An Example of Visual Literacy in the High School Science Classroom

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:  Original image copyright 2010, GLOBE Carbon Cycle Project.)

(Carbon Cycle Info-graphic 2 (CC2)Image licensed under Creative Commons. Photo credit:  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.

3 thoughts on “An Example of Visual Literacy in the High School Science Classroom

  1. Hey Brian!

    Great post! I love how you applied the learning directly into choosing an infographic to use in your class.

    I definitely agree with you on CC2 being the better of the two images to use here. It’s less cluttered and easier to follow. When I look closely at CC1 my eyes kind of go everywhere and do not know where to begin focusing, but with CC2 I see the cycle and know I can start at any point and follow it around.

    I completely agree with what you say in the beginning about the importance of using good visuals to communicate and developing better critical thinking skills in our students. Rory’s post ( on focusing for week 2 talks about the need to explicitly teach critical thinking and how he can use visuals to do this. I’ve found that Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking Routines are helpful in developing student’s ability to think more critically about the world around them. Some routines are specific to visuals (like See/Think/Wonder) and using them helps explicitly teach them to use thinking patterns that will train them to think more critically if they practice the routines enough to make them a habit.

    As I read your post I was wondering how you could take this a step further with your students to help them learn the importance of visuals and maybe after teaching them the cycle using CC2 you could then show them both CC1 and CC2 and help them reason why it was more helpful to use CC2. Then (time permitting) allow them to create a better visual or to search online to find other visuals for the cycle that would be better… then they learn to value the visuals as well and will start to seek out better looking visuals for learning and curating their own work. Maybe they’ll also start to create better visuals also for work they complete after beginning to consider some of the key factors to making a good, useful visual. That’s just a thought, not sure if you have time to do that kind of thing. I might try it myself in a class to have them compare visuals on a given topic.

    Did you end up using CC2 with your students?


  2. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for the feedback! I did use CC2 with my students this week. I have not shown them CC1 yet, but I love your idea and will show them both and ask them directly which they prefer.

    Thanks again!


  3. Hi Brian,

    I love the first two sentences in your blog. This is what engaged me to continue to read your post. “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.” I have been preaching this same concept for the last 5 years. I am always talking about how important design and visual design are so key in any subject, but most definitely science. Science is one of those subjects that really requires the students to read, write, follow instructions, write their instructions clearly and present designs and ideas for the projects. Like you mention, this is critical to their communication within their notes, their research and their experiments.

    I totally agree with your conclusions of CC1 and CC2. CC2 represents the carbon cycle so much clearer. It’s visually clearer, not only because of the use of space and colors but also with the use of symbols. CC1 is confusing in many ways because the arrows go both directions, but they are only red. CC2 makes this distinction much clearer because the outtake arrows are red and the intake arrows are blue. This allows you to immediately see which is which – so important to catch your viewer’s eye quickly. I also like how CC2 represents a full cycle, showing students how it is all interconnected.

    Like in your post I would also choose CC2 over CC1. I think that before having taken this course I still would have chosen CC2 over CC1, because it is more visually pleasing, shows a cycle and is much easier to understand that CC1. However, having completed the course – I can now identify with and understand my thinking a little deeper as to why I would have chosen CC2 over CC1.

    I wonder what your students would have said. Have you ever given them the challenge of finding an infographic to use in class, maybe even have them “teach” a small portion of what they are learning about to the other students through using an infographic? I think this would be neat to see what the students would pick as a way to portray information. How are they processing the information? What makes a good learning tool for them?

    I am excited to explore trying to make an animated infographic. It’ll likely be my students who will end up being given the challenge to create one – but I am definitely excited to try. I didn’t find an animated one for the carbon cycle (although you are likely done with that for now). But here is the link (? to some of the other websites that have some interesting animated infographics, but also a link ( to how to create one!

    Chat again soon!


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