Looking Good

by Nick Timkovich

EVANSTON — I recently finished the first art class I’ve taken since elementary school. Down in the Loop for 6 weeks I participated in the “Data as Art” course, a collaboration between Northwestern and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). In it, each group used a data set to generate a work of art. Our group used transit data to provide the viewer with a truer representation of Chicago as seen by a CTA patron. Easier, quicker to get to locations were contracted inward, while “transit deserts” were isolated (for a deeper look, read my fellow group member’s SciAm blog post). While that is something a technically-inclined mind could do in a few weeks, my major take-away from the course was a reinforcement of the importance of aesthetics in technical communication. Here are few interfaces I have seen recently between science and art.

A couple months ago, Chris Hadfield, Commander of ISS Expedition 35, landed in Kazakhstan ending one of the most impressive social media campaigns by a scientist. Between his photos on Twitter and videos on YouTube where he makes the most mundane things look anything but, he seems to have struck a chord (figuratively and literally) with many in the public. Compared to past NASA ISS videos, these are orders of magnitude better—higher resolution, not undersaturated, and cut down to an appropriate length for their intended audience. By no means do I suggest that every video must be a proto-viral video, but featured videos should be professional. As of late, NASA still puts out loads of bulk, boring, unedited media, but there are improvements, such as “7 minutes of Terror”, and most of the clips from Goddard Space Flight Center.

Something more technical than videos for layman consumption are the tools produced by scientists, for scientists. The amount of effort required to produce a tool that doesn’t break the moment you give it to someone else is about an order of magnitude more than the quick and dirty script, as developers coddle their own code so as to not break with the subtlest nuance. If deployment is an end goal, care should be taken designing the interface so that it is inviting and makes sense to use, not just what was easiest to slap together during development. Sure, after writing and testing code you want to shove it out the door as quick as possible, but then you end up with a Geocities-esque GENSCAN tool rather than BLAST.

Finally, deeper within the sphere of science, papers published by the ACS seem to make terrible graphics something of a sport. TOCROFL is a sort of wall of fame (shame?) showcasing the more egregious examples, where they range from cute and mildly unprofessional to nauseating. Sure, not every lab is going to have a copy of Illustrator and someone with the skills to use it, but no illustrations are sometimes better than bad illustrations. Bad illustrations, however, are infinitely better than bad figures which purport to convey data. Some fields have quirky-but-uniform plots that show up in every paper that befuddle outsiders, but neglecting those there are often figures that seem impenetrable, presenting too much data or in some “novel” way that is poorly explained.

Researchers need to have a better appreciation of aesthetics; but it goes deeper than my vignettes. One can not simply avoid rainbow-colored text on a poster with a red-green gradient and using illegible font sizes in a PowerPoint slide (saw that gem last Spring at ACS) and call that good. Intriguing data and novel concepts deserve to be conveyed in a beautiful, straightforward manner, not hidden between two plots at some abstract nexus. Being “artsy” doesn’t mean being vague. Like the most aesthetically pleasing programming language, “there should be one—and preferably only one—obvious way to do it”, and for me to interpret your figure.