Interdisciplinary collaborations between scientific researchers and artists can often be one dimensional, with artists simply illustrating scientific findings. In this post Paige Jarreau argues that by engaging more openly and equitably with artists scientists and other researchers stand not only to better understand their own research and its reception, but also to develop new insights and innovative ways of carrying out research.
You’ve probably heard a version of this story. An unlikely hero – a novice or someone with limited prior experience in a field – changes history by coming up with a new idea or solution that a room full of the top experts hadn’t thought of. The experts might even look at the new idea as silly at first, or wonder why they hadn’t thought of it.
It might be a cliche, but there is research to back it up. Scientific communities that prize themselves on innovation can often be resistant to and actually fight or reject novel and unconventional ideas, theories and interpretations. Yet, unconventional ideas proposed by newcomers and “outsiders” to a field of research are one of the richest sources of innovation and paradigm shifts.
As an article in Science bluntly put it: “Newcomers bring important new ideas.”
Innovation can come from unexpected places. But, one place to find it is in interdisciplinary collaborations – not just with researchers in an adjacent field, but also beyond academia. By working with diverse individuals outside of your scientific community, you can find new ways of interpreting your data and approaching your research. You might even be inspired to develop entirely new research questions and lines of inquiry.
I’ve had my own experience of this phenomenon. In my postdoctoral work studying how scientists use social media, I raised crowdfunding dollars for my research with Experiment.com. Feeling the need to do something “special” to communicate my research to my backers (many of whom weren’t scientists), I dedicated some of my funds to working with an artist.
I went to Twitter in search of an artist and ended up working with Jen Burgess on a fine art, wildlife-inspired infographic about my research on science blogs. I knew that I wanted an infographic, but I wanted something different, more focused on story and art than on data vizualization for the sake of it. I was inspired by mixed media art and thought it would be really cool to have a blend of traditional fine art and digital illustration in the infographic, perhaps in a way representing the mix of traditional news values and new media practices that my research explored.
Art has always been integral to science. It gives scientific ideas shape and imagination.
Together Jen and I created an infographic about my findings that had an incredible impact on their reach. Thousands of people saw and shared that infographic, and it resulted in more attention from the media, at conferences and to my published research paper. After that, I found myself wanting to study the impact of visuals. A year later I was working with the same artist to create a figure and an infographic for a PLOS One paper on how selfies can develop trust in scientists. Today, I hear stories of researchers being asked to take science selfies for outreach and even to include them on their research posters.
Why scientists should work with artists
To innovate, you need to communicate in a way that helps engage broader, diverse participants who can bring new ideas to your work. Art can help you do this. But, rather than just creating art on your own, why not consider working with someone who has likely spent as much time thinking about visual communication, as you have about your own research – an artist. Artists can not only help you reach people outside of your field – working closely with them will help you see your own work in a new light.
Art has always been integral to science. It gives scientific ideas shape and imagination. Look into any science lab notebook to see how important art is to the very creation of scientific knowledge. Simple sketches in lab notebooks can be invaluable resources for researchers when they need to remember how they conducted an experiment, or even what the results were.
Look at the covers and within the pages of scientific journals. You will see art – figures, graphs, drawings, 3D models, flowcharts, diagrams, data visualizations. Yet most scientists-in-training only learn the most rudimentary basics of effective visual communication. Scientific journals and style guides provide only basic pointers (label your axes, don’t forget your error bars!) that rarely touch upon better design principles or accessibility, like what type of visualization would make your data easier to understand. There is an art to effective visual communication that we simply never learn and which is essential to bringing research into conversation with broader audiences.
So you want to work with an artist? First step – meet one!
The first step to working with an artist is to find one! To help make your work more accessible to broader audiences, you might want to work with an artist who has an interest but not deep experience with your scientific topic.
But how do you find an artist to work with? There are many places you can turn to:
- Look for artists within your local university’s art and theater departments
- Browse the #SciArt hashtag on Instagram and Twitter
- Browse the portfolios of members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators at Science-Art.com.
- Work with Art The Science to set up an artist residency in your lab!
- Join the Lifeology platform, a place for scientists and artists to meet, learn from one another and collaborate
There are a growing number of platforms and programs that are helping bring researchers and artists closer together, including Lifeology.io, which I’m the co-founder of, along with expert designer Doryan Algarra. We started Lifeology to fill a gap in platforms and programs that not only bring scientists and artists into a shared space, but that help them learn each others’ languages and move quickly toward collaborative content and knowledge creation. Our Lifeology courses are an example of the latter. They are illustrated interactive science primers that are born out of collaboration between a scientist, a storyteller, an artist and a number of community reviewers.
listen as much as you speak, and explore projects that allow this ‘outsider’ to explore their own interpretations of your work and change how you see your science.
Even though science artists are often people outside of the traditional scientific community who can bring fresh perspectives and meaning to scientists’ work, they shouldn’t be outsiders. The NSF and other science funding bodies are today asking for grant proposals that represent broader participation in science and more equitable collaborations between scientists, creatives and community partners. This means that they are looking for projects that don’t just involve a scientist asking the questions and an artist helping to communicate the findings. Rather, they are looking for projects that turn this paradigm on its head, where artists and community members ask the questions they are interested in, and scientists help them answer these.
The Takeaway and a bit of homework! Working with an artist can help you not only reach broader audiences with your work, but innovate in your field. Start a conversation with an artist, designer or other creative professional today. But listen as much as you speak, and explore projects that allow this ‘outsider’ to explore their own interpretations of your work and change how you see your science.
Finally: Artists should get paid for their work. You’ll need to budget for their time. They also deserve credit so you should cite them in your papers and wherever you share what you’ve created together.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Image credits: published with permission by Doryan Algarra, Head of Design at LifeOmic and co-founder of Lifeology.