This is the next post in a series of guest contributions where we invite colleagues to share their own expertise from a broad range of specialities. The following post is written by Pieter Torrez founder of Scigrades, a Belgian agency specialized in visual science communication.
The image above gives a visual overview of the activities of a sport research group from Ghent University (copyright Scigrades 2017).
Images are becoming what our society is about
It’s becoming more important than ever to get the images right — and that requires understanding, thought and planning says science photographer and MIT researcher Felicia Fenkel2.
We are advancing from a print and verbally dominated culture to a more visual one. All the time we are surrounded by visuals telling us how to think, feel and speak3. In our restless and hectic lives we need to process new information at fast paces. Currently we receive 5x as much information every day as we did in 19864. It is becoming rather the norm rather than the exception to communicate visually in our technological societies3.
Not all visualisations are effective ways to communicate
Science communicators have been using different channels, such as blogs, websites, posters, magazines, video games, billboards, television, apps, and movies to communicate science to the wider public. These channels all have something in common, they communicate through the visual language. Ironically the use of clear visuals have been widely neglected in the science communication field so far. According to Davis & Estrada (2015) the use of visuals in science communication has been treated as an add-on. Science communication has been focusing on simplifying science through words guided by a few images and often unclear illustrations. The efficiency of knowledge transfer through the visual language remains underestimated in this small but emerging field. Visuals are excellent ways to simplify and spread complex science. Visual science communication is more then just transmitting knowledge, it is also about fostering excitement about science. Through visual language, science communicators can reach that (large) part of the public that does not normally have a keen interest in science but is captivated by the design of the visuals5.
For example few months ago I came across this great animation about cellullar aging, known as a very complex scientific research field but very well explained in this animation.
According to Davis & Estrada (2015) there is also a lack of identifying target audiences and refining visual elements for them specifically. It sounds obvious but it can be forgotten that not all visualisations are effective ways to communicate. The animation about aging is excellent educating material to communicate to the non-scientific public but the example below is not. This animation is about Tetranucleotide Usage In Mycobacteriophage Genomes, it contains too much irrelevant info for the general public.
User-centered design as a theoretical approach
To overcome the issue around misidentifying the target audience and producing irrelevant communication material, Davis & Estrada (2015) suggest an user-centered design to replace the current science communication process. Instead of simplifying science we need to recontextualize it and integrate the user in every part of the design process. Science communicators need to think about the user’s point of view. Who are we talking to? And how can we design the communication so it is most efficient in reaching the target audience? Only by seeing the world through the audience eyes science communicators can build durable and beneficial relationships. To achieve good visual communication, science communicators need to become visual literate. Therefor we need an interdisciplinary approach with the design world. As stated by Tom Duscher from the Scicomm Lab (Commocean conference 2016, Bruges):
I can’t express how much visuals can do to increase the impact of your research. We are heading towards a visual culture and science (communication) needs to get on the train. Get literate now and start thinking visual!
Pieter Torrez is an information designer and marine biologist from Belgium. He is the founder of Scigrades, an agency specialized in visual science communication. Scigrades works together with scientists/science communicators from different research fields to drastically increase the impact of their research.
To find out how you can contribute your expertise, mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
1. Bertoline G.R., 1998, Visual Science: An Emerging Discipline, Journal for Geometry and Graphics, Volume 2 (1998), No. 2, 181–187.
2. Chandler D.L., 2012. How to communicate science visually, MIT, http://news.mit.edu/2012/communicating-science-visually-felice-frankel-1026 (conseiled on the 28th of December).
3. Estrada F.C.R., Davis L.S. ,2015, Improving Visual Communication of Science Through the Incorporation of Graphic Design Theories and Practices Into Science Communication, Science Communication, Vol. 37(1) 140–148.
4. Holcomb, P. & Grainger, J.,2006, On the Time Course of Visual Word Recognition, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol 18.
5. Patterson K. ,2016, Science by stealth: secret missions of a visual science communicator, The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/science-by-stealth-secret-missions-of-a-visual-science-communicator-62867 (conseiled on the 28th of December).