To communicate effectively, scientists have to start thinking like designers: know your audience, follow the rules of human perception, and tell your story in many layers.
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Lev Tankelevitch
This past August, I visited the Naturejobs career expo in London. As I chatted with exhibitors, I was ready to decline the typical set of leaflets they give away at these things. To my surprise, I was given a USB stick loaded with all of the information that I’d otherwise be carrying home in a canvas bag. This small but much appreciated gesture highlighted for me the significance of effective communication.
It was advice that was echoed by many of the speakers at the expo: know your audience, clarify your message, tell a story. These are the principles of good design, and as a scientist, you are a designer. Your PowerPoint presentation, poster, and publication; your academic and general audience talks; your CV, and even your latest e-mail is an object of design. The sooner scientists realize this, the sooner they can begin designing consciously, and communicating effectively.
Pay attention to your audience’s attention
The best billboard designs are simple, conveying an emotional message, rather than any specifics. Why? Advertising designers obsess over how much time they have with their audience, and their time estimates dictate the depth of their work. Walking down a busy city street, consumers have no time or motivation to stand and read a detailed billboard ad. There are simply too many things competing for their attention.
Now instead of a billboard ad, imagine a CV; the consumer is a hiring manager, swamped with a stack of applications. If you think like an advertising designer, you “tailor your CV to each position,” as a Roche Pharmaceuticals hiring manager implored at the Expo. The same principles apply to public engagement. Science presenter Steve Mould told me,
“When I show my four-year-old nephew a trick, his mother tells me to explain how it works, to teach him some science — but he won’t pay attention to that, he just wants to have his mind blown.”
Everyone has attention constraints defined by interest, time, and physiology (a five-hour talk will have your audience sleeping in any case, no matter how interesting). Hiring managers, four-year-olds, principal investigators, and audiences at conferences, public talks, and science festivals all have different constraints. Think about, and design your work, for them.
Follow the rules of human perception
Design caters to human perception. For example, we are built to perceive contrast. It is the reason why whitespace — areas in a layout intentionally left blank — or similarly, making a brief pause before an important message, is such an effective way to emphasize information.
In practice, this means that in addition to excising irrelevant information from your CV, the content you do provide must guide the reader’s eye. Any simplification of the job of searching a page increases the chances of being considered.
This applies equally to public engagement or to academic presentations. Mould summarizes the biggest mistake science communicators make as “death by PowerPoint”. Cut the text from your slides (or posters), or avoid it altogether. If you must use any text or data in your presentation, there’s a brilliant regular column in Nature Methods covering all aspects of design and data visualization for scientists. Likewise, the Better Posters blog is a long-running endeavour offering free critiques and re-interpretations of scientific posters. Read about the principles of visual design, and use them to clarify your message.
Tell your story in many layers
Good design tells a story. And it’s unique because it tells its stories implicitly. Nike doesn’t have to spell out that they stand for “training hard and achieving the impossible”. Their design lets you work it out for yourself, through its imagery and tone.
You, too, tell stories implicitly. Your choice of font can evoke subtle feelings. Helvetica, the best font for CVs, represents professionalism, honesty, and cleanliness. Similarly, the colour scheme of your presentation, or the intonation of your voice during a talk, conveys certain messages. Science media consultant Virginia Schutte reinforced this idea in her workshop: instead of letting a slapdash collection of Google search results describe you, creating a customized personal website gives you the power to tell your own story to your target audience.
Most importantly, none of this is to detract from the value of your actual content. Your science and professional experience is still central. Rather, design thinking aims to make your content clearer, and ensures that your intentions come through accurately. Consider your audience and their attention span, clarify your content according to the principles of human perception, and tell your story in multiple ways. You’re a designer, after all. So act like one.
Lev Tankelevitch is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, where he is studying the neuroscience of learning and attention. In addition to research, he is drawn to writing, public policy, and the intersections between science communication, art, and design. Follow him on Twitter @lev_tank.