- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- About This Handbook
The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
By Jen Christiansen / 3 minute read
More often than not, science-centric content is complex. Visuals are a powerful tool for helping your audiences make sense of complex stories. In creating or commissioning such visuals, your first instinct may be to simplify the information in order to make it more broadly accessible. Yet simplification may erase the latest key finding, distilling things in a way that doesn’t honor the cool new discovery you’re trying to highlight. I find it more productive to focus on clarifying, not simplifying (with a nod to the designer Nigel Holmes, the author Alberto Cairo, and many others who have spoken and written about this idea).
For example, for a print article on gene expression in the brain by the scientists Ed Lein and Mike Hawrylycz, I was given a complex chart provided by one of the authors. The goal of this reference chart was to communicate results within a peer group — an audience of other neuroscientists who were highly motivated to read and understand the image. The chart used a visual vocabulary of symbols and colors that would be familiar to other neuroscientists, but not to a lay audience. I liken such symbols to “visual jargon.” Jargon can be useful for those who understand it; words and imagery that carry a highly specific meaning within a specific context can be an efficient way to present complex information to others within a community. But it also serves as an impenetrable wall to people who are not fluent in that language.
I hired the data designer Jan Willem Tulp to develop something more broadly accessible. In this case, that didn’t mean a different chart form or eliminating data. Instead, we stripped away visual barriers to entry and added welcoming gestures. The full data set remained intact. Tulp simply removed insider conventions (such as a full-spectrum rainbow color palette), replacing it with a more intuitive and less complicated monochromatic tonal scale. We included a few brain illustrations to make abstract terms for brain regions relatable. And we explained in plain language how to read the graphic, with leader lines pointing directly to referenced spots in the chart.
Every visual decision, style guides aside, should be considered with reader comprehension in mind. I happened to find the tonal scale that Tulp used more aesthetically pleasing than the original full palette. But that’s not the reason we used it. The scale was constructed to minimize the appearance of artificial jumps in the data, one of the pitfalls of full-spectrum palettes. Honoring perception-science research findings is good visualization practice across all subject areas. It’s particularly pertinent when covering the evidence-centric science beat.
Lucy Reading-Ikkanda, a graphic designer at the Flatiron Institute, says editors should also choose the rendering style of a graphic with care. “When a client shares a minimalist, monochromatic, wordless graphic of ‘How to Make a Cup of Coffee’ as style inspiration for a scientific figure, I worry. The graphic looks lovely, I agree, and because most everyone recognizes the motifs for coffee making, the simple style is appropriate, and labels and captioning are unnecessary. The language of coffee-making is pretty well understood. But the language of science is not. Whittling scientific content down to the level of icons and symbols can leave room for confusion and misinterpretation.” On the other hand, she adds, overly detailed and hyperrealistic renderings “can raise questions that we (and our fact-checker) do not want — or need — to tackle.”
With an eye to clarity, the graphics editor becomes a translator, or a guide. The focus shifts away from watering down the information and toward knocking down barriers and beckoning the reader in. The goal is to make complex and specialized information accessible to a nonspecialist audience.
Images are powerful in part because of their ability to immediately engage people. Science-centric graphics are crucial tools to provide context, to show what otherwise can’t be seen, and — as put so well by Olena Shmahalo in “Galaxy Leggings, Truth Serum, & the Visibility Cloak” — to provide a welcoming entry point for folks who may be predisposed to think of science as being dense and impenetrable.