7 May 2014

Crafting Your Own Visuals for Science Communication: Part I

Posted by mcadams

By Ilissa Ocko

More than two decades of studying science has taught me one very important lesson, and it is much simpler than thermodynamics, calculus, or general relativity.

I love graphics.

I could look at schematics, infographics, flow charts, and maps all day. Yes, graphics are visually captivating, but they’re also useful tools for explaining tricky topics. Pictures are often easier to understand and easier to remember than blocks of text, regardless of an audience’s level of expertise—hence why this is my preferable form of education compared to listening and reading.

Image by Ilissa Ocko.

Image by Ilissa Ocko.

While pursuing my academic degrees at the University of Michigan and Princeton, I gravitated towards graphics as a way to learn and share material. I started out by combing the internet for powerful graphics that I could use in papers and presentations, but because I began studying abstract and novel aspects of science, I soon discovered there were no relevant graphics available. So, I started developing the illustrations myself. Ultimately, my obsession with creating science visuals lead me into creating graphics for research groups, companies, NGOs, blogs, and a university research magazine.

This post offers a few tips (below) about how you, too, can make good graphics and about some workflow suggestions and software tools that can help.

Image by Ilissa Ocko.

Image by Ilissa Ocko.

1. Carry a pen and small pad with you at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike (often while you are just passing the time by walking somewhere or waiting for something). What are you trying to communicate right now (to any expert or non-expert audience) that would be more effective as a graphic?

2. Let inspiration sink in. Explore the idea in your mind or on paper. Sit on it for a few hours or a few days. Give the kernel of an idea the opportunity to blossom before you ‘jump the gun;’ trust that you can rely on your imagination to incrementally improve your vision. Talking out loud often helps crystallize and internally confirm an idea, so open up to someone with whom you are close and/or to someone who knows the field well.

3. Conceptualize a design framework. See the flow chart, above, to help you decide which type of graphic is the most appropriate for your data and audience, and for your take-away message. Content is less important at this stage than the overall vision. Story-telling skills are important here; you want the story about the data to be easily navigable from start to finish, be thought-provoking, and have an obvious punch line.

4. Research the desired information to fill in the design. Once you have extensive notes about your design idea, organize the information. This is critical to making the information as clear and simple as possible. Look for information that can be grouped together, and cut out anything that doesn’t support the overall take-away message. Often, organizing the information yields more clarity on the design framework.

5. Vet the content. Either double check your sources, or ask a colleague to review the information. You don’t want to lose scientific credibility if you get something very wrong! It’s much more important to get the science right in an okay visual, than to have a stellar design with flawed science.

6. Choose a design software and make your sketch come to life. Beginners can use Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote. More intermediate and advanced designers can use Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW. Every time you significantly change a design element, save the graphic as a new version (e.g. v1, v2, v3…). This will preserve any design stages that you may want to come back to for future graphics.

7. “There’s a tool for that”—GOOGLE it! Not only will you come across software tools that you are unsure of how to use, but there will also be numerous tools buried deep within the program that you many never encounter. Do a Google search on a tool you don’t know how to use. Don’t waste your time trying to figure things out on your own. Or, if there is something that you want to do (say, turn a line into an oscillating curve), there might be a built-in tool to automatically do that for you. Do a Google search for that also.

8. SAVE FREQUENTLY AND BACK UP YOUR WORK! Large files cause computers to crash more frequently. Save in the .ai file type to preserve editing capabilities in Illustrator, .pdf to easily share an editable version with friends and colleagues, and .jpg to post on the internet. And please promise me you’ll back up your files. I had two computers stolen from me last Fall, and I lost countless graphics; it was devastating.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series to learn how to create a basic graphic and the creation process from start to finish!

Ilissa Ocko is a climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City.