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Hello fellow science communicators,

This month we revisit using visuals to enhance your science communication—specifically, graphics.

The most important things to consider are the needs of your audience, choosing the most effective format for communicating your data, and being selective about the essential information. This issue we explore these in depth in:
Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss GascoigneSarah ColeMadeleine Stirrat, and our guest writers Matt Wood and Kate Hodge.
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Frame your graphics with the audience in mind



My #1 science communication principle is to consider the needs of who I am communicating with. This is also true for graphics, whether I am presenting to an audience or preparing something for a reader. I think about what is relevant to them and what will resonate with them.

Take the two graphs below. The one on the left dramatically shows the drop in the conservation status of coral over time, compared to other groups of animals. The one on the right shows the loss of abundance of coral reefs over time.

The graph on the left is likely more suited to a school or community group, interested in overall trends, while the one on the right is more suited to a technical or scientific audience interested in specifics, including confidence intervals.

IUCN Red List index of species survival (left) and coral reef decline due to threats (right).

When thinking about designing or choosing graphics, consider these three questions, always keeping your audience in mind:
  1. Given their background, will they easily understand it without any or much explanation?

  2. Does it help to more simply explain something that is complex?

  3. Will it add impact to my message?

Design better graphics by understanding our visual ability



Why do we present numbers as bar charts?

Look around and you’ll see average age, monthly rainfall, GDP, energy production, blood insulin levels—all presented as neat, parallel bars aligned along one edge.

They are so ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine a time when bar charts didn’t exist. William Playfair’s 1786 chart of trends in Scottish trading is often cited as the original bar chart, and it caused a bit of a stir at the time.

However, after some initial scepticism bar charts grew in popularity, because when they are done right they are intuitive, effortless to understand, and show trends not easily seen in tables.

The same visual system that has evolved to help us navigate and survive without falling in holes, stepping on a snake, or being eaten by a lion (most of the time) means we can easily interpret graphical images.

Our visual system evolved to helps us interpret the world we live in. We now use the same system to interpret information graphics. Images:

We can easily judge relative length, assess proximity and detect contrast. Observing a bar graph, we accurately interpret the relative lengths of the bars. We recognise that bars grouped together along an axis (clustered bar graph) will have some form of commonality, and different coloured or shaded bars highlight comparisons or add emphasis.

But our visual faculties are not perfect. We are less adept at estimating absolute length, judging relative area or volume, or recognising non-adjacent differences in colour. We find it hard to detect small differences in two dimensional areas or colour gradations.

Bubble plots and spatial heat maps are useful for conveying broad trends such as bigger versus smaller or hotter versus colder—but not finer nuances.

When designing your information graphics, consider:
  • Choosing a trusty bar chart or simple plot to show small changes in data values

  • Using a spatial heat map to show large scale trends over a geographical area

  • Grouping together graphic elements that are related, and separating out those that are not related

  • Avoiding overuse of multiple colours, competing contrasts and decorative elements

  • Checking your designs by looking at them with ‘fresh eyes’—good design should feel effortless to interpret and understand.


Dr Matt Wood is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, and a Visiting Academic Fellow at the University of Queensland.

Keep it simple to maximise your reach



I moved to Chile in August 2018, full of excitement, eager to absorb new cultures but with very little Spanish. I stumbled through restaurant orders, struggled to comprehend public transport, and relied on English speakers for help with housing, internet and various other errands. My Spanish slowly improved and while I could read things at my own pace with help from Google, news and TV shows were still out of reach.

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, I was desperate for local information, especially around the rules and regulations, where could we go, when could we go and what rules to follow when heading out. Struggling to follow press conferences and TV news, I pulled a lot of my information from Twitter—following the health ministry, local council and news accounts.

As a designer of visual communication products, I am always aware of the presentation of information. But I quickly began to appreciate how the clear, visual presentation of important information was so critical as a non-Spanish speaker. The language was basic, incorporated simple graphics, and colour-coding was consistent across all communication. These graphics were repeated day after day, week after week.


Different images explaining the different opening phases—from lockdown to full opening. Consistent colour-coding was used to explain capacity limits, also on maps.

In comparison, I recall seeing a Queensland Government plan for restrictions and opening, posted to Twitter at a similar time. Of course, it presents a lot more information, but I did not find it very accessible. The small text is overwhelming, colours are confusing and the alignment of items is not clear. By trying to fit everything into the one image, the information is lost in the detail.


Queensland’s roadmap to easing restrictions

By simplifying the information to its most basic (e.g. 5 people maximum in Red Phase 1), the key information in Chile was clear. Additional information (e.g. separate households, a picnic within 50km) only served to distract from the key message.

My 6 design tips for maximising and extending your reach:
  1. Establish your key messagesay only that. Add links for more information if you really have to.

  2. Repeat, repeat, repeatespecially on social media.

  3. Establish a colour scheme and use it consistentlyeverywhere, all the time.

  4. Don’t forget about colour-blindness! I like these two sites to set up colour schemes; both have colour-blindness simulators, as does Adobe Illustrator (View > Proof Setup).

  5. Small, simple graphics can help explain or categorise.

  6. Don’t let too much detail distract from your key message.

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