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The thoughtful use of well-designed graphical elements are central to the presentation of science. They need to be accurate, appropriate to the scientific endeavour – and attractive and easy to grasp quickly. Good graphics don’t just reiterate the text: they add an extra dimension to a reader’s understanding of a subject.

This month’s newsletter looks at the role of well-designed graphics in science communication:

We hope you enjoy this newsletter, and welcome your feedback.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss Gascoigne, Claire Heath, Michelle Riedlinger & Madeleine Stirrat.

Graphs and images help tell the story in a poster

By Jennifer Metcalfe

We all go to conferences where posters are part of the program and offer a visual way of presenting your research. But a poster is not simply a visual version of your research paper or promotional brochure.

It should stand out. It must get its message across quickly. Before you design your poster, you should have in mind the main point you want to communicate to the audience.

Using images on your posters can make all the difference. They can:

  • add impact
  • help people remember an idea
  • clarify your words
  • explain something.

Photos, graphics, images and figures have more impact than words, and can explain complex ideas quickly and clearly. We suggest a variety of images, but don’t go overboard or you may confuse your audience.

Each image should convey one idea, and support your message. Consider using graphs instead of tables: their ‘story’ is often easier to interpret.

Extra tip: use captions for each image, and cut down on the text. The best posters have minimal text and aim to encourage spectators to begin a conversation. Check out Nicholas Wu’s poster about frog disease and #betterposters.

Good graphics help the reader understand you quickly

By Claire Heath

Used well, graphical elements in science communication do far more than illustrate or emphasise a point in text: they are an integral part of the reader’s analysis and interpretation of it.

Each way of presenting data graphically has its strengths. The Interaction Design Foundation shows how you can use data graphically to help your reader understand the point you want to make.

It says that data visualisation will be successful if the reader can decode it quickly and accurately. The data need to be displayed in ways that:

  • represent the quantities accurately
  • indicate clearly how they relate to each other
  • make it easy to compare and rank quantities
  • make it obvious how readers should use the information.

To understand traditional methods of data presentation, such as tables, a reader uses only the thinking part of their brain. Data visualisation is effective because it uses two parts of the brain at once: the “extremely fast and efficient” visual cortex and the slow cerebral cortex.

The marketing company Hub Spot has collected some wonderful graphics that excel at giving information quickly and helping you to understand the importance of the message in the data in a way that is also aesthetically appealing. The same page has a link to a downloadable introduction to data visualisation.

My favourites infographics are the languages of the world, the wind map, and the difficulty of finding the black box of flight MH370. What are yours?

An interactive game helps users understand why buses tend to bunch up at stops. Image: Lewis Lehe and Dennys Hess.

Contemporary excellence in data display builds on classic principles
By Toss Gascoigne

Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information made Amazon’s list of best 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century for good reason.

It’s a classic account of how to display data for precise, quick analysis. It’s about adding good, telling diagrams for maximum impact.

The book deals with time-series, relational graphics, data maps, multivariate designs and detection of graphical deception: design variation vs data variation.

Data graphics is surprisingly recent. Tufte writes (p. 20): ‘It was not until the seventeenth century that the combination of cartographic and statistical skills required to construct the data map came together, fully 5,000 years after the first geographic maps were drawn on clay tablets.’

The book is packed with examples, such as the early epidemiologist John Snow’s 1854 map of London’s 13 public wells. The map also charted the location of 578 cholera deaths and clearly indicated the infected well.

And here is an example, not from Tufte but Bloomberg, that uses text and graphs to explain what’s warming the world.

Snow’s 1854 map showing London’s public water pumps and deaths from cholera helps to show efficiently and effectively the water-borne sources of the disease. Image: Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edn, Graphics Press, Connecticut, 2001, p. 24.

CRAP design
By Michelle Riedlinger

If I had one book to recommend on design, it would be Robin Williams’ Non-Designers Design Book.

Robin covers four essential design principles that are easy to remember with the mnemonic acronym, CRAP. This stands for contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.

Contrast is an important visual technique because designers use it to highlight particularly important pieces of content and keep viewers engaged. Designers create contrast using colour, font changes, size, and spacing between elements.

The cover of one imprint of Stephen King’s book On Writing using contrast in font style, size and colour to highlight the author’s name and the title of the book. The stark contrast of black and white also draws the reader towards the book cover’s image.

Repetition. Designers also repeat design elements like colour, shapes, textures and font styles to help readers navigate documents and make sense of the how content fits together.

Adobe Stock provides sets of creative templates and themes, such as this set of document covers, that use repetition to give documents a sense of consistency and organisation.

Alignment holds the key to creating professional-looking documents. Designers place all content on the page with purpose. Econnect’s home page demonstrates how to use centre, left, right, top and column alignment for effect. A good way to check you’ve got good alignment is to turn the whole document upside down. Everything should line up. Nothing should look out of place.

Proximity. When content elements are placed together, viewers assume they’re related. Viewers try to make a coherent story from the grouped elements.

Viewers looking at the image below might relate groups of apples because of their colour. But in the two groups of apples on the right, viewers infer that these apples are related because of their proximity to each other.

Consumer-oriented science communication
By Madeleine Stirrat

I recently read an article exploring scientists’ responses to graphics. Critiquing a page with ‘unpolished visual design and data rich figures’, one said:

‘I’m looking at the real thing. Not an artist’s conception of what the real thing is. This looks like it was made by a geeky scientist. With whatever tools he had available, and didn’t send it to the graphic arts department. It looks like real data, not massaged.’

What makes researchers think that good and engaging design equates to tweaked data, and that the more complicated your visuals, the more credible they are?

Researchers argue in a 2014 paper that authors should focus on the user in the same way marketing does. They identified two common design problems:

  • communicators weren’t designing graphics to suit the intended audience
  • visuals were treated as add-ons, rather than part of the whole.

They suggest a slightly different approach to the CRAP principles, using the CACkLeR design tenets:

  • composition – organise the elements and establish relationships
  • abstraction – define and represent the meaning of the data
  • colour – a visual tool for measurement to show relationships, draw attention, and label
  • layers – overlap multiple variables to show physical relationships
  • refine – edit and simplify.

Here’s a wonderful linguistic web made by Pei-Ying Lin for the Unspeakableness project. It demonstrates making connections with colour and form.