Archive for September 10th, 2012


see it their way

Post from Alan S. Brown

Alan Brown

There is no denying the importance of visualization in engineering and science. We have all staggered our bewildered way through textbooks, presentations, and papers, only to come to that one illustration that suddenly clarifies the point for us—or not.

Most engineering communications have plenty of pictures and illustrations, but not all of them make their point in ways that create those “ah-ha” moments. In fact, argues Felice Frankel, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, many of those illustrations can be interpreted only by experts in the same sub-disciplines as the researchers who created them. To reach a larger audience—and produce more ah-ha moments—engineers and researchers must rethink how they communicate visually.

Frankel, who is also a photographer and designer, has created an eye-popping little book to help you do just that. It is called Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers. Her co-author is Angela DePace, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology.

Designer Steve Heller, last year noted that many scientific illustrations make basic design mistakes that make them harder to understand and actually reduce the amount of information they convey.

Frankel agreed, noting that engineers and scientists never take these type of “design” courses, and thus feel uncomfortable developing something as subjective as a visual style. This is especially true when it strays from what they see in other papers and presentations. So while an engineer might be wildly creative in thinking about a problem, he or she may stick to known recipes when it comes to representing issues visually.

One example in the book involves an explosion. These are often visualized in multiple colors. Frankel and DePace suggest eliminating the color in all but the section where it matters. The result is a graphic that shouts out what is important.

Another example involved showing how water dropped onto a gold surface pattered with hydrophobic lines did not spread across the lines. The original picture was a gold monochrome with several barely perceptible water droplets on it. The authors recreated the picture, dying the water and coloring the surface so that the droplets appeared to pop off the surface.

The authors offer some advice for researchers looking to speak to a broader audience. First, know who you are addressing and how they will use the information. Then decide on whether you want an illustration, chart, sketch, or photo. Organize the illustration to make your point, and reduce or eliminate elements that serve no purpose. Use color to highlight the important part.

The book offers 160 pages of suggestions, but its heart is page after page of original and redesigned illustrations and the rationale behind them. The book’s website also includes some visual classics. It is well worth checking out.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

September 2012

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