An Animated Look at Scientific Illustration

No matter what your profession or passion, design is a part of it, even the most STEM'y ones. Allison Chen, RISD '15, believes that scientific illustration is a definition of STEAM... and she's right! It's Science, Technology, Engineering (how the body works in the case of biological systems) and Math ... and Art! This great post, from her STEAM Stories project (please follow it!) shows us how art and design are so embedded in our daily lives and our work.  Enjoy! And follow her and read these great stories.

Before modern film and computers, scientific phenomena were recorded with meticulous drawings and paintings for centuries. These illustrations illuminated the unobservable or unclear, often answering, “Will that plant kill me?” or “What’s going on inside my body?”

Of course, we still ask these questions, and can now use new media to answer. Based in Seattle, Washington, Eleanor is a designer that puts a modern spin on scientific illustration. Having received her bachelor’s in molecular biology and done visual art since high school, she combines both passions to create stunning animated infographics.

“I think visuals really help explain science to the general public,” Eleanor said. “If you haven’t gotten a degree in it, it’s really hard to understand topics like global warming or GMOs. It’s important for actual experts to explain everything.”

When she isn’t working for clients such as Huffington Post and the Gates Foundation, Eleanor has the freedom to design whatever subjects strike her interest. These interests manifest in both animated and static diagrams that she documents on her blog, where you can also find a tutorial that shows how she works with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

One animation, 3 Different Ways to Breathe, compares human lungs with those of birds and grasshoppers. Watching the animation, you can see how birds can take in oxygen even while exhaling, and how air is transported directly into the grasshopper’s tissue cells.

“I had no idea that things breathed differently,” Eleanor said, “or that the way humans breathe isn’t even the most efficient.”

Another animation, How to Build a Human, depicts the growth of a human fetus from fertilization to birth.

“I really wanted everything to be visible at the same time,” Eleanor said, explaining why she chose the spiral format. “When I was reading about it in college, I had some trouble figuring it out in my head. It was described in the text but I wanted everything on one page.”

And perhaps one of the most visually interesting, Flight Videos Deconstructed compares the flight patterns of five flying species and depicts the curves their wings make in space.

As noted on the infographic, the project was an observational exercise and doesn’t represent any scientifically accepted information.

“You definitely can’t draw conclusions from these videos alone,” Eleanor said, “you have no idea if the animals were injured, how old they are, if they’re even flying normally. In an actual study they would’ve taken 30-40 animals in the same room in the same conditions, done in a lab so that a computer can map it.”

This serves as an important reminder that imagery can always be misinterpreted or contrived, no matter how beautiful. Eleanor has noticed a fair amount of science-related art out there that isn’t accurate, and encourages more communication between artists and scientists.

This Fall, Eleanor is returning to school to get her PhD thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Best of luck Eleanor, let’s hope your research will inspire more infographics in the future!

Eleanor Lutz: Blog, Twitter, Dribbble

Allison is a designer and writer (soon to be) based in Chicago as a DFA (Design for America) Fellow. She seeks to design for learning and play to help us better understand each other and the world around us. While earning her BFA in industrial design at RISD she co-led the DFA RISD|Brown studio 2014-2015, worked on STEAM learning tools, interned at various organizations, and helped build a solar-powered house for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. Children are her favorite users, and she enjoys designing for the inner child in all of us. Through her STEAM Stories blog series, she hopes to bring together a community of passionate STEAM do-ers to inspire future interdisciplinary work in hobby, education, and industry.

How To Disrupt the Tech World

What is your image of an inventor or innovator? A man alone in a lab?  Increasing evidence shows most innovation comes from two or more people…one of whom might even be a woman! We stereotype innovators as men and mainly in STEM* products.  

A quick quiz – who invented the following: the circular saw, COBOL and the compiler, the windshield wiper, Kevlar and a radial keyboard for the paralyzed? [Answers at the end of the post]

Three years ago, Whitney Johnson asked me how I felt as the only female partner in my VC firm. I’d never thought about it before. I never felt any discrimination or lack of respect from my partners. From how I was raised through my education and my career at Bell Labs and AT&T, I never felt any gender bias. Maybe it was there and I was just insensitive.  I investigated – looked, listened and learned…and realized it was still an issue in the 21st century!

In June 2013, Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya invited women to crowd-create a book on women innovators by sharing their own stories. I submitted one (Chpt 3, Disrupting My Way Through Life). Fast-forward ~ Innovating Women launches today! Vivek and Farai have curated a collection of personal, powerful, inspiring, encouraging, disruptive, and challenging stories of women who grabbed the status quo by the horns. The stories are from and about women from all over the world, in STEM, investing, non-profits and STEAM.   

The stories, including one by America’s new CTO and former VP at Google[X] Megan Smith, are the authentic voices of women who have persevered, overcome, created, and innovated their careers and accomplishments. This book is full with lessons for women, men, girls, boys, teachers, leaders, managers, even politicians on how to overcome stereotypes, stigmas, and artificial distinctions.  These lessons are being applied today and barriers are breaking down.

