Visual Communication

“Visual Scientific Communication” (updated)

Notes from today’s workshop and seminar

DePace workshop notes

We need to learn how to assess whether graphics work. 

When do we use graphics?

  1. presentations (review, research article),
  2. posters (print, static, big, far away, noisy),
  3. publications (print, PDF, static, usu.not.interactive small, close),
  4. outreach,
  5. website,
  6. proposals,
  7. conversation (don’t get too hung up on your drawing, napkins, chalkboard, hand motions),
  8. teaching (PowerPoint, chalkboard),
  9. demonstrations (teach, inspire: all modes, handouts),
  10. social media (tweets, pictures, blogs),
  11. art (ALL)

Who is our audience?

  1. colleagues (experts, educated non-experts),
  2. layperson (grandma, senator, preschoolers, friends),
  3. students (major/non-major, young/old, enthusiastic/jaded),
  4. consumers,
  5. stakeholders,
  6. funders,
  7. potential recruits,
  8. reporters,
  9. employers

Think of this list like Mad Libs!

Sometimes you need a conceptual “in”

Articulate what your goal is! How will it be used? What are the challenges? Why is it hard?

Successful features  

  • Appealing colors, good contrast (ok in B&W)
  • Well rendered
  • Tailored to medium
  • Informative composition
  • Appropriate visual weight
  • 3d aspect, but only when appropriate
  • Labeling and showing all steps
  • complete and proper text
  • simple!

Problematic features

  • Too much information density (too busy)
  • Don’t know where to start
  • Infer steps that aren’t obvious
  • Too much text (distracting)
  • Static. Dynamics not evident
  • Lack of context
  • Inference versus measurement “certainty”. Sagmeister said just use pencil – everyone knows that you’re not sure.


Look museums to learn about labeling. Art books, architecture books. Use weird shapes to define correspondence (Eagle Nebula in book)

Think about one thing that the figure must do well. Can’t add others before this one thing is successful

The five basic concepts of graphic design/Design Tools

Compose: organize the elements and establish their relationships

Abstract: define and represent the essential qualities and/or meaning of the material (example of protein structure and different ways of representing)

Color; choose colors to draw attention, to label, to show relationship (compare and contrast) or to indicate visual scale of measures. People feel very strongly about their favorite colors! Can use to define relationships, to quantify, to group. Don’t make it do too many things.

Layer: add layers to overlap multiple variables to create a direct relationship in physical space. Look at astronomy journals for examples of how to do this effectively

Refine: edit and simplify. Eliminate arrows with proper alignment. Eliminate excess labels.

Drawing can be very effective; makes you leave out. Think about visual tables

Drawing exercise forces you to sketch versions of figurers or pictures in 30s, then 15s. Teaches you to find essentials 

DePace Seminar notes 

Systems biology especially requires cross-disciplinary communication, which especially requires effective visuals.

Where do we communicate visually?

Papers: 1) data, 2) concept (summary for introduction or summary) 3) covers/repurposing 4) summary graphics

Presentations: slides, chalk talks, posters, formal/informal

Need to refine ideas, synthesize them, explore data. Noted use of Multeesum ( and Processing software (

Need to consider whether figure is explanatory or exploratory

Figures can serve important propagation/promotion goals. A few carefully selected/crafted graphics can go a long way (oligo assembly example)



-visual identity (personal design, etc)

-propagation (how can it be shared / consumed by broad audience)

How do we teach visual literacy?

1. Focus on process

2. Show by example

Who is it for?

How will it be used?

What do you want people to learn? (this is the HARD part)

Begin by sketching a lot of versions with low personal investment

Color is one of the most misused parts of science diagrams. Not for decoration, for purpose

Some guidelines:

1)    Simplify your goals

2)    Use tools in this order

  1. Compose
  2. Abstract
  3. Color
  4. Layer
  5. Refine

3)    Use 1 and only 1 tool per visual task (might be as simple as alignment)

4)    Be consistent

5)    Use whitespace


  1. Graphic layers that illustrate degree of certainty (confidence intervals)
  2. Graphics need to be an everyday investment for students. They need more feedback, less attachment to any given figure
  3. Finding collaborators who can help you craft a graphic: work with design students?
  4. The premise of your work shouldn’t be that you worked so hard! Rather it should be that you are telling a compelling story.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Angela DePace, Harvard


Location: Spaulding Life Sciences (SLS) 120


Visual representations have long been a significant part of any scientist’s and engineer’s research. Until fairly recently it was standard practice for universities and research institutions to hire specialists to help researchers visually communicate their work. Now, the research community is primarily responsible for crafting its own graphics — and yet the typical researcher’s training rarely includes the development of such skills and sensibilities.

In this talk we will discuss various approaches to creating effective graphics and images. We will include some of our own “failures” and juxtapose a few with those some consider are our successes.

The speakers are the authors of “Visual Strategies”, Yale University Press, 2012.

About the authors 

Felice Frankel

Science photographer Felice Frankel is a research scientist in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Working in collaboration with scientists and engineers, Felice’s images have been published in over 200 journal articles and/or covers and various other publications for a wide range of audiences. Her work has been profiled in most of the world’s major print media and on National Public Radio. She exhibits throughout the United States and in Europe. Her limited edition photographs are included in a number of corporate and private collections.

She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received awards and grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, among many others.

Felice was founder of the IMAGE AND MEANING workshops and conferences whose purpose was to develop new approaches to promote the public understanding of science through visual expression. She was principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-funded program, Picturing to Learn, an effort to study how making representations by students, aids in teaching and learning.

Angela DePace

Angela DePace is an assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, where her lab studies the mechanism and evolution of gene expression in animals, using quantitative experimental techniques and computational frameworks to contextualize results. She is also the co-author of Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers. She did her graduate work at UCSF, where she elucidated the structural basis of yeast prion strains. She did her postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley, where she worked with the Berkeley Drosophila Transcription Network Project to develop quantitative imaging techniques for the Drosophila blastoderm embryo.

About the book



Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University: “In this technoscientific century, with knowledge doubling every decade, researchers and designers alike need to ramp up their presentation of the material they describe. This beautifully illustrated book shows how.”

Milton Glaser: “A thoughtful and useful series of recommendations that will actually help you understand what you are doing when you are trying to make yourself clear.”

George M. Whitesides, Harvard University: “Anyone—scientist or not–who is interested in using pictures to teach, to convey information, or to catch attention must study this book. It is splendid.”

Steven Heller, School of Visual Arts: “…unique…an essential guide to literacy for fields that are essential to all our lives.”

Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature: “Scientists presenting even simple data to busy journal readers are well advised to invest some thought in their visual comprehensibility and impact. This unique book provides exactly what they need .”  

This presentation is sponsored by the Provost’s New Ventures Program: Promoting Wonder and Innovation in Learning,

the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences,

and the nascent Ph.D. program in Molecular and Evolutionary Systems Biology


For more information, contact Vaughn Cooper, Dept of MCBS,


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