Advancing Visual Design Culture in STEM Laboratory Groups

Master of Design Thesis — Research Phase

In my life, I have always been surrounded by science and academia. My grandparents were professors and engineers, all but a few of my relatives are faculty, and my parents — well, I’m sure you can guess by now. Before I started graduate school, I even worked as a designer and scientific communication specialist for Michigan Technological University, a leading STEM university. All that to say, I have spent my life immersed in the scientific community — and though my own academic interests took a different turn (hint: design), I wanted to be involved in the sciences as much as possible.

There was just one problem. While my parents and relatives took the time to help me understand their work, drawing out explanatory diagrams and schematics on napkins at the dinner table, when I would tag along on academic conferences, it was like walking into an intellectual brick wall. The posters, the presentations — nothing made sense. Nothing, well, communicated.

Clearly, there are issues with scientific communication, and unfortunately, these issues are widespread. Not only do researchers have trouble explaining their work to their own communities, but there is a growing public distrust of science. I experienced this firsthand when working for the aforementioned STEM university, which boasted an impressive research reputation while being nestled in a remote, rural community. The population there was like a microcosm of American society. While at my job, I was constantly surrounded by essential, innovative work and the university researchers who did it, however, in leaving campus and interacting with community locals, there was a disconnect. Many so-called “townies” didn’t understand, trust, or even believe in the science that was being worked on just blocks away from their homes.

I’m not the first to notice this problem. Many universities and communication specialists focus their attention on bettering scientific communication — there are workshops, online resources, classes, and even help desks available to assist researchers in creating better scientific graphics. Clear, informative visuals are a tried and tested pathway for furthering accessible, memorable scientific communication — we associate many of the most profound ideas in modern science with corresponding visuals, from Crick’s DNA Double Helix to Mendaleev’s Periodic Table. However, despite widespread agreement that visual communication can be essential to advancing science, the overall level of visual design in scientific communication (i.e., in figures, posters, and presentation) remains relatively low. I believe that the existing approaches to visual design education for researchers may be too limited, and that in order to be more effective, a more robust solution that encourages long-term self-education may need to be embedded in the natural working process of researchers and their research laboratories.

Considering my background in visual communication design, data visualization, and scientific communication, I think the key is to change the culture and attitude of researchers towards visual design, starting in their research laboratories. I believe that research labs are unique, collaborative environments that structure and sustain scientific progress and learning. These labs are hierarchical, meet weekly or biweekly, and already induce a certain level of critique, though this is seldom focused on the quality and communicative value of visuals.

Principle Investigators (PI) act as the lead researchers for laboratory studies or clinical trials

Specifically, I believe that learning to participate in visual design critiques could greatly improve a researcher’s attitude toward visual communication while also building their visual design skills. In short, by inducing critique culture in research labs, an entire lab group can collectively self-improve the quality of their visuals over time.

In order to teach effective visual critique skills to lab groups, I propose conducting a workshop and creating a series of tools and resources that help researchers to learn and remember visual principles and to give and receive visual feedback based on these principles. The workshop, tools and resources will be based on existing literature, interviews with sci-viz experts, and observations of the operation and structure of research lab groups. I plan to test this workshop and toolkit intervention on five lab groups at UW to see if it actually works — if it increases the skills and abilities of STEM researchers to produce effective visual designs.

UW 2021 MDes Poster Show: Research Progress

Considering the problem space and my research thus far, I want to propose a solution that is enduring and internal to research culture — an intervention that would be both realistic and able to more easily assimilate into scientific culture. I argue that it is important to create tools for researchers to learn, maintain, and self-critique the visual qualities of their work, so that design might become less of an extra obligation and more of a sustainable, organic step of the process. While there are existing interventions, these are often external, single-instance, or short-term efforts that are not reinforced once the participant leaves the workshop environment. Instead, I propose intervening in a way that would integrate easily with research process and procedure. This intervention would need to occur in an environment that can voluntarily sustain continuous practice and learning. Specifically, I propose intervening at the level of the research laboratory. Utilizing this environment, I hope to introduce a multi-step intervention that will include tools that encourage researchers to create and discuss visuals critically on an ongoing basis.

In order to find effective ways to create an initial workshop and future intervention, I conducted primary and secondary research through reading theoretical literature and related research, participated in expert interviews, and met weekly to observe four research laboratories.

1. Secondary Research on the Scope of the Problem
I began my research by reviewing related theoretical and research-based literature on the subjects of scientific visual communication, critique culture, and public perceptions of science. This research assists me in better framing the problem space, gaining an understanding of the successes and shortcomings of existing resources, and theorizing on new and potentially impactful solutions.

2. Primary Research through Interviews
I conducted expert interviews with four researchers and professionals who have practiced or participated in scientific communication training, including a Rice University Visual Communication and Design Instructor, an experimental physicist who specializes in creating scientific visualizations for STEM researchers, and a climate change post-Doctoral researcher who has taken visual design courses and organized design+science workshops. These interviews have given me further insight into the current status of scientific communication education — most significantly, what resources are currently popular, what labs I might reach out to, what has and hasn’t worked in the past, as well as what solutions might be more effective than others.

