This hasn't always been the case. In Galileo's time, scientists were also trained in art. These days, scientists often produce a graph using Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint's default settings which might look fine to them, but may have fundamental design problems.
Meanwhile, even journals are focusing on the importance of figures, often asking authors to improve them before publication.
"It's not just about looking pretty. It's about conveying complex information in a clear way," Cheng said.
The Design Help Desk also is a study funded by the National Science Foundation about how to better communicate science.
"We want to see whether learning how to design figures and arrange visual elements in space might help scientists better understand or conceptualize what they are trying to communicate," Rolandi explained. "That's actually quite novel, because there aren't many examples of research where the interaction between scientists and designers is observed."
Clients who arrive for a session at the Design Help Desk are first greeted by postdoctoral researcher Yeechi Chen, who earned her doctorate in physics at the UW and has completed a UW certificate course in natural science illustration. Chen can act as an intermediary between the scientist and the designer, and reassure new clients that scientists are involved in the project.
During the half-hour session, the scientist client and design consultant are alone in the room. The designer first asks the scientist about his or her goals timeline, stage in the design process, publication venue, and main points to convey. The designers typically use pen and paper to sketch out their ideas.
If the client agrees, the session is videotaped for use in the group's study. One camera records the face-to-face interaction, while a second camera on the ceiling records the sketching and hand movements.
In a typical session, Andrew Salituri, a UW master's student in d
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University of Washington