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Science Outreach: Start Getting Artsy

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


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The cover to Scientific American December 1916 is rocking with alluring imagery.

There’s a reason the front cover of Scientific American isn’t a wall of text.

There’s a reason it isn’t a text-heavy infographic. Images are alluring. They catch attention. They intrigue people enough to ask, “what’s that all about?”

There have been a number of discussions again lately about science communication, specifically outreach.  Scicurious wrote a nice round-up on Neurotic Physiology, Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal effectively reached some people about the recent transit of Venus across the sun and here on Symbiartic, my co-blogger wrote Communicating Science: What’s Your Problem? and A Conference of Science Communicators. If you are interested in getting the public more interested in science, attracting attention to the science blogosphere, or to picking up easy to find print publications, you need to have interesting and smart imagery.

There are two types of image which can help science posts online.

Images for clarity

At it’s simplest, this can manifest itself as “Ok, I wrote a post about blood pressure in giraffes; I’ll include some Creative Commons or public domain photos of giraffes.”  Not necessarily inspiring, but it gets the job done. You’ve got a visual, a bit of a hook. You might go further, and find or commission a scientific illustration showing  the size and position of the giraffe heart and circulatory system. Scientific and medical illustration have an advantage over photos this way, since the artist edits out the extraneous viscera and bloody mess, showing the clear system cut away in a galloping or grazing giraffe.

Images for inspiration and impact

This is where science outreach needs to get artsy.

An effective artistic piece about the subject can do a whole lot more to draw people in. On a site about the safety of vaccines, instead of cold, clinical needles, why not happy, smiling children? (Making a human connection is a bonus.)

If you don’t know where to look for a science communicator with an artistic portfolio, you can start with the Science Artists Feed, a blog rss feed with over 150 wildly varying working talents. Or the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.

Two of the scientific fields that maintain public interest in the news are astronomy and prehistoric life, usually dinosaurs. I don’t think the amount of science fiction – in books, movies, cartoons and illustrations- that’s been built up around those disciplines is unrelated to their popularity.  We don’t know much about the colour and only some things about the behaviors of dinosaurs: but the licence by paleo-artists let’s us imagine them based on current animal analogues. We don’t know what it’s like to view sunset on an extrasolar planet; but we can see it in the illustrations generated to get us excited about it.

So it’s a challenge for illustrators and communicators alike: how do you inject emotion and artistic licence into important research with little artistic vocabulary?

The same way it’s possible to collect and enjoy a history of dinosaur art, imagine in a hundred years’ time what the art history of wind power, or the Higgs-Boson or immunoproteomics will look like.

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

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





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