By Heidi Biggs
Vassilissa Semouchkina’s thesis asks how art and design might inherently strengthen the dissemination and interpretability of scientific research. As data and information science become exponentially more bound with scientific knowledge production, she suggests that better design of scientific information offers a way forward in addressing disinformation, information literacy and information access. Over the course of the year, by conducting workshops at various research labs from UW’s sciences community, Semouchkina introduced scientific researchers to design basics with emphasis on crafting more clear and aesthetic data visualizations. As informational literacy is becoming ever more important and information science has revolutionized the sciences, Semouchkina sees information design as an important bridge between scientific discovery and broader research dissemination. She hopes that by giving scientists the design know-how to create more aesthetic and interpretable figures and data visualizations, scientific research will eventually become more available, trusted and legible to the public.
The idea for this project stems from Semouchkina’s experiences of working as a designer at Michigan Technological University where she was both a part of an academic community as well as the community of the surrounding rural town. At Michigan Tech, Semouchkina worked with research scientists to design scientific data visualizations and publications. This job made her acutely aware of the need for clear and well-crafted scientific figures, as well as how scientific knowledge, beyond being esoteric and specialized, is hard to access — it mostly lives behind paywalls and in university libraries. In contrast, living in a small town in Michigan highlighted the gulf of ‘informational worlds’ that currently exist within the United States — a mile down the road from the university, there was a rural community where some residents held a deep distrust for scientific knowledge. Her thesis seeks to address this cultural gulf through interdisciplinary engagement. By making scientific information more accessible through clearer information design, she hopes scientific research will become easier to disseminate and trust among non-scientists.
The bulk of her thesis consists of workshops run with five different labs from the UW community. Semouchkina ran two workshops at each lab, introducing the scientists to basic design and critique skills. In the first of the two workshops, she taught basic compositional concepts such as contrast, hierarchy, color theory and proximity. This workshop effectively took design out of its ‘black box’ and removed barriers to entry. While at first, scientists were timid and viewed design as decorative, Semouchkina did a bit of rhetorical gymnastics and helped the scientists see design as a tool that can expedite and clarify communication. This shift in framing helped the scientific community feel more welcome in the design space — perhaps they believed they had low aptitude for making things beautiful, but they most definitely were capable of using tools. If this program were to grow or expand, it might do a great deal to democratize design as well as grow mutual respect and understanding between design and science practitioners in ways that enrich their respective disciplinary positionalities towards the data they mutually care about representing.
After the first workshop, Semouchkina asked lab members to give her data visualizations they wanted to refine. When she returned for the second workshop, they used these examples to learn and practice critique. Doing a workshop about critique was insightful, as critique is the backbone of a continuing and self-refining design culture. Learning critique gives scientists the tools to support ongoing design practice and might also result in the unintended consequence of labs sharing more of their research findings with each other. Just as artists appropriate science in ways that don’t resemble ‘normative’ science, I wonder if scientists will appropriate design and critique in ways that a designer might not have imagined. Interdisciplinarity might require letting go of the ‘preciousness’ of a discipline and letting another community toss it around and drop it a few times. I’m curious to see how the labs appropriate design and critique after a month, or a year. To support such longer-term engagement and ongoing incorporation of design into lab culture, Semouchkina created a toolkit based on findings from her two workshops. The toolkit includes low-profile but permanent reminders like posters and easy to carry pocket-sized booklets that are reminders of basic design principles and critique guidelines.
The original inspiration for this project stemmed from Semouchkina’s concern over information access and information literacy, which is an area where design plays a huge role. Disinformation and mistrust spreads quickly — accelerated by social media bubbles and isolated media ecosystems — and empowering scientists to make their research easier to understand is a novel approach to addressing this problem. As a designer with experience working with scientists to craft meaningful data visualizations, Semouchkina saw an opportunity to address information access and interpretability through interdisciplinarity. Semouchkina hopes that well-designed figures and data visualizations in scientific publications will result in more accurate and frequent dissemination of scientific findings in media ecosystems and interdisciplinary work. Information access and ethics and how research eventually weaves its way into everyday life is an issue of great importance in an ever-more fragmented and polarized cultural landscape. As information science shifts the world as we know it (or knew it) and as data-driven approaches to scientific discovery dominate the landscape of research, democratizing design amongst scientists offers one under-explored avenue for building information criticality, accessibility and trust.