Visual elements and visual paradigms: an investigation into scientific conceptual figures
Gill Brown’s work researches visual communication within scientific peer groups, specifically those images that scientists use to communicate their ideas and concepts in scientific journal articles and conference presentations. These conceptual figures use specialised visual languages that have developed over decades, or even centuries, and they demand a great deal of background knowledge from the viewer in order to be understood.
Context and background
Having worked as a geophysicist for 25 years, Gill is very familiar with these types of figures, but had given little thought to their appearance. The aim of the research is therefore to investigate the visual languages, tropes and conventions of scientific visual communication in the life and earth sciences. Particular emphasis is given to those visual representations that have come to embody scientific theories or concepts: the visual equivalent of what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn would regard as scientific paradigms. Gill’s background as a working scientist, coupled with her experience as a graphic designer, puts her in a unique position from which to approach this research area.
During a collaboration with a group of neuroscientists at King’s College London, Gill is problematising the nature and scope of scientific visual communication and writing up the resulting dialogue in the form of a critically reflective thesis. The collaboration website provides an ongoing documentation of the process. The concept of utilising graphical “standards” within an immediate peer group acts as a starting point and a practical focus for the research. The presuppositions and preconceptions of the scientists towards visual communication methods and practices are also considered, along with some discussion of debates within contemporary graphic design that may open up new areas of critical reflection among the scientists themselves. Although a theoretical thesis is planned, the research is practice-led, with graphic design used throughout to both analyse and communicate.