Why design matters for science PhD students

Luke Holman, winner of env.infohackit Grand Final, shares his thoughts on why communication skills are important for PhD students and what he learned from his infohackit experience.

Are you interested in design? PhD students rarely feel it’s our field, and seldom have the chance to develop design skills or knowledge. Science can seem a vast ocean of learning, and we jump in headfirst. All too often design appears superfluous and is neglected. We are told not to worry about making it look good as long as it tells the story. A complex subject, we assume, deserves complex communication. If it looks complicated surely that reflects how clever we are, right?

Totally wrong

Whether sharing a finding graphically with a peer in your own field, or developing a poster for the public, we are designers. By thinking explicitly about design we can communicate rather than complicate. This need for conscious design is rarely made explicit in PhD training. Yet the recent Infohackit Events did exactly this, equipping young researchers with tools to unpack how they deliver their findings. It’s been a few months since the training and the participants have been applying what they learn to their own research. Here are some of the early outputs from a few of the 2016/17 Infohackers.

By thinking explicitly about design we can communicate rather than complicate. This need for conscious design is rarely made explicit in PhD training.

1. Three Minute Thesis

For her Three Minute Thesis presentation Katie St John Glew (Infohackit, Southampton) produced a design that combined her complex isotope maps with a CSI-style background. She will compete in May at the University level heat after winning the department and faculty rounds. Good luck Katie!

2. Chromatogram


Alex Svalova (Infohackit, Manchester) uses chromatograms from gas chromatograph-mass spectrometers. Using the Infohackit training she can now manipulate these diagrams into content for publication.

3. Vector Coral


Tabby Pearman (Infohackit Manchester) works with deep sea corals which are sadly absent from most clipart libraries. Through her involvement in the Infohackit she is now able to create her own (morphologically accurate!) vector artwork for use in posters and presentations.

4. Nucleotide Mismatch


This complex diagram details the mismatches in DNA sequences of many different species. I use these diagrams to understand what proportion of a biological community can be detected. The Infohackit helped me to learn how to align text to the diagrams to test out different options for my experiments.


These beautiful visualisations demonstrate the impact of a small amount training in practical design. Equipped with knowledge and skills, this years Infohackers will all hopefully be beginning to implement design thinking into the communication of their science.

Luke Holman is a postgraduate research student within Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton.

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