Alli Torban (00:00):
Hey, you're listening to episode 85 of Data Viz Today. I'm Alli Torban, and this show is here to help you become a more effective information designer. Thanks for joining me today. We're expanding into the world of science graphics with Jen Christiansen. She's a senior graphics editor at Scientific American, where she art directs and produces illustrated information, graphics and data biz. She's the author of the new book, building Science Graphics, an Illustrated Guide to Communicating Science through Diagrams and Visualizations. I had the great honor of collaborating with Jen on creating the cover, the art on the cover of her book, but more than that, Jen's created the most thorough and welcoming resource on using visuals to communicate science. There's a lot of tried and true advice in the book. She does redesigns and even flow charts that help you tease out how to create an effective visual. So in this episode, I tried to pull out as much of that advice is possible in 30 minutes, and Jen definitely delivered. She shared the questions she asks herself when trying to decide if an article would benefit from a visual, what's a welcoming gesture in graphics and how to use it when you should consider creating a comic to explain your idea in how to use arrows in the most effective way possible and a lot more. So let's dive in. Welcome to the show, Jen.
Jen Christiansen (01:28):
Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoy listening to your podcast
Alli Torban (01:32):
In your book. I actually bookmarked this page because I found it so interesting. You talk about this study that found that highly cited research papers tend to have a large number of diagrams and schematics per page than less sided papers. And just as someone who is kind of obsessed with how to communicate the value of, you know, information design and how, in my work, I thought that was really, really interesting. But I feel like someone could probably take that and be like, oh, we always have to add visuals to our work. Now, every single information I have to convey, I have to add a visual. Do you think that's a fair thing to think or kinda what, what kind of parameters do you put around for yourself? Like, this does need a visual or this doesn't need a visual?
Jen Christiansen (02:20):
Yeah, so that paper you referenced it was a 2018 i e e paper. The authors were pushing Lee J West and Bill, how,
Alli Torban (02:29):
Yeah, I'll link it, I'll link it in the show notes.
Jen Christiansen (02:31):
Super. It was, it was very cool. They used machine learning and I think there were like 7 million figures ultimately in their dataset from almost 500,000 papers. But yeah, they found that highly cited papers tended to have larger number of diagrams and that was more so than like photographs and tables. They did not test for why that was the case. So so it is one of those things you kind of have to move forward with a little bit of of, of that in mind. They thought that perhaps visual information improves clarity of the paper that might lead to more citations or that high impact papers often address topics that are pretty complex and new. And so visuals are one way of helping to explain new things. But your question on whether or not, I think that means somebody should always include visuals.
Jen Christiansen (03:24):
I would say no. Like mostly I tend to shy away from kind of like always never superlatives,
. So it all depends on the goal. And yeah, so I only think that graphics should be included if people think they would be useful. Now, it's interesting, this, this study might indicate that at times when graphics are useful might be a flag for other, you know, something else novel going on in this paper perhaps. Mm-Hmm. So but I do think the study like it, it nods to the importance of visuals. That's a communication tool. Yeah, for sure. And they shouldn't be thought of as a second. You know, as a second thought they should be developed with the text.
Alli Torban (04:04):
Jen Christiansen (04:06):
There's another neat study in there. Karen Cheng and her collaborators did some neat research on graphical abstracts in journal articles and how those when they were designed according to some kind of classic design principles, they they shifted the reader's impression of the author, thought that they were perhaps a little bit smarter, a little bit better at communicating. And so that was just a visual abstract redesign. But that's also kind of in the journal in that journal world.
Alli Torban (04:37):
Wow. Hmm. That sounds like good marketing material,
or an information designer sounds smarter,
. Interestingly in your book you have a, a a list of questions on what you ask yourself when you're trying to decide, Hey, does this actually need a visual? Can you tell us like one or two of those things that you're thinking about?
Jen Christiansen (04:58):
Yeah, and these are questions that I ask myself whenever. So at Scientific American, I'm often reading a manuscript and trying to decide whether or not we should create a graphic to go along with that story. Mm-Hmm.
