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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
  • The problem with ‘infographics’

    Submitted by Anne Odling-Smee
    From introduction at the British Library Data Visualisation event
    28 February 2013

    I’m a designer – the type that used to be known as graphic designer before the internet effectively kiboshed the term – but broadly speaking I deal with communicating information. In 2011 I set up my second design company with three other colleagues called DesignScience, largely in response to some of the issues around visual communication we’re discussing tonight, and because I come from a science family. Alongside this I’m a part time teacher on a new course called Communication Design at Central Saint Martins. It was through this I realised the full extent to which my industry is responsible for the ‘public’’s usually very forgivable misunderstandings around data interpretation.

    My main concern is with information conveyed by scientific data. The ability of people to understand science largely depends on their ability to interpret data correctly and their ability to understand the processes of science. But for all of its relevance and natural appeal to humans and to children who want to understand how their world works, scientific data are often widely misunderstood.

    The most obvious reason for this is that although scientific data are factual, assuming they are based on accurate observations and measurements, their interpretation is always provisional, probabilistic and hypothetical. Science can never offer absolute certainty. Non-scientists often misunderstand this point.

    Humans struggle with uncertainty, and designers in particular typically yearn to make order out of chaos due to the organisational nature of their work. Uncertain information is more difficult to communicate than are fixed data. The desire of designers to ‘clean up data’ and make them look beautiful at the surface level can corrupt the underlying message the data are really communicating.

    Beautiful ‘info-graphics’ like these [not pictured here] are exactly the type scientists can’t stand, and rightfully so. I’ve spent many a tutorial scolding students in my objection to these self indulgent and ultimately useless outputs! But the desire for aesthetic beauty is very dominating.

    As any mathematician will tell you, beauty doesn’t exist only on the aesthetic level, but equally on a conceptual level. The principle of form following function is imperative for effective design communication, but as an industry we need to get much better at prioritising content over appearance. Only then will we realise that fixed info-graphics may be the least helpful means of communicating science.

    The possibilities of programming are far more promising when it comes to tackling the challenging issue of communicating uncertainty. Through programming (which we actually believe could be a shared language between design and science) recipients can participate with their data without that data having to be cleaned up, so enabling them to really understand what it means.

    But it’s not just designers’ fault that they are struggling to know how to communicate science. Design as a profession didn’t exist until 60 or 70 years ago. Now we’re pandemic, as the information age provides ever-growing demands for dissemination of data of all kinds.

    Design courses are situated within art schools through an assumed affiliation, based on our traditional routes which are now long outdated. This encourages a tendency towards aesthetic- rather than content-driven solutions, and students graduate believing that it’s quite OK to make things look good even if the content is at best unintelligible, at worst misleading, or even fraudulent.

    This affiliation with art causes confusion both amongst designers, and amongst anyone wishing to employ our services. 90% of conversations I have with scientists who I am introducing to DesignScience don’t go anywhere until it’s been understood that designers are not artists, and that we need have no more to do with art than with any other subject.

    Design can only communicate a subject when the designer sufficiently understands the subject. This can only be achieved if the design and subject specialist understand each other. In my view communication design courses should be situated alongside schools of all subject matters, in all countries, so by being in the vicinity of those subjects we could learn how to communicate them.

    Designers coming out of art schools today are poorly educated about science so don’t know how to work with scientists. At present scientists don’t find designers useful and don’t understand their potential usefulness. For this reason designers and scientists aren’t working together. My students are only 5% British so this may be a global problem. It comes down to a long-embedded science vs arts split in education that seems to happen in schools in many countries.

    Our aim at DesignScience is to start rectifying this by a) showing what design can do for science through projects, publications, workshops and events, and b) encouraging a generation of design students to learn how to work with science and scientists so as to be able to provide a useful resource that is so desperately needed, showing that data CAN be informative, as well as look beautiful.

  • Martin Krzywinski, Circles of Life, 2013 (© Martin Krzywinski)