The art of communicating science

For 10 weeks this summer, Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) undergraduate fellows are working to develop and enhance their investigative skills.

But, as students in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program (SURF) discovered in a recent workshop, conducting scientific research is, by itself, not enough. They also have to communicate about their work and convey the importance of their findings.

poster design2
RI NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship students collaborate on their group poster design.

Upon completing their research experience, the SURF students will present their findings at the 7th Annual RI SURF Conference on Friday, Aug. 1. To prepare, they spent a recent morning at Rhode Island School of Design, learning about the components of visual communication and gaining new perspective on how they might design an effective scientific poster.

“I tend to think of posters more like exhibits,” explained Neal Overstrom, director of the RISD Edna Lawrence Nature Lab. “How do we think about attracting people? How do we communicate with text and images?”

Typically, scientists may not spend much time thinking about how to communicate their research, when all their time and energy are focused on the research itself.  However, communicating the science — to peers and to the general public — plays a critical role in furthering the research, promoting understanding and generating support.

Jim Lemire, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR undergraduate research coordinator, said traditional scientific posters do a poor job of actually communicating science since they often are treated as an extension of, or an enlarged version of, a journal article, which is a completely different communication medium.

“The idea behind the science poster design workshop is twofold,” said Lemire, also an adjunct professor, biology and marine biology, at Roger Williams University. “One, to emphasize the importance of paying attention to how they, as scientists, communicate their work; and, two, to provide them with some basic tools and training in visual communication that they can incorporate into their scientific posters.”

Although, a three-hour workshop is not enough time to completely change how scientific posters are created, Lemire said the intention was to provide students with some concepts to think about as they prepare for the SURF conference and journey their educational and career paths.

Elements of poster design

Overstrom encouraged the students to think of people engaging with their posters as they would an exhibit. With that in mind, he said there were five points to consider:

poster design

• People spend less than one minute at each exhibit: Create a narrative and draw people in. Think about the research question and why the finding is important. Expand on that core idea, using images and text to set the stage.

• Color, movement and interactivity make an exhibit interesting: Use these tools to create a flow of information and direct people in a natural sequence.

• Exhibits are experienced from afar and up close: Think about the hierarchy of information —title, details, and method. Also, contemplate scale and size of graphics, images and information.

• Great exhibits can tell a story without using words: Pay attention to diagrams, graphs and images.

• Engaging exhibits pass the fingerprint test: Don’t underestimate the power of compelling graphics or images.

Overstrom also highlighted some of the key questions for students to ask themselves as they design their posters: What am I trying to convey? Why should someone care about my project? What am I adding to the current knowledge or body of work? What is important or unique about my methods? What have I learned?

“Think about your poster as a three-dimensional space with implied depth. Think about it as a window. Guide the viewer, establish a narrative, and impart a voice. Draw someone in from afar and then reward them.”

RISD graphic designer Micah Barrett gave the group pointers about capitalization, color and space.

Using all capitals may seem like emphasis, but doing so turns text into an unrecognizable rectangular. Color can be used for function as well as aesthetics, making larger forms recede or pop out. And, just because information is important doesn’t mean it has to be the biggest element.

“Think about your poster as a three-dimensional space with implied depth,” Barrett said. “Think about it as a window. Guide the viewer, establish a narrative, and impart a voice. Draw someone in from afar and then reward them.”

Acknowledgments and references are important, Barrett said, but think of them more in terms of credits or a bibliography when picking out font and letter size.

cut and paste2Cut, paste & critique

Engaging the students deeper into the design process, Overstrom and Barrett divided them into small groups and handed out text, images, scissors, glue, and markers, with the instructions to create a scientific poster.

“Don’t try to figure it out in your head,” Barrett advised. “Sketch it out. When we’re done, we’ll step back, critique, and look at your work.”

The critique process practiced at RISD, said Overstrom, offers an opportunity to share the thought and work processes. The critique also provides the chance to talk about any problems encountered and ways to resolve them.

The students took turns presenting their group efforts, explaining why they chose a particular font (serif or sans serif) or used a design element, whether they cut along an image outline or opted for a brown paper background against white, and how they promoted eye movement.

During the critique portion of the workshop, students talk about how they approached the project and what ideas fed into their design decisions.

Barrett pointed out the importance of hanging the posters on the wall and taking a step back to look: “At RISD, we don’t just print at the end. We print at the beginning, the middle, the end, and back at the beginning. We are constantly looking at our work on the wall, standing back.”

All but one of the groups designed horizontal posters, which prompted discussion.

Barrett noted, “The vertical structure gives built-in gravity. You’re moving naturally left to right and top to bottom. You don’t have to try so hard to guide someone. But, if you take this to a convention, you might freak everyone out. People will say, ‘Did you see that jerk with the vertical poster?’ But, deviation from the norm might be a good thing.”

Lemire mused, “I don’t know why we’re stuck on horizontal. I think you get used to seeing it, so that’s what you do.”

Overstrom advised students to continually think of available tools; that today’s paper posters soon will be obsolete as interactive, flat screen technology takes hold: “The principle behind everything we’re doing is universal in terms of communication. In a few years, rather than a static poster, it will be dynamic — a completely different mode of communication. You’ll look at a graph, blow it up, and be able to take a look at the data behind it.”

Ryan Quinn, studying Biological Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, found the design session prompted an entirely new perspective, reflecting afterward, “I always knew posters were an integral part of scientific communication, but I never thought about how important it is to make the research I am presenting look interesting from far away.”

Heather Nicholson, a Biology major with minors in Environmental Studies and Chemistry at Salve Regina University, echoed the sentiment, “As scientists, we are often so focused on the data and results that we may forget to consider colors, placement, and how to catch people’s interest by getting creative with our posters.

“The poster design session has really gotten us to start thinking outside the box when it comes to presenting our research, which will be a great way to help get our messages across to the wider, unscientific public.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle