The focus on operational modes of design understood as project attitude for problem solving and innovation in economic and marketing fields, translated as design thinking, is starting to spread also in scientific environments. Design can show science directions on how be present in new fields of activity, propose new themes answering the needs of society and the market, or stimulate the “creative capacity” of science thanks to more project-based points of view and approaches.
In the sector of design the relation with the biosciences opens new perspectives of interventions, capable of generating new unusual professional profiles such as the Graphical Abstract Designer, the multi-media designer who translates scientific processes in video and digital animation, transforming scientific content into popular forms like presentations, illustrations, info-graphics, apps and exhibit in order to make them accessible to the professionals who use them, like doctors and biologists, or, more in general, society. The visualization of scientific principles has become,moreover, an effective marketing tool to represent the content of researches linked to medicine, clothing, sport accessories, biomedical products, cosmetics and sports accessories. However, scientific visualization through design can also be used by media to influence public opinion on on specific paths of science and development policies. In this case the ethical and social impacts are complex and relevant.
Scientific journals tend to request, when an article is submitted, a graphical abstract, that is: a pictorial representation which summarizes, as a kind of conceptual map, the core elements of the article. This leads scientists to have an urgent need for representation which most of the times they cannot solve by themselves, or at least: not quickly and sometimes with outcomes which do not live up to the value of the scientific research in terms of visual quality and communicational effectiveness. It is for this reason that platforms like Mind the Graph, founded by the scientist Fabricio Pamplona, are being born. Mind the Graph collaborates with a graphic studio for the creation of graphical abstracts, pictures for publications, presentations and other forms of scientific communication. It is an online platform which helps scientists build images with preset formats, icons, and logics. The issue with initiatives like this is that that the project nature of design is reduced to an automatism, with templates and standard images, and the quality of the end result deals with the consequences of this.
Anyway, the appearance of subjects with a new characterization like Mind the graph, unexplored until some time ago, prove the expansion of a need which has the urgency of being satisfied. Only those who will be able to adapt to a hybrid approach, to immerse themselves in any kind of scientific topic and interpret it so that their view can enrich the scientific standpoint without deviating it or denaturate it, will be able to take up this new challenge in its full potentiality. This means being able to listen and understand in a short time the core and priority concepts to be communicated, even without mastering fully the scientific ideas. It is necessary for the designer to adapt its pace to the pursuit of results in very short terms, since the aim of scientists is to publish their discoveries as soon as possible, before others manage to publish something similar.
It is in the skill of selecting contents to communicate in order to highlight instantaneously the contribute of the work to the scientific field that the effectiveness of the designer who visualizes science lies. Describing graphically and synthetically a process, understanding in depth all the details and implications as a scientist would do, is very difficult. The most frequent outcome is complicated images, in which logical levels overlap, losing their hierarchical structure. Designers need to learn how to structure hierarchies of concepts in order to make their representation emerge through the expressive tools and perceptual-cognitive strategies most suitable.
In the introduction to Science Communication in Theory and Practicei, the authors underline the strategic role of scientific communication to the widest public possible. In the article are enumerated five values to refer to while evaluating the impact of scientific communication: economic, utilitarian, democratic, cultural, and social. Such values have to be modulated in correlating the scientific results to the citizens, and ensure the participation of scientists to public life. Designers and artists, for their attitude of communicating values, concepts, and principles, can illustrate the scientific characters to either wide and generalist or very specific segments of users. With a specific attention to sciences of life, they can build visual narratives and sequences of information in infographic ways which can result involving and inclusive, as much as explanatory or educational. If the aim of the scientists is to reach the most effective results in the shortest amount of time, even ignoring the graphical and communicational quality of the representational tools they use, planners and designers can help them make those results easier to be understood by the scientific community and by the wider public.
According to Pauwels in Visual Cultures of Scienceii the role of design is more propositional and wider than the mere communicational function, because the intervention of design in visualizing data and concepts from different points of view stimulates scientists towards reinterpreting differently their own knowledges, allowing them to perceive and sense aspects which could add fruitful reasonings and detournements to their research.
Designers, then, can contribute to the scientific knowledge either through an interpretative and facilitative approach – building narrative paths based on the planned use of information and images – providing the scientists with information systems to catalogue, analyze, interpret, share, renovate, and develop their data with, also showing them something new which favors discoveries and intuitions.
Stuart McKee published an article on Eye magazine, titled Making Visible the Invisibleiii, in which he asks himself “Can designers and scientists teach each other how to express new concepts in text and image?”. Answering the question McKee describes different intersections among scientists and designers or designers and artists. Among the best known Felice Frankel, scientist, photographer, and designer, known for her work on yeast visualization, a collaboration with two scientists from MIT. This was a very controversial project because in rendering the scientific image “cleaner”, she canceled the Petri Dish, the transparent container used by biologists for cultivations. In this way, she removed the technical support, an important element to understand and replicate the experiment, fundamental for scientific publications. This episode highlights a major issue in the visualization of science: the obligation of designers to approach scientific data and protocols strictly without compromising, with their interpretations, the scientific value of the transferred information and conventions recognized in the Scientific community. This is a question that is likely to counter the need for designers to develop alternative and unusual language and expression forms for the scientific field.
In the article On-Screen Storytelling in the Visualization of Biotechnology,iv Heather Corcoran highlights that one of the biggest problems in the collaboration between designers and scientists is due to the fact that the scientific data stays mainly in the hands of the scientists, who are reluctant to share it with the designer who has the task to represent and communicate them. This resistance weakens the communicational potential of design. However, visualization has different aims, if it is not oriented to the scientific community, it can turn out to be crucial to reach a different public, i.e. possible funders, who thanks to the representational mediation can understand more easily the innovative potential of the scientific work depicted.
Another important area of bio-sciences visualization, able of bringing closer the most advanced scientific research to society, also through tools like networks and social media, is digital animation. In 2006 Harvard University partnered with XVIVO for the development of an animation aimed at allowing cellular biology students to experience a virtual journey inside the microscopic world of the cell. In this context the “cult” video in sciences visualization, The Inner Life of the Cell, was born, which follows the movement of a leukocyte in the endothelium, and its responses to external stimuli.
From that moment, XVIVO created more marvelous animations collected in the series Harvard’s BioVisions. Amongst these: Powering the Cell: Mitochondria, which follows the mechanisms of ATP production within the mitochondrial membrane, and The Inner Life of the Cell: Protein Packing which shows the crowded inner space of a cell. The described versions of these animations are available online on the website of BioVisions, an organization dedicated to the development of scientific videos, founded by Robert A. Lue and supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and by Harvard University. However, a new and effective visualization can also contribute to the development of sciences facilitating new intuitions and discoveries. It is for this that the ability of observe and record the scientific data in an original way, founded on tridimensionality and dynamism which scientists are not able of imagining, constitute an important opportunity for the evolution of all sciences.
Another science visualization company is Visual Science, which offers services to industries such as biomedicine, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnologies, chemicals and microelectronics. In addition to scientific expertise, the company embraces design, imaging, film production, game design and marketing skills to provide solutions that innovatively and effectively illustrate projects, products and services to a specialized and heterogeneous audience. In addition to the internal team, the company also employs more than 70 scientific consultants from various fields, from prestigious universities and international research centers, to ensure the proper handling of specialized scientific content.
The main areas of Visual Science‘s intervention are: scientifically accurate 3D modeling of products, processes and technologies, digital animation, illustration, augmented reality and virtual reality. Major clients include research centers, universities and companies that offer solutions for scientific communication, marketing and teaching. It is interesting to visit the gallery of projects developed by Visual Science to observe how expressive codes and visual languages vary according to the scope of application (science, technology, medicine, etc.) and depending on communicative declination (animation, infographic, poster, 3D model, scientific magazine covers, etc.).
The relationship between designers and scientists, as Paola Antonelli states in the preface to the catalog of the exhibition Design and Elastic Mind, has to be bijective, and founded on exchanges and dialogues active in both directions, benefitting all the parties involved. Susan Greenfield, British scientist and writer, specialized in brain physiology, asserts that scientists should always rely on creativity in order to interpret the needs of society and in order to work in a direction which is more likely to satisfy them. At the same time, designers and artists have to be aware of the new neurophysiological sciences’ achievements, which describe processes in order to manage their work more consciously and fruitfully.
In the text The Quest for Identity in the 21st Centuryv, Greenfield tackles a neurophysiological issue of big interest for artists and designers, and for the wider public: the plasticity of the brain. The brain is a very plastic and dynamic organ, always subject to constant structural and physiological changes connected to the changes of lifestyles, of work tools, and activity contexts. All these elements affect the way of perceiving and understanding information. A very clear example of the influence of brain’s plasticity is that of the physiological modifications observed in the brains of very young people, due to the use of the excessive use of scree-based devices, caused by the retro-illumination and by the speed of images, which reduce the ability to focus and concentrate. It is a very useful scientific text for designers and artists because it describes the creative process in terms of phenomena and neuronal connections, summarized in three phases: deconstruction, construction of new associations, and attribution of new meanings to the new associations via connections.
Essays like this can be very useful for creative professionals approaching the scientific visualization, since they allow to grasp the neurological phenomena that are the basis of the assimilation of complex concepts and to help maximize the communicative effectiveness of the designer’s work for science. Design therefore supports science and at the same time science helps design to acquire a certain awareness on the logics on which its work is based, in order to make it better, especially when the field of activity is the scientific one, which requires rigor and reliability. The relationship with science can then be facilitated by science itself.
One of the strategies for digital art to shorten the distance between people and the processes and logics of nature, and the awareness of the intertwining between the biological domain and the synthetic/digital one, is the creation of digital organisms and ecosystems as in Syntfarm, a collective born in 2007 between Germany and Singapore, from the collaboration of Andreas Schlegel and Vladimir Todorovi. The collective explores and preserves the expressions and the structures of dynamic natural ecosystems translating them in digital ecosystems which are not just mappings or graphical representations of organisms and natural environments, since they behave as extension of such ecosystems, following the same rules and principles.
Syntfarm works on four sources: atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere. The approach aims at experimenting, showing, and understanding the life on the planet, with its rules and its needs, with the purpose of proposing a kind of on-line encyclopedia which is dynamically updated. The project is divided in three phases, characterized by different activities. NOAnetwork of actions is a cyclic system of data collection which puts into connection different sites and different ecosystems with the purpose of creating links and synergies between distant places. The data is collected in a place to then be restituted and shown in another place.
In the same place where the display of this data happens, a new set of data collection starts. In this way, the cycle can go on infinitely. NODAAutonomous data objects is, instead, constituted by physical objects which archive chronologically events already happened on a specific site. The archived data are scientific and objective, connected to the life of specific sites, such as the quality of the air, the temperature, humidity, pression. In the section SEsynthetic ecosystem all the sets of data acquired by NOA and NODAA are stored as organisms and digital environments, in modules defined as farms, as if they were cultivation organisms, in a digital environment. All the farms, imitating processes and systems which have been observed in a physical space and that have a dynamic behavior in their dedicated environment, evolve simulating potential behaviors of future ecosystems.
The illustrated cases are just a few examples that reveal diverse media, different language and expressive codes that, on the international scene, help to define this varied and multiform universe that sets new professional outlets for hybrid, curious, rigorous, artists and designers oriented to contribute, with their work, to the evolution of science.
1 – Stocklmayer, S.M., Gore, Rajeev, Bryant, C.R., Springer, 2001
2 – Pauwels, Luc. “Visual cultures of science.” Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication. Hanover/NH(2006).
3 – Corcoran, Heather. “On-Screen Storytelling in the Visualization of Biotechnology.”
5 – Greenfield S. “The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century.” UK: Sceptre(2008).