3. Primary Research on the Setting/Laboratory Environment
In order to determine what solutions and assets might be most conducive to laboratory environments, I connected with four laboratories across the University of Washington campus, which focus on biochemistry, ecoclimate, bioengineering, and chemistry. I have reached out to an additional lab and hope to connect with others during the winter quarter. Most labs meet weekly, with the exception of the bioengineering lab that meets every two weeks, and conduct sessions lasting between one and three hours. Thus far, I have attended four meetings of each lab. During laboratory meetings, I observe how laboratories currently operate, maintain internal structure and hierarchy, and conduct feedback-focused sessions. These observations help structure and frame my future intervention. I also occasionally observe a design course focused on introducing non-majors to introductory principles of visual design, in order to see what early design lessons are most important and effective.

Through conducting extensive lab observations, I have gained significant insight into researcher’s pain points and opportunities in visual design and will use this information to help frame my future intervention.

1. Many researchers are openly interested in visual communication. They want to be able to talk about and improve their visuals and graphics, but often lack the skills to do so. And while there are some existing resources available, most researchers don’t seem aware of them. The availability of these resources is not adequately communicated to them, and even if researchers do find ways to participate, there are often no follow-up sessions or ways to assist them in retaining learning.

2. Overall, researchers prefer ‘quick fix’ solutions to their design problems. They often don’t have time to commit to extensive, extracurricular training. Most researchers don’t seem interested in design theory or more open-ended solutions and instead prefer just being told what they can do to ensure consistently successful visuals, almost like a checklist.

3. While most researchers appear to know that visual design and the communicative qualities of their work are important, they don’t seem to know how to best put this understanding into practice. When P.I.s [principle investigators] and students discuss improving their visuals and graphics, they veer towards hosting a single day workshop or session, often close to a submission deadline for an important deliverable. There is no continuous visual education or critique sustained throughout lab meetings when discussing research progress, although frustrations with the clarity of text and graphics are often brought up extraneously.

4. When researchers present, they rely almost exclusively on graphics and diagrams to explain their work. There seems to be a general consensus across labs that having walls of text is an inadequate way to communicate research findings, however, these visuals are most often used as placeholders for detailed talking points or text. Most P.I. and peer feedback on presentation slides is centered on elaborating the meanings of different visuals. This suggests that the graphics are not effectively helping the researcher as a visual aid.

5. When reviewing figures with the intention of improving them, the visual qualities of a graphic are seldom the focus. Most critiques concentrate on content, making sure that figures show all necessary information and intended concepts. While this may seem like a move in the right direction, most P.I. and peer suggestions focus on packing a figure with extra information, leading to issues with overcomplicating and over-explaining with a single figure, instead of perhaps using multiple related, but separate, figures.

I will next use my gathered data, topical knowledge, and theory-based insights to develop what I hope to be an effective and enduring design intervention. In forming connections with four University of Washington laboratories, I’ve found myself with a unique design opportunity to create, refine, and ensure that the workshops and materials I create are effective, enduring, and interesting to both graduate and professional students and faculty.

Workshops
In addition to surveying researchers, I will conduct workshops with the labs I’m observing in order to introduce them to visual communication design methods and principles. I hope to use these workshops as a form of research to glean what methods, lessons, and approaches are most helpful, retentive, and effective for researchers. These additional insights will be important in developing a final intervention, and I have already garnered research lab interest in these workshops. I have been (enthusiastically) invited to run visual communication workshops in all of the laboratories I’m observing. I will also be running a workshop at Engage, a UW Science Speaker Series and Seminar.

Surveys
Through observing research laboratories, I have informally gathered insights on how researchers currently utilize visual design in order to help shape my future intervention. In addition to these observations, I hope to formally survey research laboratories’ P.I.s and groups before and after my intervention in order to get a more concrete understanding of their baseline and post-observation experiences, resources, knowledge, and comfort in using visual communication principles. I will evaluate how researcher’s answers have changed between the before and after surveys and measure to what extent. While these surveys have been created, I haven’t been able to share them with researchers yet, having just been approved to do so after an IRB review. An IRB [Institutional Review Board] review entails the University of Washington Human Subjects Division evaluating the surveys to verify that they are an ethical form of research.

Toolkit
Based on my primary and secondary research, as well as the results of the workshops and surveys, I plan to create a comprehensive toolkit which will help research laboratories sustain and practice visual critique. This toolkit will be an essential part of my intervention, in that it will help foster ongoing visual critique without the presence or instruction of a designer. In order to better embed consistent visual design practice in research culture and laboratory procedure, this toolkit will contain a variety of materials and assets designed to help researchers learn critique methods and engage in constructive feedback sessions.

Publication
To summarize the results of my research, workshops, and surveys, I hope to write and publish an academic paper. This paper will cover my methods and contributions to the scientific communication community and explore the process, research, and reasoning behind the development of the scientific communication toolkit.

MDes 2021. University of Washington. From Saint Petersburg, Russia to Seattle, WA.