Advancing Visual Design Culture in STEM Laboratory Groups

Vassilissa Semouchkina
10 min readApr 28, 2021

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.

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.

  • The Main Workshop : a 1-hour workshop centered on how advancing visual communication skills can help researchers improve and make clear the meaning of their scientific visuals. This was done through exploring various visual elements, as well as arranging, composing, and drawing attention to these elements. This workshop explained the importance and use of various foundational design principles, such as contrast/hierarchy, space/proximity, unity, flow, and color. Following the definition and exploration of these foundational principles, examples of scientific visuals before and after they were improved through utilizing these various design principles were shown. In addition to showing the improved scientific figures to show a positive change in informational clarity, the group was asked to comment on the original scientific figures beforehand in order to postulate their own best guesses on how to improve them. This workshop also briefly covered more literal design issues, such as general visual design guidelines for layout, text, and images. Following the workshop, researchers were asked to submit a figure that they would like to improve for use in the follow-up critique workshop, and were given a visual design “cheat sheet” to help them remember the various design principles.
  • The Critique Workshop : a 30-minute workshop centered around the benefits and process of visual critique. This workshop first covered what design critique is and how it could be a critical and easily introduced step in STEM labs for improving scientific visuals without the presence of a design professional. In addition to covering critique structure and practice, the majority of the workshop focused on a peer critique of the submitted figures from the previous session, during which students could reference their design “cheat sheets” in order to better focus their suggestions. Following the workshop, students were asked to consider their peers’ advice and submit a reworked figure in two weeks’ time.
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.

  • Pre-Workshop Survey : This 15-minute survey was given to participants a week before the main workshop. The survey gathered and documented the participants: 1) general background information and academic rank, 2) current utilization of and experience with scientific figures, 3) knowledge of visual design, 4) training in visual design, 5) opinion of what makes a successful figure, 6) a personal assessment of their own visual design skills, as well as other important foundational information. In addition to these more personal and opinion-based questions, participants were given 5 pre-selected figures to visually assess and critique, in order to measure the quality of their comments and understanding of design flaws before being introduced to foundational design theory.
  • Post-Workshop Survey : This 10-minute survey was given to participants directly after the conclusion of the critique workshop. This survey modeled similarly to the pre-workshop survey, but removed more constant background questions. The similarity was intentional, in order to document variances in participants’ responses before and after the workshops and ascertain the change in their understanding and confidence in using visual design principles.
  • Cheat Sheet Survey : This 4-minute survey was given to participants a month after the conclusion of the critique workshop. This brief survey asked participants if they had been using the visual design cheat sheet since the conclusion of the workshops, and if so, what about it they found helpful as well as what they thought might improve the cheat sheet and make it more desirable for future use.
  • Figure Submission : Figures were collected from the workshop participants in two parts: 1) before the main workshop, and 2) two weeks after the conclusion of the critique workshop. The first submission was done in order to gather unedited, ‘baseline’ figures from the participants. After going through both workshops, participants were then asked to rework and resubmit their improved figures, which would hopefully be somewhat improved and easier to understand.

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:

  • The Engage Seminar : a science speaker series and seminar focused on training graduate students communication skills in order to help foster public understanding of the sciences.
  • The Averkiou Lab : a biomedical science lab focused on developing imaging and therapy ultrasound technologies in order to bring image-guided ultrasound-mediated drug delivery in clinical trials.
  • The Pun Lab : a bioengineering lab focused on developing bioinspired materials to advance drug delivery and molecular imaging technologies, utilizing techniques from engineering, chemistry, and cell biology.
  • The Cossairt Lab : a synthetic inorganic chemistry lab focused on building up inorganic nanostructures for targeted applications in light emission, energy harvesting, and catalysis.
  • The Swann Lab : an ecoclimate lab studying how plants and climate interact with one another by understanding the physical climate system and the underlying biological process that govern ecosystems and characterize their response to environmental variability and change.

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:

  • Evaluating Improvement in Student Figures : After all labs and groups have submitted their improved figures, it will be important to have designers and scientists not familiar with the details of the workshop review the figures without signifying which variations are ‘before’ and which are ‘after’. To ensure further fairness in terms of judging, those who will be reviewing the figures will also be given a rubric so that I might better and more fairly compare and consolidate the designers’ and scientists’ respective grades.
  • Gathering and Sorting Researcher Insights and Areas of Interest : In addition to the evaluation of scientific figures mentioned above, it will be essential to sort the data gathered from the surveys in order to determine what parts of the workshop were most effective and important to the participants. These insights will help inform what subject areas and materials are most essential to cover when creating materials for researchers to self-educate themselves in visual design, as well as learn, practice, and retain critique practices.
  • Building the Scientific Communication Toolkit : After gathering and sorting the participant’s insights and preferences regarding design materials and education, it will be time to create the product of the 4 months of observations and workshops: the scientific communication toolkit. This toolkit will include a selection of materials meant to help researchers quickly learn and review various visual design principles, guides for reviewing their personal work in relation to the criteria, critique guidelines, as well as other materials related to practicing engaging and helpful critique. This toolkit will be designed to be available both physically and digitally: the digital components will be convenient and easily portable as well as generally accessible through digital means.
  • Preparing for the Henry Art Gallery Exhibition : Following the affirmative from the Henry Art Gallery regarding the graduate thesis exhibition, I will also be developing a way to showcase the breadth of my research and survey results, as well as the resulting scientific communication toolkit, in the physical space of a gallery.
  • Preparing Results and Product for Publication : In addition to all of the previous steps mentioned, I hope to document the research I’ve conducted over the course of the academic year and the resultant findings through a formal publication. This publication would be submitted to an academic journal, such as the Information Design Journal or Design Studies.

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.



Vassilissa Semouchkina

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