. So I'm usually asking myself you know, is, is there a piece of this story that could be told kind of more efficiently or effectively or completely in images than in words? One example I pull up a lot to help illustrate that is a fineman diagram. So particle collisions, what goes in, what comes out. Sometimes it's easier or just to see a map of that than to read it in a sentence. Another time is if a graphic might be useful, if kind of intertwining relationships or kind of complex processes are are being discussed. And you kind of need to see several things happening at the same time.
Alli Torban (05:51):
You're ho you're holding a lot of information in your head, like remembering what just happened in the relationship that in the previous sentence and then reading more of it.
Jen Christiansen (05:59):
Exactly. Or like if several things are happening at once and then that leads to something else that's really hard to kind of get in somebody's brain through a linear sentence. But if you kind of map it out and use it in graphical form, then you might be able to kind of tell that story more efficiently or effectively.
Alli Torban (06:19):
I, I remember hearing a talk that you had, I don't know, this was probably in 2018, so this is five years ago by now, but you talk about this concept of the welcoming gesture and I just, I just love it and I use it all the time. Can you explain a little bit what the welcoming gesture is?
Jen Christiansen (06:35):
Yeah. So I like to think of them as a way to draw a reader in that feels a little bit like you know, come on in, you can do this. Mm-Hmm.
cause I, you know, I I in particular as it relates to things like quantum physics, graphics and things that are really abstract Yeah. And complicated or like, you know, I love a good minimalist diagram as much as the next person, but sometimes they feel a little bit cold. So how can you kind of like draw somebody in? And one way to do that would be with illustrative details mm-hmm.
to make that abstract topic more relatable, like a small drawing of the object or kind of the subject matter of the graphic. Or using visual metaphors that can provide immediate context. Yeah. When they're used to something that's less figurative. Some of my favorite examples of people who do this incredibly well are designers, Mona Chalabi and Nigel Holmes. And they both also bring humor into the, into the mix mm-hmm.
. and so I think it's just kind of a friendly way to to say, no, come on in. Like, let, let's, let's walk through this graphic together.
Alli Torban (07:40):
From your perspective as someone who's communicating science to basically the general public, typically people who are interested in science, but really the general public they're looking through your magazine and thinking like they're not inherently interested in snow leopards, but if you have this welcoming gesture of this beautiful illustration, then that pulls them in. It's the welcoming gesture to this topic. But us as information designers, data visualizations, designers, when you first enter the field, people are like, you know, taught, don't add illustrative elements, you know, just show the data and all that stuff. But if you think about it, like if you are trying to communicate to an audience who does need a little bit of kind of pulling into a topic, then maybe a welcoming gesture is warranted.
Jen Christiansen (08:28):
Yeah. It's completely contextual. Like, I wouldn't necessarily want, like my accountant or my doctors to be working on, like putting in little illustrations into the charts about my, like blood work. Right. so it's really, I think about thinking about, well, why are you creating this graphic and who is it for, and what context are people gonna encounter it? And would a little kind of welcome and gesture be useful in that case, or will it be a distraction? And then alwa as always, you know, try not to overwhelm the information that you're trying to show with that. So there's a lot of, there's a balancing act in play as well.
Alli Torban (09:05):
Yeah. You do talk about that in your book. I remember about how adding the illustrative elements, I think in your example you had this scientific paper and it was about butterflies and the original, you, you have a lot of redesigns, which is really cool to see in your book because when you haven't done that, done the design process a lot, it is hard for you to see oh, this is the change that this person made to make this so beautiful and to look So design nicely designed. So when you can see the before and the after and you highlight, oh, hey, I did this here, I did that there that's really helpful to see. But in this example you talked about, it was about butterflies and the person had this giant butterfly kind of like taking over the poster. And then at the bottom, I think it was like a caterpillar, and then the text was all wrapped around the caterpillar. And I think your point was that yeah, include the butterfly, but maybe put it up more towards the corner. Cause it's totally overwhelming your, your space here.
