Scientist as Visual Communicator

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Stefan Sagmeister recently introduced me to a unique forthcoming book, “a worthwhile endeavor, showing scientists the fundamentals of how to design a complex graphic,” he said. Incidentally, he is the designer and a consultant. The title may be a mouthful, Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers by Felice Frankel and Angela DePace (Yale University Press), yet it is more than worthwhile, it is an essential guide to literacy for fields that are essential to all our lives.

How do scientists explain complexities to an attention deficit disorder generation? Moreover, how do they illustrate their ideas to each other?

Visual Strategies, which is due to be published in Spring 2012, features formula that allow the theoretical to be made concrete through visual means. It includes conversations with Sagmeister as well as other designers and animators, each aimed at instilling the idea that graphic representations are invaluable in expressing data (as though designers didn’t know that already).

I asked Frankel, a research scientist in the Center for Materials, Science and Engineering at MIT and DePace, an assistant professor, Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, to discuss the genesis and mission of their project.

Why do you think scientists and engineers have problems with graphic visualization? First, the lack of training in the visual arts. Scientists are trained to read certain types of diagrams by example. But their work also requires them to innovate – generating new types of graphics when concepts and data types change. Because of their lack of training in design principles, innovation can be extremely difficult. As a result, bad representation often make it into the published literature where they take hold and perpetuate because people become familiar with them during their specialized training. But – and we think this is a critical issue – because they are ill-designed, they are inaccessible to anyone other than experts. This isolates scientific findings from the public, and makes science education seem more remote and specialized than it could be. Second, the discomfort with subjectivity. It’s naïve to think that they are ever truly objective, but scientists certainly strive for that goal. As a result they are uncomfortable with using style to communicate information, as it seems too personal. We remember a comment from Stefan about scientists’ aversion to style. We were discussing how to represent uncertainty at an Image and Meaning conference, ( and the scientists were coming up with all kinds of suggestions involving icons and abstractions to show which parts of a diagram were not well supported experimentally. Stefan listened carefully to the conversation and then offered up the most elegant solution. “Why not just draw those parts in pencil?”. Of course! The researchers had all overlooked that idea because they were so used to doing everything in the same computer-generated format, using out of the box tools.

What is meant by a “practical guide to graphics?” Do you expect scientists and engineers to have a high level of visual literacy? Visual communication is a critical part of a research career. Scientists must produce graphics to explore their data, to communicate their findings in print, and to teach concepts to students. And these graphics are complex – they must relay abstract ideas that can take place in complex circumstances that do not have intuitive correlates. For example, geologic timescales are hard to imagine in the timeframe of a human life, and the rules of physics we live by everyday do not apply to very small molecules. So the most successful scientists usually are visually literate. So the most successful scientists usually are visually literate.

Despite it’s critical role, visual literacy is not explicitly taught in science education. Undergraduate and graduate science curricula tend to be very focused on the sciences, and often leave little room for students to explore other interests. Within the sciences, students are usually taught visual communication skills by example, i.e. asked to glean the important qualities from good talks, papers and lectures in their own disciplines, and by trial and error with their own efforts. Our book teaches basic design principles in an applied way to provide students and researchers a fundamental framework to evaluate and create effective graphics. And more, we organized it to encourage the reader to understand that there are universal challenges in all graphics, no matter what discipline.

Scientists and engineers do a lot of visualizing. And from the before and after examples below, it looks like they have heavy hands when doing so. What have you found as the main deficiencies in making their mental images more concrete? There are multiple hurdles. Researchers often try to be complete at the expense of being clear. A certain amount of subjectivity is necessary to decide what information to include and what to discard. Clarifying the goal of the graphic (i.e. how it will be used and what you want it to show) helps immensely with this, but is not often the first step for researchers when they begin to create a new graphic. Once the goal is decided, there is some intimidation about the drawing skills required – using out of the box drawing tools poorly often leads to ineffective visual conventions (for example the use of gigantic arrows in Powerpoint and various polygons to represent all types of molecules). More training in basic drawing skills would help with this, as would more emphasis on productive collaboration with artists and designers for more complex projects.

What are the ideal “visual strategies” and is your goal to make them appeal to you and me or to speak internally for other scientists and engineers? This book is intended to help researchers realize the potential of good design by showing them examples that may be familiar to them. Just as important, the book is intended to help designers realize that there is a whole world of communication challenges ready for their expertise!

Copies can be advance ordered here.

Basic Patterns
Visual Communicator
Visual Communicator

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