation for the project, I was given some pretty sobering stats on just how big a problem illiteracy is around the world – there are 32 million US and 5 million UK adults who are illiterate. Globally, it’s a social issue affecting over 750 million people. But it’s not a problem that people tend to know or indeed care about, and progress in advancing literacy has stalled since 2000.


When I learned that problems associated with poor literacy have an impact beyond the obvious things like poverty and employability (for example, civil rights, gender equality and life expectancy) I was very keen to help Project Literacy communicate these important messages.

Following their brief, I began work on ‘IlliteraCity’, a paper sculpture that would be the key visual for the campaign, and which would be transformed into a interactive online experience where users can explore two sides of a city; one where low literacy and its associated problems are rife, and the other where improved literacy has transformed the social landscape. So, my brief was two-fold: on the one side, we have the problematic ‘IlliteraCity’ while on the other, we have the transformed ‘LiteraCity’, a place where learning and literacy are thriving.


With an objective to reach a global audience, my first consideration was to create territory-neutral buildings that wouldn’t look specifically British or Western (so, nothing UK-centric – red telephone boxes, for example – was included.) Next, I had to consider the specific landscape features of each city. A muted, rather drab colour palette was employed on my IlliteraCity to convey a sense of deprivation and dereliction – this is a place where illiteracy leaves people isolated, disconnected and held back by social immobility. I crafted six key buildings to sit in this city, each one representing a social issue associated with low literacy. In the digital version, people can click on these buildings (including a school, a hospital, a run-down office building, for example) and read more about low literacy can lead to higher rates of homelessness, crime and unemployment. When clicked on, each building view is expanded so users can see the sculpture close up.


These simple and easily identifiable buildings are then transformed in the other side of my sculpture – after populating a rather gloomy cityscape it was refreshing to inject some vibrancy into the second phase of my sculpture. Transforming the city with bright colours, trees and flowers provides some strong visual messaging for this project: it doesn’t have to be this way! By tackling illiteracy, communities are transformed and cities thrive. My sculpture conveys this sense of joy and opportunity. In place of an abandoned, boarded up shop, there now stands a thriving local business, as improved literacy allows better opportunities for entrepreneurship and employability. Desolate office spaces are replaced with happy places of work, and prisons now offer access to books as literacy programmes help to transform the lives on their inmates.

I think the sense of hope in my LiteraCity is really tangible and provides a strong visual story: when users switch from the different scenarios presented by each of my cities, the contrast is striking. I think it really helps to convey key messages about the impact of illiteracy on some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

If you’d like to find our more about Project Literacy and how you can support the invaluable work it does, visit the website here.