Jen Christiansen (10:02):
Yeah. So to my mind that, you know, a scientific poster, it's like, yes, you wanna draw somebody in, but you really want them to know what your, what new information you're contributing here. Hmm. So make your, the graphic that speaks to your research and that that new content, the large kind of star of the show, and then use those other gestures as ways to flag to somebody across the room, like, oh, hey, look at that poster over there. That's about, you know, that's about monarch butterflies. But don't necessarily have that like stock image, like overwhelm everything that you work so hard on and the kind of the new bits of information that you're bringing to the table. So always a balancing act.
Alli Torban (10:38):
Well, we both share a love for comics and explaining complex information in the comic form because I have found it really helps take these intellectual topics that, I mean really like the welcoming gesture aspect, but also allows you to take something that makes it more feel more human and add kind of a narrative structure to, to information. When you are kinda art directing science graphics, are there particular instances where you're like, yeah, this, this is a place where we should look into creating a more comic concept for this?
Jen Christiansen (11:14):
Yeah, sure. First I should mention that I'm not great at doing that for myself, but I have the privilege of being able to identify when I think it'll be useful in hiring an artist who is. But I think, you know, storytelling is such a powerful way to connect with readers. And so, and comics are like, when people see like small boxes of, of contents that are strung together they're immediately primed to, to read a story. They're already thinking in terms of scenes and steps and progression and change over time. Mm-Hmm.
so Scott McLeod is like, has written the classic books on this, understanding comics is one of them, but the reader is engaged in part by kind of imagining the space between frames. So you're kind of also really engaging a reader to kind of help fill in different parts of that story in some ways or kind of like keeps them engaged.
Jen Christiansen (12:08):
But I think it's most useful when you're hoping to walk people through either a process or a scenario or helping them link together kind of different concepts or bits of evidence. Mm-Hmm. So if, if the story itself is already kind of, well, if A plus B equals C, then this, you know, so you're already kind of setting up information in a way that is over time or shows cause and effect, but by then putting it into comic form with or without figures or anthropomorphic characters, you're kind of already tapping into this form that a lot of people will are, are kind of really open to, I think. And don't think it's gonna be too complex to understand.
Alli Torban (12:52):
Yeah. Because typically you think cartoons or comics kids, this is something for kids. Yeah. I have found it really helpful in that aspect you were talking about with the time, because it is great for time, but the beautiful part is that you can skip time, you can make it go really fast, you can make it go slow, you can make it go fast, then slow. You can jump from one scenario to another really quickly, like you said, like showing, Hey, here's evidence at this time, but then here's evidence at this other time 10 years ago from that point. And so you can, you have complete control over the narrative in such a small space.
Jen Christiansen (13:28):
Yeah. And I love that you can zoom in and out. Some topics that I'd like to hire a comics artist for are things like the origin of life on Earth, where you're talking about like asteroids on the planet, and then you're talking about like microscopic d n a. Yeah. You know, so like how do you go from those to resolve those huge leaps and scale? It's just, it just feels so intuitive when you're reading it and comic form, you're like, well, of course I'm going from here to there. I, I can follow that without without being too concerned about that change in scale.
Alli Torban (14:02):
Yeah. I, I was so happy when I saw that you included stuff about comics in there because it is field of so underrated for a way to, to explain science, but I have seen it become more popular, so I'm very excited about that.
Jen Christiansen (14:16):
Yeah. There's also a lot of research starting to unfold on it too. So kind of peer reviewed stuff that kind of talks is looking at how effective are they in actually communicating science. So that's gonna be kind of a neat, a neat field to watch continue.
Alli Torban (14:31):
You talk a lot about collaborations too in your book. And I found it really interesting how you broke up. You, you kind of had two different types of collaborations cuz usually you think, oh, collaborations you're working with someone, but you broke up collaborations in active content collaborators, and then you have reviewers. Can you explain what those who, who goes in those groups and then when you would engage with each one?