Freshman Engineers designing radial keyboard for the communication impaired (e.g., ALS)I am privileged to see changes first-hand.  Last April, I helped at the Assistive Tech Makeathon for students to create communication solutions for people who can’t communicate (like ALS). The rapid design-prototyping-iterating process resulted in several potential hardware and software products. Three freshman women engineers won the software award for an easy, attractive and quick radial keyboard!

Get Innovating Women. Read it, share it, discover, encourage and empower women and girls to create more stories so we can unleash the talent needed to solve the wicked problems facing our world.  Keep the stories coming!



 *STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; STEAM = STEM + [Art + Design]



Integrating Design Theory & the Scientific Process

If you can't find what you're looking for, just create it! Don't let the world pigeon-hole you into linear paths...make your own. That's what Hanna McPhee did. She is an extraordinary kid and typical of the ones I get to hang out with. Hanna (Brown '14) created an independent concentration, Biologically Inspired Design and is working on her thesis. She is co-president of Brown's student initiative to incorporate the arts into STEM, STEAM and a project manager on Brown's solar decathlon "Techstyle Haus" team, of which about half are women! An oh, she also is a pole vaulter on the track and field team. This is Hanna's story of how she's working to create a common language to integrate design thinking with science and engineering.  

Integrating Design Theory & the Scientific Process

I am sitting across the table from my thesis advisor. We stare at one another in silence, our faces reflecting equal levels of frustration. After a 15-minute debate on the differences between a parameter and a constraint, it has become apparent my advisor is an engineer, and I am not. My advisor and I meet weekly to discuss my research. Each week we inevitably hit a wall; expressing the same words, but interpreting them in entirely different ways. With a background in biology and design, my definition of details often do not align with an engineer’s. However, we both know the objectives of my thesis, and both want to work towards that goal (and diploma) 

So why are we having such a difficult time communicating?

It starts with the realization that our different disciplines do not speak the same language. Up until the past few years, my education centered around finding a path and, for the most part, sticking to it. If you are good at math, you stay on the honors track through middle and high school to become a “math person”. Even later, with a liberal arts education, I felt swayed to identify myself solely as a “biology person”.  There was never room for another subject like art, no space for speaking two languages fluently. My educational system created silos between the different disciplines. Once I chose one path, essentially my language, other subjects became foreign.

Connections are missing between these disciplines, and in particular between the arts and sciences. On almost every project I have worked on thus far, my analytical and creative teammates have struggled to connect. From deadlines to critical thinking, collaborating has been as difficult as a native English speaker interpreting Italian. Sure, perhaps some root words are similar. But you end up just speaking loudly at one another, waving your hands around as a flailing final attempt at communication.

Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to create my own concentration and fully integrate biology and design into one cohesive means of critical thinking. But it would be extremely naïve to think that type of interdisciplinary education can be implemented everywhere - and nor should it be. We still need the classically trained “quant jocks” as well as the “edgy creatives”. Without them, a melting pot of full-fledged hybrids such as myself would lose any sort of concrete base for reference.

So where do we go from here?

I believe each individual, no matter how much of a purist they may be in their respective field, should be responsible for entertaining interdisciplinary ideas. Exposing ourselves to different disciplines results in a better understanding of our peer’s work. With this deeper understanding, we create a greater means of respect. Whether that takes the form of double majoring, or simply taking a few electives, some threshold of interdisciplinary thought is important.

In an era where buzzwords like “collaboration” and “innovation” land you a job, its time to actually start flexing both sides of our brains. At the end of this journey, behind our various languages, it is surprising how similar my analytical and creative peers are.  My STEM friends always shudder at the free flowing process of iterating and prototyping. My designers laugh at the time spent nit picking over numerical data, seemingly so far removed from the problem at hand. However, at the end of the day, both are following almost identical steps towards finding solutions. The proof can be found just looking at the scientific process alongside design theory.

Although one approach may rely more on quantifiable data and the other on a more “human” means of communication, step by step the two share striking similarities. Combining these two theories helps me personally make sense of my own analytical and creative brain. When they come together as one scientific and artistic critical thinking tool, the result is a deeper understanding of defining problems and finding solutions.

In short, the banter between myself and my advisor is not about the difference between parameters and constraints. It is about the exposure to a new language.

My thesis will teach me many things. But I sincerely believe my weekly exposure to my advisor’s brain – and all the neurotic details that come with it – will influence me the most when I walk out into the working world.



From Yurt to Beer Cooler: Adventures with Duct Tape

Two weeks ago, a few of us adults got to play! We sat in on ENGN 0930 - Design Studio at Brown University, taught by Ian Gonsher and played with duct tape.  My friends, Annie Kahl and Dan Festa had sent up a flock-load of duct tape to the class to play with.  The following post is by Addie Thompson, '12.5 describing the collaborative creative process - iterations, failures and successes.  The lessons are applicable to all of us - listen & learn!

