Advancing Visual Design Culture in STEM Laboratory Groups

2021 Visual Design Workshop Dates and Material Deadlines
  • 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
  • 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.
Visual Design and Critique Cheatsheet
  • 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.
  • 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.



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Vassilissa Semouchkina

Vassilissa Semouchkina

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