Jen Christiansen (14:59):
Yeah, so the active content collaborators by my definition, are kind of people that are involved in establishing the goal of the graphic and they're participating in their research design and caption writing process. So at Scientific American, I like to think of that as the story team. So those are my internal colleagues. And then also any freelance artists or or writers that we pull on board that are actually kind of part of the reporting and research process for that particular article. Now, reviewers are people that kind of provide feedback on the sketches and the final graphic ranging kind of from the content to the file format. But they're taking a, they're, they're providing a fresh take on a things, so they haven't been through the process of building it. So they don't necessarily know the history of why a graphic is kind of the why, why we landed on that particular sketch or that final product.
Jen Christiansen (15:55):
It's sort of a cold reader. And then I, or one example of a reviewer would be a content expert, so we'll send it out to say, Hey, is this accurate? Without sending them all of our reference material, it's like, okay, you're an expert in this field, can you review this as a cold reader to make sure that we're representing things accurately? One kind of reviewer that I'm trying to figure out how to fold in more is a cold reader who's not an expert in the content, but is an expert in being the audience that we wanna be communicating with. And so I'm hoping to start send things, sending things out for review from folks who to say is this, is this graphic communicating what we think it's communicating. Right. but again, that would be a cold reader. One of the folks that I've been, I'm reading and talking with to try to figure out how to do that is Sheila Ponta mm-hmm.
and I, and I nod to her work and interview her in the book as well. But I know a lot of designers fold in kind of user experience into their process, but it's not really as big of a thing in the journalism world, I think. So trying to figure out how to make that happen.
Alli Torban (17:07):
Yeah. In your, as you've, you're started to experiment with this have you found there's sort of like a sweet spot in terms of the number of people you have review it? I guess I'm specifically talking about people who are cold readers who aren't familiar with the material. In my experience it's relatively low. Like I've used usability hub where you can like upload your graphic and just like ask open-ended questions, like, what do you think this graphic is saying? And I've done it up to a hundred, but I have found really you only need 10 to 20 before people start saying the same things.
, have you found anything similar, like in terms of about how many you'd need before you're like, okay, this is, this is enough in information
Jen Christiansen (17:55):
That's great to know. On my deadlines I've only been sending out to a couple of people at a time, so I haven't really tested that out. Yeah. but often, you know, you kind of have in the back of your mind what your hesitation is and it might just take a couple of people pointing it out. You're like, yeah, okay. I kind of thought that might be the case, but you know, you kind of talked yourself into a solution.
Alli Torban (18:18):
You had your darling
Jen Christiansen (18:19):
. Yeah, it'll work. It was great. It's great. And if only one or two people say, actually it's not, you're like, okay, yeah, I see where you're coming from. There
Alli Torban (18:27):
Even two, you know, you get two separate opinions, maybe three would be ideal. I don't know. That would be interesting for someone to actually do some research on that.
, just anecdotally, I could see between three and 10 you're probably, you're doing any really is good, but between three and 10 is probably a good sweet spot.
Alli Torban (18:47):
When you are working with collaborators, the active content collaborators, is there, I, I imagine you are pulling people in right? That have really a lot of different talents like 3D artists, comic artists, but is there a common attribute that you find that these people have that you're like, yes, this is someone that I really love working with?
Jen Christiansen (19:09):
Yeah. so I love working with people who enjoy problem solving mm-hmm.
and are okay with parameters. You know, like, here's the size you have to work with and that's non-negotiable, can you make it work? And so folks who are, are willing to kind of problem solve within those set parameters and people that are just excited about diving into complicated material and figuring out how to translate it. Just folks that you know, that are comfortable or interested in like reading scientific papers and trying to figure out how to shift that into something that's more broadly accessible. But mostly I think just people who enjoy problem solving and are okay with the fact that some change requests might come in that seem really like picky, but they understand that it's kind of key. Like one of the things that happened a lot in the past is like, you know, A D N A he likes is, is spirals a very specific direction?
Jen Christiansen (20:08):
And a lot of people accidentally or just unintentionally or not don't know that there's only one way it really generally spiral spirals. We'll draw it in reverse. Oh. And so asking an artist to fix that might seem kind of minor cuz most of your audience probably won't really pick up on that. But if you're trying to like, gain credibility with people who are also a specialists in the field, if they see DNA spiraling the wrong way, they might wonder, well, what else is not quite right in this graphic? So so sometimes I'm asking artists to do things that feel like, well that's not really critical to this particular graphic, but it's, it's a critical detail that I think is important to get right to kind of underscore kind of that we're being really careful with the information that we're sharing. Hmm.
