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Before and After: Applying "Communication Design" Rules

In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I focused on learning more about storytelling, presenting, 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 "5 Essential Elements of Impactful Design" resource 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 

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

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

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)

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

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

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.”

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.

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