Advancing Visual Design Culture in STEM Laboratory Groups

Master of Design Thesis — Design Phase

Problem Space
It’s been a while since I’ve last updated on the progress of my graduate thesis work. In the few months since my last blog post, the overall trajectory of my work has remained largely the same, though the scope and focus are now significantly more defined. However, I feel that it’s important to touch on and reiterate the groundwork of my pursuits before launching into new developments. My thesis seeks to improve visual design culture within STEM laboratories. I intend to do this by exploring and proposing ways in which researchers can more naturally and intuitively self-educate themselves about visual design, without the presence and guidance of a designer-educator. In addition to providing guides for learning basic design principles, I believe that this might be done through introducing and encouraging researchers to engage in design critique. In order to determine what methods or tools might be most effective, I have conducted weekly observations of laboratory and graduate groups to evaluate their existing laboratory practices and overall internal culture. It should be noted that most research labs do review scientific visuals as groups, however, these evaluations are often unstructured, imprecise, and randomly conducted.

Read more about this here.

Between the months of September and December 2020, I reviewed existing literature to define the existing scope, areas of study, and current pursuits in the field of scientific communication through relevant books and published academic articles. At the same time, I was also reaching out to different labs across campus in order to observe their regular lab sessions so that I could see how they currently conduct feedback sessions and how often, if at all, visual feedback was a part of this process. Observing these labs and offering advice on their visuals for several months allowed me to build a working relationship and rapport with the students and P.I.s, as well as enable them to behave more naturally with my presence over time. When asked, all groups were receptive when I proposed using a pair of lab meeting sessions to teach a visual design and critique workshop. I elaborate on this more below, but to put it succinctly — I conducted introductory design workshops and measured the student’s interest and confidence in visual design before and after the workshop sessions through a pair of surveys. I did this in order to determine what elements of visual design are most specifically helpful to researchers, as well as what teaching methods are most effective and result in the most information retention. These insights from the workshops and surveys would inform the creation of my design solution, a scientific communication toolkit meant to help researchers self-teach themselves visual design methodology as well as learn the importance of and practice critique.

Overview
This academic quarter, the focus of my work was gathering the data necessary for creating an effective and desirable scientific communication toolkit and guide. Some of the main areas of concern I hoped to address were what areas of design or specific materials researchers were most interested in improving, what material resources they would find helpful or desirable, and what aspects of visual design they found most confusing and difficult to retain. This process consisted of hosting the aforementioned workshops, as well as conducting surveys with and gathering a selection of figures from participating groups. Below, I elaborate on the reasoning behind each of these steps, and how their results inform the rest of my thesis process.

2021 Visual Design Workshop Dates and Material Deadlines

Workshops and Pre-Readings
After conducting research on the current scope of scientific communication and the efforts that have been made to improve it, as well as building a working and observational relationship with several labs across campus, I ended the last quarter by organizing a series of design workshops with these labs that would occur between February and April 2021. These workshops would consist of two separate sessions and introduce the labs to both foundational design principles as well as visual critique theory and practice. Before the workshops, students were also asked to complete a reading and watch a short video which discussed basic visual design principles and the importance of practicing visual critique.

Visual Design Workshop Slides

Surveys and Figure Submission
While the workshops were the primary way to directly engage the laboratories in visual critique and discussion, the labs were also provided with a series of surveys in order to measure their understanding of visual design before and after the workshops. In addition to these surveys, participants were also asked to submit any scientific figures they’d like to develop or improve before the start of the main workshop.

Cheat Sheet
Between the main and critique workshop, students were given a visual design cheat sheet to help them during the latter workshop, as well as for general use when improving their own figures. This cheat sheet offered reminders on how to structure and conduct critique sessions, as well as an overview of the visual design principles covered during the main workshop. The cheat sheet consists of four pages: an introduction to visual critique and how to use it, a summary of critique structure and template for listing critique goals, a page for the participant to evaluate their own work, and a page briefly covering the elements of visual design.

Visual Design and Critique Cheatsheet

The Labs
The labs and graduate-level communications course I was observing since the middle of last quarter were the groups that participated in these workshops. Each group was given the same workshop, with the only thing differing element being the student-submitted figures discussed during the critique workshop. The labs and communications-course involved were as follows:

Next Steps
With the workshops completed, the after-workshop surveys being filled out, and the figures being resubmitted, there is a significant amount of data to sort and weave through in order to flesh out the next steps in moving towards an effective intervention. The next and final steps in this process are structured and will flow from one step to the next:

With a busy quarter ahead, I’m excited to dive into these final steps in my thesis. The journey has been incredibly rewarding, and it’s been a joy to work with a variety of interdisciplinary academic labs, even as we remain physically separate during the time of COVID-19. If you have found this work interesting, stay tuned for updates and discussions as I approach the final chapters of my graduate career.

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Vassilissa Semouchkina

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