Alli Torban (20:58):
Okay. So I wanna transition a little bit. If this were a comic, we'd be going from like
the outer space to like zooming in on the germs. I wanna talk about arrows because I've heard you talk about arrows before and you have a whole spread about arrows in your book and it seems like something that most people don't even think about in real life. Like my daughter, she's nine, she did this project and her arrows were like all over the place. It looked like a spaghetti of arrows cuz she just wanted like everything to be pointing to the text that was related to the picture, you know,
and I was like, this is not a good use of arrows. Cuz I have read the building science graphic books, but can you just give us the tldr of like why it's important to tone down your use of arrows and like when you might not use an arrow and maybe you would use something else?
Jen Christiansen (21:49):
Sure. Well, I have a love-hate relationship with arrows because they're so powerful, but people often use them when their power isn't needed. Yeah. So save them for times in which you really, when an arrow really is the best or only answer. Hmm. So for example you kind of alluded to this with your, with your daughter's work, although fine art, you know, is all these rules, you know, out the window throw
Alli Torban (22:15):
Jen Christiansen (22:15):
. So yeah. So I'm not, not critiquing your daughter's work, but scientists, when they're pointing at something on a, you know, in a microscopic image or when they're pointing something in a graphic, we'll often use an arrow to say that thing right there mm-hmm.
here. You know, pointing an arrow at it. But I think it's much more effective to use something like a circle around it and a line drawn mm-hmm.
or just a line drawn that ends right on it because you're pointing at the thing save the arrows for times in which you're trying to show movement. Like, like this particle goes from point A to point B, use an arrow to show directionality. Mm-Hmm.
use them to show like rotation direction. They're just so powerful with direction that when you start to use them for everything, like pointing at something or mostly it's point or as if you're zooming in and you have like something small and then you wanna zoom in out and show it larger. Sometimes people will use an arrow for that too. It's like, well no, you're trying, like, I'm, I'm reading that as this object moves from here to there or this object changes size itself. So just kind of just being really cognizant about not overusing arrows.
Alli Torban (23:30):
Are there any of those other little design tweaks where you have found that, oh man, that gave me a lot of bang for my buck
Jen Christiansen (23:37):
Alignments. I love like making sure that labels and captions and different design elements on a page are kind of aligned with each other or with a margin. Those are just kind of some of the fine tuning things that make something feel just a little bit more polished and professional and a little bit more kind of establishing the hierarchy of design on the page. So if you have a few leader lines from labels that point to objects on a graphic, having those leader lines also kind of be parallel or perpendicular. Instead of having a bunch of different angles of those leader lines it just kind of helps provide a slightly cleaner view of the graphic. And it keeps these these things that aren't really the heart of the graphic from taking over with visual noise. They kind of makes them set back a little bit. So the label is there, but it's not like shouting for too much attention cause it's kind of aligned with other things. And it's kind of saying, you know, I'm at the same level as these other labels.
Alli Torban (24:39):
Yeah. Another thing that I noticed from your redesigns of the scientific posters is, let's say there's maybe four steps in this thing that someone is trying to explain. So it's like step one and then it has text talking about what the step was and step two you actually made the text of step one a little bit bigger and it just made me feel like, oh yeah, this, when I, I read the title and then I'm naturally gonna read. Maybe it's like the summary or maybe if it's just step one, that's the next thing you want me to read. So why not kind of like, just pull me through the graphic by showing me with some visual hierarchy. Like step one is the first thing you should be looking at. Like, let me just grab you by the lapels and bring you into it rather than have you start looking at something else.
Jen Christiansen (25:26):
Absolutely. Yeah. Use visual hierarchy in your favor and thoughtfully just to help guide attention. Mm-Hmm.
