There is a common misconception that science does not interest itself with design, and that those working in scientific fields think that design is best left to the arts and other more subjective disciplines. However, elements of good visual design are crucial to the field of science, especially when it comes to communication. Recognizing this, the American Association for the Advancement of Science publishes guidelines for presenters on how to use elements of good design in presentations and visuals. Indeed, science has a bit of a communication problem when trying to reach the general public especially.
In an age of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, it is more important than ever that schools are graduating students who are able to think critically about the information they are bombarded with. The longer I teach, the less I see myself as an educator of scientific knowledge, but instead of scientific process. The recall of facts, figures, and rote knowledge is less valuable every day, while the ability to think creatively across multiple domains to solve complex problems is becoming a crucial skill for pretty much anyone looking to become (or remain) employed in the future.
It is important for me to remember that as an educator, the visuals that I create/curate for my science courses are more than a place to simply dump information and clipart. Visuals can be an extremely effective way to convey large chunks of information, and allow the viewer to make connections that would not be readily obvious if the same information was presented in a block of text. However, there are an almost infinite number of ways to structure visuals in a presentation, so how can I structure what I use in the classroom for maximum effectiveness at communication? Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, offers some advice for designing presentations effectively. Below is a small excerpt from one of his presentations, where he demonstrates that simplicity is much more effective than complex visual overwhelm.
Applying the Principles of Effective Visual Design
In my tenth grade science class, we are about to start a unit focused on Ecology and Evolution. One of the topics that we are going to cover in this unit is the global carbon cycle. The essential big idea that I hope students walk away with is that carbon atoms are not created or destroyed here on Earth, but are instead cycled through the biosphere by means of specific chemical processes. On top of this, students should aim to recognize the significant means of these transformations. (i.e. – What are the specific chemical processes that govern how carbon atoms move through the biosphere?) For those of you wanting to know more about the carbon cycle yourselves, allow Hank Green to explain below.
Visual infographics can play a key role in helping students to learn and understand complex concepts more easily. Most of us digest information more easily in a visual format. Click on the carbon cycle Wikipedia page. Where your eyes quickly drawn to the infographic on the right? (I bet they were!)
Using the Creative Commons search function, I found two different infographics representing the carbon cycle. By recognizing some of the key fundamental elements of good design, I decided which one I thought way more effective for use in my classroom. I have posted both infographics below, and labeled them Carbon Cycle 1 (CC1), and Carbon Cycle 2 (CC2), respectively.
(Carbon Cycle Info-graphic 1 (CC1)Image licensed under Creative Commons. Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/atmospheric-infrared-sounder/8263952221 Original image copyright 2010, GLOBE Carbon Cycle Project.)
(Carbon Cycle Info-graphic 2 (CC2)Image licensed under Creative Commons. Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carbon-cycle-full.jpg Original image copyright Scottish Centre for Carbon Storage.)
Before reading further, have a good look at each of the two info-graphics above. Each seeks to represent the global carbon cycle in a visual format. Which one would you choose to use in your classroom?
There are a number of reasons that I believe CC2 is a more effective visual aid than CC1.
Use of space.
Overall, CC2 is more visually appealing than CC1. Visually, CC1 is noisy, with arrows drawn seemingly haphazardly, at a variety of angles. Objects are closer to each other, giving the field a cluttered look. CC2 makes more effective use of space, giving larger spaces between arrows and labels.
Additionally, CC1 also displays numbers along with each arrow, in which the designer was clearly trying to incorporate quantitative data along with the graphic. But what do these numbers mean? One has to seek the fine print in the lower left corner to read the units to get any contextual meaning. Perhaps these data would have been better presented in a separate graph? I question whether the numbers add any value in conveying the big idea behind how carbon moves through the biosphere. CC2 does not try to quantify anything, and in this case I believe that less is clearly more. CC2’s simpler design is actually more effective at conveying the big idea – how carbon cycles through the biosphere.
Use of color.
The info-graphic CC2 has made effective use of color in highlighting different fundamental processes. Processes that release carbon into the atmosphere are red, while processes that sequester carbon into sinks are blue. This distinction is easy to grasp and understand. CC1 makes no such distinction between the colors of arrows, and all of them are red (except, somewhat inexplicably, the one drawn from “fossil fuels”.)
Use of words/labels.
CC1 labels each process, but offers nothing more than a name. CC2 takes a slightly more descriptive approach, and this can make all the difference for a learner seeking to understand a concept for the first time. Which is more descriptive? “Carbon enters soil via organic matter” (CC2) or “Litterfall” (CC1). Both are highlighting the same process (carbon re-entering the soil from the breakdown of organic matter) but CC2’s description is more helpful to the viewer/learner. I can understand the processes in CC1 just fine, but then again, I’m teaching the unit – not learning it for the first time!
Layout of the arrows.
Finally, CC2 clearly conveys the idea of a cycle. One can visually follow the flow of the arrows around the info-graphic, coming back around to wherever you began. Conversely, there is little visual evidence to suggest a cycle in CC1, as the arrows are drawn only in a (general) upwards or downwards direction. And one point I can’t help but wonder – why is one arrow dashed in CC1, but not the others?
Hopefully by now I’ve made a convincing case for why I’ve chosen to use CC2 over CC1 in my course. Did you agree with my thoughts regarding the two infographics? Would you have made the same choice that I did? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts, or being pointed in the direction of an even better infographic! Thanks for reading.