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Science communication
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The role of design in science communication

Submitted by Lizzie Crouch and Anne Odling-Smee
For the British Science Association Science Communication Conference 2014
17 April 2014

We believe there is a critical, yet often overlooked link between science and design, and a growing need for increased collaboration between the two fields.

This belief has motivated us – Design Science’s Anne Odling-Smee and Lizzie Crouch, creative producer Ellen Dowell and interactive designer Andrew Friend – to raise the question, ‘Why does science need design?’ at this year’s BSA Science Communication Conference.

We know through our own projects that there is an appetite for interdisciplinary work between design and science. Design Science has been commissioned by researchers to design printed material, events, websites and films to communicate their work, whilst Ellen Dowell and Andrew Friend have collaborated with scientists to produce interactive experiences that enable audiences to engage with scientific research, stimulating dialogue and discussion.

Responses to these projects have demonstrated that the fields of design and science can undoubtedly benefit one another. Yet despite this, science and science communication communities remain mostly either ignorant, or sceptical of the value of design. Even if the value of working together is recognised, knowledge or experience about how to initiate or sustain successful collaborations is invariably insufficient.

The reason for this mostly boils down to a lack of understanding between the two fields. It is evident from discussions we have had that major misconceptions exist about a) what design is, and b) how science works. Learning about each other’s fields is crucial, both for enabling and for promoting future collaborations. But overcoming stereotypical perceptions about these subjects is not without its challenges. Critical issues such as language come to play; time and again we find ourselves having to contend with miscommunications based on our different vocabularies, giving the illusion that science and design are inherently incompatible.

It is neither an easy journey nor a short one, but the panel members are making progress down this road. Alongside an ongoing programme of projects, events and publications, Design Science is providing design workshops for scientists and researchers, helping them to engage with what designers do and how they work, while simultaneously preparing for a parallel series of workshops that will teach designers about science communication. Meanwhile, Ellen and Andrew are experimenting with ways of integrating design into public engagement through science-related projects, bringing scientists and designers together in unexpected ways.

Through such projects we aim, on the one hand to demonstrate the role that design can have in communicating science, and on the other, to help designers’ understanding of science so that they can perform their role within this field more effectively.

As knowledge about the benefits of connecting science with design grows, so we hope funding pots for such work will start to be released. In the arts and other disciplines the value of design is well recognised, and subsequently funds are often readily available. This is not the case in science. We have encountered situations where, despite researchers being keen to work with us, the institutions they work for have not been able (or wanted) to allocate money to the project. What fails to be recognised is that, through intelligent use of tools and resources, design can lead to a better outcome, and for less money.

In the same way that scientists recognise the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in research, whether this be between biologists and engineers, or sociologists and computer modellers, we think it is crucial that science communicators need to realise the value of investing in design expertise.

Only through an appreciation of each other’s subjects, then through funds allocated to prospective projects, can effective collaborations be built and the full potential of multidisciplinary collaborations be realised.

We hope that our session at the conference will inspire further discussion about what collaborations with design, and designers, can bring to science communication.

  • Science Communication Conference 2014