A different kind of research poster.

by Jen

The last time I made a research poster, it was made in PowerPoint, not InDesign, and it had a lot more greek symbols…

Friday, December 14th marked the half way point for my thesis work (theoretically). It was CMU’s annual mid-year Thesis Poster Session, where the second year MDes grad students present large format posters summarizing their work so far, and highlighting especially their design goals, implications, and plans for the remaining half of the year. It’s meant to be an opportunity for us to receive feedback, more than evaluation. Though we gave formal presentations to faculty during the morning, the afternoon session was open to the public and lots of people came through the new studio to a) gawk at the newly renovated space and b) read and comment on our thesis work.

I received a lot of valuable feedback on my work, some from the faculty team that I presented to, and some from the others who stopped to chat during the open house that followed. I’ll summarize that feedback in my next post (very soon). In the meantime, here’s the poster:

Thesis Poster

You can download the full size pdf here.

Of course, the posters are meant to “stand alone,” but it makes more sense when someone is standing next to it, willing to explain and answer questions. Since you don’t have the benefit of standing next to me, here’s a brief summary:

The abstract (top left) sets the foundation for my work.

On the top right, I aimed to visually represent the current state of science communication in a quick checklist. Even though we have made a lot of strides to understand exactly how science denialists manufacture the illusion of controversy and doubt where there really is consensus, there aren’t many evidence based strategies for the science communicators out there to combat those efforts. (Hence, my poster’s title.) The main assumptions are often:

  • People are in denial (of science, scientific authority, the truth, etc…)
  • People are misinformed or uneducated about science
  • People are irrational and not worth engaging on the topic

While these may seem logical, they’re not evidence based. In fact, evidence is piling up to the contrary of all three points. And the solutions that would be implied by each:

  • Stronger arguments
  • Better education
  • Marginalize the irrational

… have been tried and, as more in the science communication world are taking notice to see, unfortunately don’t work.

So my goal is to design strategies that do work. And to test them out, so I can ultimately say they are evidence based.

As an experience designer, that means I want to apply a human centered design process to this challenge. Human centered design is a bit of an overused buzzword these days, and I even heard some feedback that I may take forward by dropping the term entirely, but to explain it in a nutshell: it’s rhetoric. That is, Aristotle’s rhetoric, not modern day “art of lying” rhetoric. Rhetoric as in, really, truly knowing your audience and what makes them tick, before designing for them. Design that begins from a place of empathy. Empathy doesn’t imply being friends or even approving of the values that audience or single person may hold, but it does imply putting yourself in their shoes and understanding their worldview. In this case, it means understanding who we’re trying to persuade, (as opposed to who we’re trying to out-reason, argue, educate, or ignore). 

To explain how I’m approaching this challenge, the poster outlines a pretty widely accepted model for human centered design. Beginning with an effort to understand the people we’re designing for, we can then define the problem, develop possible solutions, prototype and evaluate those solutions, which can then be refined, reevaluated, and so on. (And ultimately, shared with others). My goal is to work through this process at least twice, hopefully three times, and develop guidelines along the way that can inform the communication design process for future science communicators. You can read the poster for the details, (and if you’ve followed any of the previous blog posts, it should be sounding pretty familiar). I’m currently sending the first prototype out into the world with a survey and hope to take insights from my first pass through the process into a second round starting in January.

The timeline at the bottom is a rough sketch of the spring semester’s goals. If you have any questions, ideas, criticism, compliments, angry retorts, jokes, songs, or general comments, I’d love to hear them. I’ll post a summary of the feedback I received from the poster session later this week.