Enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at one of the breakout sessions that took place during the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting. In this session, Mikey Kantar and his team led a session titled, "The Power of Infographics", in which they discussed the use of infographics as a tool for public engagement and science communication.
Visuals are deeply powerful, both in providing scientific insight to the researcher and transmitting science to a wider audience. As our communications media environment evolves, so must scientists engage in co-developing the visual tools necessary to communicate transformative ideas to the public we serve. Yet it is unrealistic to expect that scientists will acquire the additional specialized skills needed to be successful in visual communications across the many new media platforms. Collaborations between scientists and graphic designers or other related professionals’ adept in visual communications offer great potential, if these disciplines can come together for mutual benefit.
Recently, we paired six research laboratories involved in different aspects of food and agricultural sciences with graphic designers and media content creators. The scientist-artist pairs were asked to create print-ready infographics based on the research laboratories’ current projects within three months. The designers were compensated for their contributions through a grant we had obtained for this project. We then presented the project and its results in a February 2019 breakout session at the AAAS Communicating Science Seminar, part of the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. This seminar, along with the six distinct resulting graphical products, provides a small but powerful point of reference for how researchers, their institutions and funding agencies can leverage the skills of graphic artists to strengthen their communication of science, especially through the creation of infographics.
At the breakout session, we heard about the infographics creation process first from the scientists’ perspective, with four main lessons highlighted:
- The right contextualization for the audience matters
- Allow for a lot of iteration with the graphic designers
- Keep it simple by having a clear message
- Creating infographics can help scientists streamline how they frame their studies/findings
Next we talked about the process from the artist’s perspective:
- Designers need to figure out ways to not simplify the finding, but rather distill it to its essential parts
- The artists need to help scientists understand that data visualizations are exact representations of the results, while infographics are an abstraction of the results
- The artist and scientist must work together to very clearly define the audience and to make sure to get outside reviewers as the collaboration proceeds
One surprising insight from the project was that the infographic creation process positively contributed to the ongoing research of a number of the participating scientists. The researchers agonized over the challenge of distilling complex concepts into clear, focused, and accessible messages, but this helped them to identify the most important and central components of their work and to note areas that they had not studied sufficiently. It was also an opportunity for researchers to remember why they do what they do, and what their work means more broadly for society.
Participants in the February breakout session were guided through the initial stage of planning their own infographics by answering questions on their audience, message, and where and when it would be shared. In the group discussion, participants were eager to find similar partnerships, and do this as part of their broader impacts work. We believe that funding institutions should support the creation of a service to connect artists and scientists.
Take a look at the data visualizations presented during the breakout session. Click each image for a larger view.
Mikey Kantar is an assistant professor of tropical plant and soil sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a 2019-2020 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. Kantar’s research focuses on the intersection between genomics, agriculture and ecology. His lab’s goal is to examine the complex interactions necessary to create food systems that are more productive, healthy and sustainable. Kantar is currently the communications officer for the Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee (PBCC), an organization focused on how the public sector contributes to food security, education, and method development for plant breeding. Kantar completed his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Minnesota.