When Art Meets Science

Visualization as a powerful communication tool

We live in a world of displays: on laptops, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches. These devices bring together technologies to make our lives better, but, above all, their key feature is that they’re primarily visual. Rich colors, high resolutions, and bright backlights enable an engaging experience. It is not surprising that these devices resonate with so many, since we are visual beings with significant portions of our brain dedicated to processing this kind of stimuli. 

Recognizing this inspires us to explore innovative ways to communicate our ideas. For scientists, this is even more critical. What good are our ideas, research, and data if we cannot communicate them efficiently, comprehensively, and elegantly? This inspiration and a personal passion for art have shaped how I communicate my work and knowledge as an organic chemist and have, most recently, inspired me to create infographics. I hope that my inspiration, experience, and some of the principles that I share here will encourage you to incorporate infographics in your own publications, teaching, and learning, with a solution that I have found useful: ChemDraw.

The inspiration
I have always had a fascination with art and creative expression from as early as grade school through college and beyond. Using colored pencil as my primary medium, my sketches evolved to drawings, and my drawings evolved to thematic collections.  Colored images were always more memorable than words alone. 
This preference for imagery also influenced my choice of scientific field: organic chemistry. Early in my education, I was fascinated by the look of chemical structures. I still appreciate how concisely they can convey so much useful information. And I think that many chemists would know what I mean if I said that a given structure illustrates a “beautiful molecule”. 
As a scientist, experimental data is the most important outcome of my work.  However it is meaningless unless we can communicate it to others. Visualizations are our most powerful tool for accomplishing this.

This simple truth was also encouraged by my post-doctoral advisor, K. C. Nicolaou, who emphasized that a great publication should include schemes that are able to convey the complete scientific story to the reader before they look at even a single word of text.

This same principle appeared later in an American Chemical Society (ACS) webinar: Mastering the Art of Scientific Publication, that I attended. In particular, the discussion on preparing a table of contents with images resonated with me. This seemingly minor addition can make a publication stand out and be more accessible for readers. Infographics, which expand upon our traditional visual tools of structures, graphs, and tables, are perhaps the most striking and accessible way to accomplish that. 

Infographics are very popular in the media and take center stage in some of the most-read publications including National Geographic and WIRED Magazine. They capture the attention of the reader and present information in a concise yet comprehensive and memorable way. 

In chemistry, some of my favorite educational infographics are made by Compound Interest and Andy Brunning, who I discovered recently. His work has encouraged me to think about how I could create my own chemistry infographics using ChemDraw to organize and convey useful knowledge. Later this gave birth to my blog: ChemInfoGraphic

Most of the subjects for my recent infographics are inspired either by chemistry tutoring or personal experience. When exploring a topic in chemistry or solving a problem, I have to identify what principles or patterns my student needs in order to see the bigger picture or to understand a key relationship. As I tackle these challenges, I think about how to visually organize these principles or relationships. 

In making infographics I have three goals: 
(a) to summarize the related information in a concise, useful, and presentable manner; 
(b) to facilitate understanding and recall of the larger picture: see the relationship and connection between challenging concepts; and 
(c) to encourage learning by presenting information from a different and sometimes unconventional perspective, utilizing mnemonic rules, for example.

Examples and Illustrations:
An effective infographic has several key features. It should maintain 
(a) content accuracy
(b) be useful to the audience, and 
(c) have aesthetic appeal. 

Content accuracy is undoubtedly the most important aspect of any infographic. Usefulness is a rather subjective criterion. I find an infographic useful if it covers complex, narrow, or broad subject matter in a manner that is efficient, comprehensive, or even unusual, unexpected, or unconventional. It is also useful if it is memorable and helps to organize and easily recall concepts and relationships. The aesthetic appeal of the image captures attention and can also help with recall. Several factors contribute to aesthetic appeal: the size, position, and amount of text; the proportions and utilization of empty space; symmetry and color selection or complementary color combinations are also important.  

Achieving all of this can be challenging, but with the right mindset and tools it can be accomplished. For the design of my infographics, ChemDraw has been my paintbrush. It is the best tool for creating a wide variety of visual representations. It is familiar to me from my graduate and post-graduate work and best-suited because it is designed specifically for chemists – though not only chemists use it. ChemDraw saves a lot of time to digitalize an image and has a library of premade building elements (templates) and simple images. Moreover, I find that the software is rather intuitive and versatile. Using creativity, I am able to not only draw a molecule (or chemical reaction), but also to create flow charts, diagrams, tables, and more complex schemes and drawings. I have created a diverse array of infographics using ChemDraw including: 

Tables, Schemes, and Figures
These infographics are more traditional, however, they can also be essential. I started using this sub-type initially to capture and demonstrate
nomenclature (naming) rules (See Fig. 1) 
general chemistry concepts or terms