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How I Reconciled My Love for Art and Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In college in the 1990s, I suffered an identity crisis. Was I a scientist or an artist? I loved the clarity and order inherent to the scientific process; ask questions, set up methodologies, collect data, analyze. Research projects and papers I co-authored on the topics of trace fossils and hydrothermal vent species were immensely satisfying. No matter the result of the study—don’t even ask about the punch line of my college honors thesis—it gave me the chance to contribute a rigorously-produced bit of knowledge.

But I also loved the idea of communicating through visuals rather than words. My studio arts classes encouraged me to question and morph methodologies. I couldn’t stop making images.

Nor could I imagine choosing one discipline at the expense of the other. Scientific illustration, however, allowed me to merge those two identities. Finding the similarities between art and science, I honed in on observation and interpretation. Instead of contributing new findings to the world, I’d help make sure that other peoples’ findings were accessible to wider audiences through a visual language.

Oddly, back then it never occurred to me to flip that relationship on its head: to shift over and study the science of perception, and test how effective visuals really are in communicating information.

Perhaps this was due to my angle of approach. I studied scientific illustration in the tradition of the old masters, with an emphasis on documentation. It was an established language, with known successes. Think Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), and Maria Sibylla Merian’s botanical and entomological illustrations. Collections of observation-centric illustrations acted as a record of exploration and/or truth. In that spirit, I spent hours looking through a microscope, with a rapidograph pen in-hand, counting hairs on mandibles and faithfully documenting crustaceans for species description papers. And I loved it.

Illustration by Jen Christiansen; Source: “A new species of the shrimp genus Chorocaris Martin and Hessler, 1990, from hydrothermal vents along the Mid‑Atlantic Ridge,” By J.W. Martin and J. C. Christiansen. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 1995. 108 (2): 220-227

I eventually shifted from illustrating objects towards developing process and concept diagrams, and the Venn Diagram of my identities blebbed out a new orb: “infographer.” That orb included a window into some pretty interesting conversations in the information graphics and data visualization world, ranging from theory to practice.

For example, how does one measure graphical excellence? There are many well-informed, well-written, and oft-embraced opinions. As Edward Tufte famously put it, “Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” Many opinions are extensions of established research about perception and cognition in general. But scientific papers that systematically test some of the ideas that form the basis for many arguments that practitioners implement when developing an information graphic? Those are a little harder to track down. And the very idea of measuring the success of a graphic is complicated, at best. But I love that folks are talking about it, and I had some of my own ideas brewing.

This past fall, I decided to jump into the conversation with a bit more conviction. The impetus was the inaugural year of Communicating Complexity (2CO). As described in the conference proceedings book,

“The 2CO international design conference aims at gathering professionals, scholars, educators, and young designers involved in making complex information accessible through design to share experiences, points of views, and methodologies in three main areas of interest: informative-animation; interactive data visualization; info-graphics, becoming an international reference point in the exploration of languages, approaches and technologies for communicating complexity through new media.”

I couldn’t resist. At Scientific American, we are always making complex concepts accessible. This gathering, unlike many conferences of its ilk, encouraged discussion that included, but was not limited to, data visualization. I could discuss—and seek feedback on—illustrated graphics as well.

The scientist orb in my self-identity Venn Diagram insists that I should acknowledge that the paper I presented at 2CO does not present quantifiable results, nor is it a methods-based study. It is more of a field dispatch. The examples and opinions are based on my experiences as the current art director of information graphics at Scientific American Magazine, my time as an assistant art director at the magazine back in the mid to late 1990s, and a great deal of time exploring the archives. It is by no means analogous to the paper on what makes a visualization memorable, by Michelle Borkin and her team, which was presented at the IEEE InfoVis conference a few weeks before 2CO. First of all, I did not run an experiment or conduct a survey. But also, I am concerned with what makes someone want to spend time with a graphic, not what makes them remember it. What keeps someone from turning the page and moving on to the next story? And how can we use that to help them want to engage with and understand complex information?

As I assert in the abstract,

“Before you can even begin to communicate a complex topic, you must first engage an audience. Whereas minimalist and abstract iconography may be the most efficient and elegant way to communicate complex findings within a research community (arguably a captive audience), I suggest that this design approach can actually be off-putting to a non-specialist audience. If an information graphic does not incorporate immediately-visible context, a familiar visual vocabulary, or a welcoming gesture for the non-specialist reader, it may simply confirm a preconception that the content itself is abstract and unrelatable—thereby shutting down the opportunity to convey that information to a new audience…”

For a pdf download of my paper, “A Defense of Artistic License in Illustrating Scientific Concepts for a Non-Specialist Audience,” (from 2CO Communicating Complexity: 2013  Conference Proceedings, edited by Nicolò Ceccarelli), click here.

Full proceedings are available through the 2CO 2013 website.

 

About the Author: Jen Christiansen is the art director of information graphics at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @ChristiansenJen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. carboncosm 6:18 pm 01/9/2014

    These are good points. Communicating science concepts to the general public is a task which the scientific community has long neglected. Fortunately there has been a small but talented reservoir of people, often working independently, who are at home in both science and art who have dedicated themselves to help convey the treasures of information gleaned from scientific research. And they have long already known what too many of those in institutional and government-sponsored ‘public outreach’ programs have had a peculiarly hard time learning: the ‘excitement’, beauty, wonder, and above all, the potential importance, of a scientific discovery is best transmitted through the integrity of the content itself, not by pathetic attempts at enhancing it using Madison Avenue-Hollywood promotional tactics, or by succumbing to the heinous temptation of ‘dumbing down’ to a preconceived low science-literacy of a ‘target audience’ – and worse, on the expectation that young people need a little extra candy – in order to ‘capture’ their attention. Alas, these means have increasingly produced an atmosphere distraction, not the comprehension sought for. Then there is the distrust many in the scientific community place in the arts; many scientists do not feel it is their responsibility to help ensure their research is accurately portrayed to the public. People like Jen Christiansen should be commended for helping to resolve the integrity of both the arts and sciences toward the all-important task of conveying scientific research in a form which follows the same standard of integrity as science itself does.

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  2. 2. CThuerwachter 8:46 pm 01/13/2014

    Thanks for sharing your experience in learning to blend two passions. It seems many scientists often find themselves facing a similar dichotomy: am I (insert blank) or a scientist? The important point, which you have.. ahem…illustrated so beautifully, is that you don’t have to be one or the other. The niche you have discovered for yourself is a great example for science-minded individuals seeking non-traditional ways to merge their interests and talents. Congrats on the great work you are doing!

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