Alli Torban (25:32):
. All right. So last question. Is there a particular process or just some other maybe workflow tip that you've learned through your years of creating and art directing science graphics that you realized, hey, this really makes my job easier, I wish I had done this sooner?
Jen Christiansen (25:49):
Yeah, I think one of the biggest things is that I now maintain one document. Like I just use a Google doc that kind of goes on and on for organizing the information related to that project. So at the top I'll have like the you know, who's involved in the project and their contact info. And then I, I always define the goal of my graphic when I'm working on a project, so I'll articulate that there. But as I'm doing research, I'm, it's a place for me just to put like website links. Hmm. Screenshots, sketch screenshots. I might copy and paste out of emails from feedback from other people into this document. So I have one place that if later on somebody says, well, why did he make that change here? I can go to that one document, scan down it, they, and just copy and paste that bit.
Jen Christiansen (26:43):
It's also a really helpful document to share with collaborators like fact checkers just so they can see like where, where was the reference information kind of pulled from. But I used to just kind of keep a folder and just like throw PDFs in it or maybe keep a, you know, simple text document with some URLs in it or some bookmarks. But when I started to work and pull that information into a single Google sheet it just made my my life a lot easier. And that's also how I worked on the book. Each chapter started out with one Google page that I would sort of, or Google sh not a Google sheet, a Google doc that I would color code different things too. Then, so like I would color code a paragraph of notes and say, okay, this is that sub theme. So anything in blue refers to arrows for that one chapter. Oh. So then later I could then copy and paste and chunk them together and kind of move things around in that page.
Alli Torban (27:40):
Oh yeah. And I bet that makes that easier when you're referencing things from other chapters. It's easy for you to find all that information. Yeah,
Jen Christiansen (27:48):
Yeah, yeah. Or later when you're trying to remember, where did I read that? It's like, okay, well the link's just right there next to the excerpt that I copied and pasted or next to my notes. So it's just right next to it.
Alli Torban (28:00):
Well that's a helpful, thank you so much Jen for your time and sharing all about science graphics with us.
Jen Christiansen (28:05):
Thanks for chatting about it. It was a lot of fun.
Alli Torban (28:08):
Thanks so much, Jen for sharing your expertise with us. My big takeaways are first, consider using visuals. If you are looking for a more efficient way to tell your story or your concept like you're explaining a complex process or relationships, there's a lot of things that your reader has to hold in their head. It might be better to explain that with a visual. Also think about using welcoming gestures. These are illustrative details like visual metaphors or illustrations. It just makes your topic a little more approachable, but you don't want to let it overwhelm your main message. Comics can be useful for walking someone through a concept cause everybody's familiar with this kind of visual language. They understand that time changes in between frames and you can actually make time go as fast or as slow as you want in between frames, and you can also zoom in and out at a massive scale.
Alli Torban (29:03):
So I think comics are a really underused medium of explaining things. For collaborations, you, you should involve content collaborators, subject matter experts, and also cold readers to help test your understanding. Also, Jen found that the best collaborators are people who are problem solvers and adaptive to challenges and constraints. And the next time you try to draw an arrow, check that you are using it to show movement directionality or rotation, that's when it's the most powerful. Avoid using it as a pointer. You can just use a line or a circle for that, or you can just put the text right next to the object. Definitely check out Jen's new book, building Science Graphics. I have bookmarked so many pages already and it's a wonderful book. Speaking of books, I've been moving along with my book about how to be a more creative data communicator. I have a publisher now and my manuscript is due mid-June, so it's exciting and scary.
Alli Torban (30:05):
I'm really churning out the chapters now. So if you signed up to be a beta reader, you should start seeing some of the chapters come your way over the next month or so. If you would like to read an early chapter and give me your thoughts, I would be forever grateful and I'll put in the show notes how to sign up to be a beta reader. You can find all the links to everything we talked about today at in the show notes dataviztoday.com/shownotes/85. Thanks for joining me today. Thanks to Heidi Horchler for my amazing cover art. Remember, you are what you constantly think about, so join me in thinking a lot about awesome Dataviz and subscribe to the show so you never miss an episode. Bye now.