A reader of the Neuroscience & Graphic Design website got in touch via that website’s Contact page, to see if I would be able to answer some questions about my work. She is a student at the Corcoran School of Art and Design, at George Washington University, majoring in graphic design and writing a thesis on the relationship between gestalt theory and design’s influence on the brain. She was particularly interested in the workshops I had been running for scientists and, although I am certainly not an expert on gestalt theory, I tried my best to answer her questions.
The process of responding to the questions did make me think more about my research than I have done since completing my own thesis in the summer. I thought it was worth reproducing my response (compiled in October 2020) in a blog post, as it does give some insight into how I regard my practice and my research, in relation to both graphic design and science.
What is your role in the PIS project?
I am working with two neuroscientists from King’s College London to create an improved methodology for the creation of a Patient Information Sheet (PIS), aimed at adult patients taking part in imaging research studies at King’s. As an illustrator, I will produce a library of adaptable images that can be used within the sheets, to both illustrate and inform. As a graphic designer, I will produce editable ‘modules’ that can be assembled by a scientist to create a PIS.
The modules have to be made available in both Word and PowerPoint, which are the software packages the scientists routinely use. The modules have to be a better alternative for scientists (both in terms of ease of use and final product) than how information sheets are currently created. The resulting PIS also has to be an improvement for patients (in terms of readability and comprehension) when compared to existing sheets (typically Word documents with very few, if any, images).
During the project, prototype sheets and modules will be presented to both scientists and patient groups, in order to get feedback. I will also be involved in a final presentation of the project to members of the imaging centres at King’s.
What interested you as a designer to work within the field of science?
I used to be a scientist – I have a degree in geology and I worked as a geophysicist for many years before I went to art college and gained qualifications in graphic design. I was always interested in art and design and the lack of good visual communication within science generally did frustrate me during my earlier career.
During my MA I worked with geophysicist colleagues (I was still working part-time as a geophysicist) to try and improve their graphic design, which proved to be extremely frustrating. For scientists, the details of good graphic design aren’t that important, but communicating their science effectively is. So, in my PhD, I approached the subject of scientific visual communication from the ‘science’ side, learning the visual languages and concentrating on communicating the science. If there was also good graphic design being produced, then that was a bonus! But I was dealing only with peer-to-peer scientific communication. Now, post-PhD, the PIS project involves scientist-patient communication, and the good graphic design becomes much more important, as you cannot rely on the audience having any understanding of the basic scientific visual language. But helping scientists visually communicate more effectively, whether to the general public or to each other, is definitely something I am passionate about.
Do you think graphic design eases the understanding of audiences on particular subjects?
Yes, definitely, but I couldn’t quantify it! And the type of audience changes the role and emphasis of the graphic design completely, as I mentioned in my previous answer.
If yes, do you then think the principles of Gestalt have an effect on brain function?
Those principles certainly have an effect on how we perceive an image, so there must be something going on our brains. Sadly, I’m not a neuroscientist (I ended up working with them by accident), so I can’t say what that is, but it is a fascinating subject. When I do run workshops in good graphic design for scientists, one of my top tips is to ‘line things up’ and I point out that if objects belong together then it should look as if they belong together. It’s a small thing but it makes a big difference in ease of comprehension of an image, particularly something as complex as a scientific figure.
What are your thoughts on the shortening attention spans of audiences? Do you think graphic design is an effective method of maintaining that attention?
It’s definitely an issue and I think graphic design needs to try as hard as any other media to attract, and retain, the attention of a viewer. I guess the PIS project is a case in point. One of our example sheets is a 10-page Word document, with a lot of dense text and one very fuzzy photographic image. I imagine a lot of patients would find that a daunting thing to read through and understand, and they may give up before they get through it all. Will replacing that with a document made up of designed and illustrated modules, employing simpler text and graphic elements (flowcharts, tables, etc), provide a solution that patients find it easier to engage with? We’re hoping so but I guess we’ll find out.
By working with scientists, have you found that it has given you better insight in how to design for audiences?
Working with scientists has given me a lot of insight into how to work with scientists! But I don’t think that is what your question is asking. Has it changed how I approach graphic design created for other audiences? I don’t think so, or certainly not in any way that I have noticed.
Do you notice similarities in the fields of graphic design and the sciences? If so, please explain those similarities.
I think I can only answer this question based on my own experience, having studied and worked in scientific fields for more than 20 years before studying and practicing graphic design. Personally, I think there is an affinity between how scientists approach their work and at least my own approach to graphic design. I first went to art college assuming that I would study fine art – I did not even know what graphic design was. But it quickly became obvious that my approach to art was much more suited to graphic art – and graphic design in particular. This may be to do with the generally more methodical approach to design when compared to fine art – the ‘problem-solving’ aspect that is often emphasised in graphic design briefs, for example – that I was very familiar with from scientific work.
When I started my PhD, my supervisor thought I would do well because of my science background, and I would therefore ‘think logically’ – I’m not sure that was always the case! But I did end up using a lot of very methodical graphic design practice as a research method, which enabled me to gain a much better understanding of the scientific visual languages and to devise a methodology for helping scientists create their figures.
I think that scientists could make more, and much better, use of graphic design in their work, as I do think it can fit in well with the ‘scientific method’ employed in scientific research. Unfortunately, scientists are not routinely trained in how to make the best use of visual communication, although I am trying to change that.
What are your thoughts on the collaboration of the arts and sciences to create more influential content for audiences?
I’ve found that I’ve developed quite strong feelings on arts/science collaborations during the course of my PhD. I started out assuming that there would be some meaningful collaborations between the two fields, but my research showed that is simply not the case. True collaborations, where both sides gain mutual benefit from a project, are vanishingly small, especially if fine art is involved. Typically, the scientists regard an art / science collaboration as an opportunity to produce ‘public-engaging’ content without the scientists themselves having to make any effort – which sounds very cynical but unfortunately is true. Artists produce work that may be inspired by scientific concepts or images – and may indeed look a bit ‘sciency’ – but there is no real science there. So, I’m afraid the term ‘collaboration’ is definitely not the word to describe most of these projects.
But on a more positive note …
I really do think that the arts and sciences can, and should, collaborate to create content. But there has to be real collaboration. The artists / designers need to take the time to get involved with what the scientists are doing, to understand how they work, the visual languages they use and what that all means. They need to be able to work within that scientific world, not just impose their methods on the scientists. And the scientists need to give their time to educate the artists/designers and also be open to trying new or different ways of visualising their work. I only managed to work with the neuroscientists at King’s because they were willing to give up a significant amount of their time to teach me about their work and were willing to take advice from me and to try something different. Given the pressures on research scientists – particularly in terms of time and money – that is a very difficult thing to do and we did have to compromise on what we could achieve.
Studying graphic design yourself, do you feel that graphic designers could be considered the neuroscientists of art, given their studies of Gestalt and the psychology behind it?
“Neuroscientists of art” is such a fantastic term – that would look great on a business card! But personally, I think that may be stating too much. I think I have a much more instinctive approach to my graphic design practice – I certainly don’t give much conscious thought to Gestalt theory when creating a layout, for example, it’s just about what ‘looks right’, and that may be the same for many designers. Of course, that is being driven by how I am perceiving the layout, and it’s good to at least be aware of the theory of how that works, but I certainly don’t understand the neuroscience underpinning that.
I do think that graphic designers have something in common with scientists in how they approach their work, as I discussed in earlier answers. So perhaps graphic designers are the “scientists of art”, in a more general sense, although I’m sure scientists would object to that term! But I certainly feel that I sit somewhere between the two fields, in terms of how I approach my work.