Advancing Visual Design Culture in STEM Laboratory Groups

The Research Problem: Poor Scientific Visualizations

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.

Hypothesis: Encouraging Critique in Research Labs

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
UW 2021 MDes Poster Show: Research Progress

Potential Solutions

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.

Initial Research

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.

Lab Observation Findings

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.

Future Directions (Next Steps)

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.



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Vassilissa Semouchkina

Vassilissa Semouchkina

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