From Yurt to Beer Cooler: Adventures with Duct Tape
Addie Thompson, Brown ’12.5

It is always a bit overwhelming to be given the task of making anything you want, especially with a fully stocked workshop - complete with band saw and laser cutter - to suit your every need. This is the task we received last week in DesignStudio, a class at Brown University where we “imaginatively frame design problems and develop novel strategies for addressing those problems.” There were to be no limits to our design, creation and iteration of these products – except, of course, they had to be made out of duct tape.

Though broad in scope, this first official assignment had a built-in incentive to succeed (past simply surviving the class’s first crit); representatives from Duck Tape would actually be coming in to view our creations. It was a chance to build out ideations for an actual client, so the stakes were high and so was the energy. 

Inspired by the idea of collaboration, a group of us decided to work together to create something impressive, something that would get our client’s attention – basically, something BIG. Our group formed simply by where we were sitting around the design table and spoke to the diverse array of backgrounds in the class. In true Brown fashion, we had an astrophysicist, a philosopher, two biomedical engineers, and an international development major (me). Our initial reaction was to go large scale. How would humans interact in a space demarcated with duct tape? What would the experience of being surrounded by duct tape be like? We wanted to take duct tape where it had never been before; we were going to build a hammock, a tent…no! A yurt! A space where we as class members could hang out and get inspired; a permanent installation present in the studio long after the client was gone.

We set to work on a Sunday morning albeit somewhat groggy and anxious about other work. With so many people in the group, getting an idea across became a challenge; it was important to communicate every detail through drawing in our sketchbooks. It took us about an hour to set out a path to completion, and then it was pull, tear, pull, tear, rip, strrreeeettccch, rip. The sounds of our work echoed off the walls of the studio for hours on end as we layered, folded, bent, tugged and taped our hands raw. After about three hours, we had the “roof” of our yurt: an open frame, four-sided structure made from silver duct tape and sheets of Kentucky chrome (Google it) adhered creatively in 3D triangles and double-sided sheets. The true test was lifting it up, though. Would the structure maintain its intended pyramid-like shape? The answer, we found, was no.

Our defeated team immediately took to a new project with our Professor’s encouragement. Why not make a duct tape installation in the studio that utilizes the natural adhesive of the tape and demarcates space through open lines? Another hour of randomly connecting the ceiling and the floor with ridiculously long, patterned pieces of duct tape ensued. We even made duct tape fabric for the walls of the space, lining two-sided sheets with zebra and argyle or leopard and polka dots. Our crazy, pop-up tape castle came together in a flash of ripping, tearing and taping.

After almost 5 hours and two separate, semi-completed projects, the group left the studio tired, hungry and frustrated. Some were disappointed that we hadn’t seen our first project through to the end. Some were excited by the new idea but knew it wasn’t finished. All needed food. We decided to split for the day and reconvene the next afternoon.

What a difference a day makes! Our spirits were higher the next day even with the duct tape deadline looming closer and closer. With a few members of our original group and one new collaborator who had left another project team to join ours, a fresh assembly of people set out on yet another project that next afternoon. This time, with frustrations aired and slates clear, we could focus on an end goal much smaller in scope. We decided we were going to make every child’s (and every adult’s, let’s be honest) favorite toy: a kiddie pool. With the collection of dozens of prints at our disposal (thanks, Duck Tape!) and a clear vision laid out in our sketchbooks, we started on our third and final product for the week’s assignment. We worked diligently, stopping only at turning points in the product formation to make sure everyone was on the same page or to make ever-important executive decisions about which pattern to use where. With three principle actors driving the process, the design was still collaborative in nature and yet had more focus and intentionality.

After less than two hours of solid work, and a few non-duct tape wires here and there to help the structure of the pool, we had a finished product. Upon testing it to see if it would hold water, we were pleased to find that while it had some leaks, it held water for quite a long period of time. We had carefully taped a different pattern on each panel of the hexadecagonal shape (yeah, try that ten times fast) and the splatter-paint inner lining made it all the more inviting to kids and college students alike. It was important to us that our product reflect the values of our potential user groups: moms who wanted durable yet flexible construction and children who sought only the most colorful toys. On presentation day, to our surprise, someone offered, “It would be a perfect beer cooler for Brown’s Spring Weekend.” Brilliant.

Within the first week of this class, I had played a role in the creation of three separate, large-scale product designs for a real client using their materials. I had also learned more about my work style and the different roles I am able to play in various group settings. The ability to collaborate is not something you have or don’t have, I believe; it’s more about how flexible you can be to accommodate for various types of people in a group while still staying true to your vision and leadership styles. Functioning fluidly and nimbly, in terms of both ideas and people, was of utmost importance for this project, and will be essential throughout the duration of this class. We’ve started to develop a living, breathing design studio, where ideas change every second and individual backgrounds are as varied as the materials we use.

Welcome to the world of iterative, collaborative, user-centered design. 

ENGN 0930: Design Studio Collaborators:
Kerri Horvay '14
Alison Pruzan '15
Sophia Diaz '14
Ian Callendar '15
Samantha Bear '14