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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)
  • Science needs funding pots for design

    Submitted by Lizzie Crouch and Anne Odling-Smee
    1 November 2013

    Through intelligent use of tools and resources, design can lead to a better outcome, and for less money

    On Monday, hosted by the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Science Museum and the Design Museum, held an event ‘to bring together leading thinkers in design and science to discuss how greater collaboration can drive forward the UK economy.’ Having been established in 2011 in response to the gap that was observed between these two industries, this was an event that caught our eye at DesignScience.

    The debate examined the critical, yet often overlooked, link between science and design and the need for even greater collaboration between them. At the end of the evening recommendations were put forward for consideration by David Willetts, Minister for Science and Universities, which encompassed some of the conversations we have had at DesignScience over the last two years. This blog post is our response to them.

    We certainly welcome the recommendation that more funding should go into multidisciplinary collaborations involving science and design. In the arts and other disciplines, the value of design is well recognised and subsequently there are funds allocated towards design work. This is not the case in science. We have frequently 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.

    We know there is an appetite for projects that encourage interdisciplinary work between design and science. And we aren’t alone. The Wellcome Trust – a leading authority in the scientific world – is increasingly aware of how design (as distinct from art) can influence and improve science, and visa versa. This year DesignScience, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Royal College of Art and Institute of Education, have been shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust’s Hub Award (an initiative that will provide resources and a stimulating space through which researchers and other creative minds can collaborate). A key aim of our proposal is to apply design to science and science to design, to develop innovative ways of doing each through a two-way exchange.

    This feedback system between science and design is at the heart of the work we do at DesignScience. It is evident from projects we have worked on, and from the reactions to our work (such as the positive receptions to our production of ‘Litmus Paper’ at Cheltenham Festivals and our workshop for the British Science Association) that these fields can benefit each other. As David Bott said on behalf of the speakers at the Science Museum, ‘it is important to celebrate the successes of joint working [between science and design]’.

    However, the most vital point is that along with increased funding towards collaborations and multidisciplinary work needs to come education. It was clear from the discussion at the Innovate UK event that major misunderstandings exist about a) what design is and b) how science works. Overcoming stereotypical perceptions about these subjects is vital, but not without its challenges. In our recent article ‘What can design do for science, and science do for design?’ we discuss this, stating our own definition of design as ‘being concerned with ideas and problem solving on technical, functional, aesthetic, economic and socio-political levels’.

    As noted by the Science Museum speakers, language is another critical issue. We find ourselves constantly having to contend with language miscommunications that give the illusion of science and design being inherently incompatible. Our design guides for scientists are presented in a ‘neutral’ language to help try to address this, and we are working on a subsequent series of guides that similarly try to educate designers about science and the languages associated with it.

    Through our work, such as online publications and workshops that introduce basic skills and show their application, 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 they can perform their role within this field more effectively. 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.

    The notion of Minister for Universities & Science taking on the responsibility of being an acting Minister for Design, as recommended by the speakers at the Design Museum, seems like a good step forward.

  • Science Meets Design event at the Science Museum