Before and After: Applying “Communication Design” Rules

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I focused on learning more about storytellingpresenting, and design.  Of all the changes that I have made as a result of these lessons, the most immediate impact has been in the way that I think about and visualize my message. The following before and after examples show just how easy it is to do this….

The most effective visuals are those that have a single focus. As Garr Reynolds points out in his book Presentation Zen Design, there are two simple ways to emphasize what is important in images, charts and graphs. The first is to use contrast by exploiting differences in color, shape, proximity, and size. The second is to use a declarative title. For example, “Deforestation Rates Peaked at 27% in 1995” quickly relays the meaning of a figure while the more common “Deforestation Rates over Time (1990-2010)” is more elusive.

Note that people will interpret your slides and figures first by reading the titles, then by looking at the shapes or images in the foreground, and lastly by focusing on details like the legends, axes title and any other extraneous information. You want to design your images to complement this visual flow.

The following 3 “before and after” examples apply these and other concepts from my previous blog to old presentations that I have given and figures that I have improved on for publication. I created the figures in Stata, but they can be easily reproduced in software as simple as Excel, or in other programs like R, with a few additional lines of code.

Figure 1A – Slide with Photos of Deforestation 

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The slide above is from an old presentation. Notice that the three photos create clutter because they are small and do not provide a uniform theme. The title is descriptive, not informative.

Figure 1B – Revised Slide with Single Focus

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In this revised slide the clutter is removed, the image is full bleed (see Akash Karia’s book for more examples), and the title is included within the photo. I have increased the blank area of the photo (where the title is located) by matching the background color to the sky. The image has been cropped to fit the space, making sure to maintain the asymmetry (the house and the cow are off-center).

Figure 2A: Deforestation over Time for the Original Control and Treatment Groups, 1990-2009

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This second example is a time-series line graph. It is intended to display the increase in deforestation over time for a control and a treatment group. The colors and legend are the defaults in Stata.

Figure 2B:  Deforestation on Farms of the Original Control and Treatment Groups (Mean Hectares by year, 1990-2009)

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The revised figure is a simpler, cleaner version of the prior. Note that I changed the background color to white; used a warm color  (i.e., one from the red, orange and yellow hues) to highlight the treatment group (because these colors pop out rather than blend in with the background; see Reynolds); and have created a title that is informative. In addition (see Schwabish), the y-axis title is moved to the subtitle and the legend removed. The y-axis tick mark labels are rotated to be horizontal (and easier to read), and the mean lot size is added to provide a benchmark. The result of these edits is that the differences between the control and treated groups are quickly evident.

Figure 3A: Table of Associations Used in Study of Social Networks

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This final example shows one way to translate tables into figures for presentation. The table above includes information about household participation in 10 different farming associations. While the information is relevant to the study and appropriate for inclusion in our paper, this is too much information to display in a presentation.

Figure 3B: Household Participation (Percent) in 3 Most Popular Associations over Time

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Figure 3B provides one alternative to the Figure 3A above. It displays the participation rate in the top 3 associations. Note that the bars are listed horizontally to better capture trends over time (as you move downward) and that the totals are placed within the bars instead of outside to better balance the image. The y-axis label is not included because this information is in the title.

The above before and after examples are just three of the endless ways in which you can improve upon your visuals. If you want to learn more, one of the simplest ways is to open your eyes to the lessons that are all around you in advertisements, on billboards, and on your smart phone. Keep in mind that you can achieve simplicity in design with the three fundamental principles: “restrain, reduce, and emphasize.”

Do you have any old slides or images that you’d like to update with these design tips in mind? If so, note a comment below and submit them to me: jlcaviglia-harris@salisbury.edu. I can include these on a future blog with additional tips or just get back to you personally.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

5 Essential Elements of Impactful Design

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Design is the language of the eye

Design can make the difference between an impactful message and a forgotten claim. Design is not decoration, but rather plays a functional and organizational role in delivering a message. As David McCandless points out in his TED talk “The Beauty of Data Visualization,” design is the language of the eye. Given this potential, it is surprising how often the opportunities to create this impact are lost in academic presentations and figures in publications.

My mother exposed me to design when I was a child with a color wheel, tutoring me on the differences between hue, tint, and the importance of contrast… and painting our house a new color almost every year. She taught me calligraphy when I was 10, creating the opportunity to learn about font, serif, and the flow of text. This outlook helped me to see the world differently, but I can’t say it impacted my career until recently. It was hard to see how design could be applied to communication when the recipe for presentations at academic conferences is set (and veering from this can have negative consequences). This changed after I stumbled across Jon Swabish‘s article “An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data.” Combining this with the long list of resources I had only just begun to review opened me up to the profound impact of design in communication.

To make images more impactful, it is important to understand the golden rules of design.  First, one of the simplest ways to make a composition visually appealing is to work in odd numbers. One, three and five are more interesting than two, four, or six. This is because even numbers allow the brain to group more easily, making them less memorable and appealing than their odd cousins. Designers also use the rule of thirds to guide placement (see Ang Tian Teck’s Sticky Presentations for a great visual on this concept). In this context, the subject is located along one of the 3 x 3 grid intersects of the image.

These rules are just the start. I have found the following elements of impactful design to be most useful in communicating research findings:

1. Test Your Design Knowledge. Learn what you know (and don’t know) about design solutions by testing your knowledge with the “Graph Design IQ Test” on the Perceptual Edge Web site www.perceptualedge.com.

2. Keep It Simple. Whether you’re preparing slides for a presentation or a figure for an article, you want to reduce clutter and focus on one point. Forget about slide limits. They are free. Use as many as you need (keeping to only one point per slide). In figures emphasize the main point with color and focus. Delete extraneous information and detail. Embrace white space. This creates natural contrast, allows the brain to “breathe” and provides focus where you want it.

3. Make It Big. Your audience should be able to read your text from the back of the room during a presentation. Your reader should be able to understand your figures without squinting. As Nancy Duarte notes in Resonate, your slides should have more in common with billboards or road signs than the images you see elsewhere. In other words, they should be understood quickly and seen from great distances. To gain a perspective on the right size, Garr Reynolds suggests in his book Presentation Zen Design that you view your slides in the slide-sorter. If you can’t understand or read them in this view, your text or image is probably too small for those in the back of the room.

4. Know Your Fonts. Most experts in design recommend the use of one, or at most two, different fonts in a presentation. As Akash Karia recommends (How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides), you should use size (and not various fonts) to depict importance and create emphasis.  Serif fonts aid readability for longer sections of text because the serifs (or the end strokes) lead your eye from one word to the next. On the other hand, sans serif fonts are often preferred for figures and slides since the lack of end strokes makes each individual letter easier to distinguish.

5. Seek Asymmetrical Balance. Asymmetrical balance is achieved when both sides of an image are not identical, yet appear to have the same visual weight. On the other hand, symmetrical (or formal) balance is achieved by creating the reverse of a design on the opposite side of a vertical or horizontal axis. While symmetry achieves balance through repetition, asymmetry achieves balance through contrast. Similar to the use of odds and the rule of threes, asymmetrical balance results in beautiful and impactful images because of the work the brain has to perform to recognize the visual weight.

In my next blog I’ll share examples using these essential elements. What helps you most to design impactful presentations and figures? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) see her additional entries on storytelling and presenting and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.