Please welcome our latest teacher from California (reading time 5 min.)

15.10.2018

Tell us, who you are and where you are from, above all why you are here with us now!

My name is Holly, and I’m offering the course "Graphic Recording and Visualisation: making science visual and engaging” at the ZfS during the 2018/19 Winter Semester. I’m from California, and have been living in Kiel for the last three and a half (almost four!) years. I moved to Kiel to do a masters degree in environmental management, and am writing my master’s thesis on the topic of “visual science communication”.

A bit about my background and why I’m offering this course: my background is actually almost entirely in the sciences rather than in the arts! I studied environmental geosciences for my undergrad in Scotland at the University of St Andrews, and then went on to study ecology and environmental management at the masters level here at the CAU. During both of those degrees I was drawing a lot on the side, and at a certain point it just clicked for me that doing drawing and illustration doesn’t need to be a hobby on the side – rather, it can be a very central part of the work that I do in science and science communication. So I took a break from my studies to do an illustration course in Denmark, and when I came back to Kiel I began to work doing visual science communication, including going to conferences where I do graphic recording, or live visual summaries. And this experience is what I want to bring to my class at the ZfS.

 What do I have to know to participate in your class?

The most important thing is that you do not have to have any experience or background in art. What you do have to bring to my class is interest in a scientific discipline, interest in doing science communication, and a desire to learn how to communicate visually. You’ll need a willingness to put pen to paper, make mistakes, learn through mistakes, and have fun building a visual language!

 What skills will I learn, in which skills will I be even better than before?

We’ll talk a lot about what good science communication looks like, and how to implement this visually. Which, yes, means we’ll practice drawing, doodling, making flow charts, putting information down on paper in visually interesting ways, and more! We’ll also practice thinking visually, and looking for ways to represent ideas quickly and easily in terms of symbols and visual language; hopefully after this course you’ll find yourself using drawings and symbols more easily as shorthand during your own note-taking, and implementing graphic recording techniques during lectures or in group meetings. This course should also help to develop your communication skills more broadly, by encouraging you to always look for new, creative ways to communicate a topic – especially a more complex topic – to different audiences.

In which „discipline“ or field of work would you love to take part in a meeting and do graphic recording?

My biggest weakness is ecology and nature – this is what I’ve studied, so topics in earth sciences, in ecology, nature, conservation, green solutions and sustainability, etc. are my absolute favorites to draw. I love to draw plants and animals; there’s a lot of beauty in nature, and my heart just swells a bit when I get to draw it.

I’m lucky because I go to an ecology conference every year, where I get to draw all kinds of plants and animals and fascinating ecosystems and interesting ecological studies. I did recently go to a hydrology conference, meanwhile, which was extremely interesting and which I had a lot of fun drawing; but I missed being able to draw biotic elements! For instance, I kept wishing I could draw about stream ecology instead of just drawing hydropower dams and sediment movement.

Where, in your opinion, are the limitations or barriers for graphic recording? How could we change/ widen them?

There are definitely limitations in graphic recording, as in any form of communication, and these limitations occur on different levels. At the personal level, of course, there are limitations to what one is able to draw, especially with time constraints; personally, I usually supplement my illustrations with text when I’m doing live graphic recording because there just isn’t time to draw everything! But as with anything, practice helps – the more time you spend practicing your visual language, the faster you’re able to implement it!

On a broader level, some of the limitations to graphic recording can occur in misinterpretation of visual symbols as a result of geographic or cultural differences. Here’s a silly example: a few years ago I did a short animation for a local project I was involved in, where I needed to include the Aldi logo. And because I was new in Germany, I had no idea that there are two different regional Aldi logos. I googled Aldi and drew the pretty colorful logo, and of course this was Aldi Süd and didn’t make sense geographically in the project, and I had to go back and redraw it with the Aldi Nord logo. In this case, it wasn’t a big deal, and people could still understand which supermarket it was! But this kind of misunderstanding can also happen across bigger gaps; for example, some symbols of visual language in one culture might mean nothing – or something entirely different – in other cultures. Traffic signs are a good example of visual communication that can get lost across cultures. The solution here is to be aware of your audience, and if you’re not sure whether certain visual language will work for different audiences, then reach out and ask!

Finally, there are limitations in accessibility. Graphic recording and visual communication generally are not always going to be accessible for people who are visually impaired, for instance, and that’s why it is so important to remember that visual communication is only one of many different kinds of science communication that we need to do. I love listening to science podcasts, for instance, and I know there are some great audiobooks and Ted Talks and other forms of non-visual science communication out there. So even as we focus on graphic recording and visualizing science in this class, I want students to also remember that this is just one way to do science communication, and to consider all the other rich areas of science communication they might explore, which can supplement and enrich visual communication!

What means „creativity“ to you?

For me, creativity means being unafraid to make mistakes in order to experiment and try new things. I think that the only way that you can really challenge yourself to think outside the box and try something new, where you’re really not sure if it’s going to work, is if you’re willing to take the risk that it won’t turn out like you’d hoped. I think pushing yourself to have this high risk tolerance helps you to open yourself up to the most potential for creativity. 

I’ve heard that for every new project, you should have an element of discomfort, where you’re pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. I think if you’re too comfortable with what you’re doing, then you’re not being driven to think creatively, or pushing yourself to find solutions. And I think it’s also important not to go with the first solution to a problem that pops into your head, but rather to think, spend time with it, mull it over, consider at least three or four different potential solutions, and once you have a couple of options, then you can start to think about which one works best. That does take discomfort and time and willingness to take risks.

But I also want to stress that creativity should involve play, and fun! And some of the solutions that you let yourself consider should be playful and silly and not at all serious; these will open up the door to finding a great solution that has elements of both the fun and the serious.