Five tips for working with your graphic designer

As a science communication specialist, I not only have the good fortune to work with the country’s leading scientists, but also with incredibly talented and creative communication professionals. So, when I wanted to compile a list of top tips for working with a graphic designer, I knew where to turn for advice. I’ve worked with graphic designer Lea Crosswell on many projects over the past 10 years, and she was kind enough to provide the following words of wisdom.

Most designers can guide you through the design process and answer any questions you might have. A little mutual respect and give-and-take go a long way in creating a great working relationship and excellent results.

1. Get in early. Whether you’re producing a printed report, or a brand new website, always get in early to find out how long the production will take, and work out a reasonable schedule from there.

2. Trust your designer to come up with an appropriate solution. When giving feedback on a design, tell your designer what you like and what you don’t like. If something about the design isn’t working, try to explain why is doesn’t work so the designer can come up with the best solution, rather than saying ‘move this and that’ without giving a reason. You might be surprised what they come up with!

Keeping this in mind, there are four things designers never want to hear.

“Can I have a version I can edit in Word?”

If you request an editable file, you’ll need specialised design software. Word is not design software. Resist the temptation to ‘tinker’ yourself and simply communicate any concerns you may have to the designer so they can provide the best solution. If your product requires regular updates and this is something you want to do yourself, an alternative, DIY option may be more appropriate. Be sure to discuss this with the designer before any work commences.

“Here’s an image I found on the web.”

You could run into legal trouble for using a copyrighted image, and the image won’t look good because the resolution is too low.

Any sentence that starts with “My [insert relationship to person] said…”

It’s only natural to seek feedback from your artist friend/wife/son or any number of friends and family. Having said that, you hired your designer because they have the design experience and industry knowledge to guide you in the right direction. Above all, the design solution must successfully communicate to your target audience. Again… trust your designer.

“Don’t spend too much time on it.”

A professional designer will always work as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.

3. Provide final content, rather than a draft. Always provide final, approved content whenever possible. If you send a designer an entire new Word document after they’ve designed the first draft, it means re-inserting all text for a second time. Having said that, a few rounds of revisions are normal and expected.

4. White space is important. Don’t be tempted to say and show more than is necessary. The message becomes cluttered and difficult to comprehend if there’s too much to take in. For the design to be efficient and clear, ask your designer to show you what can be done, or what to avoid.

5. Comic Sans is never an option.

In summary, designers love clients who:

  • communicate clearly
  • are polite
  • establish expectations upfront
  • are willing to trust them.

Lea Crosswell is a freelance graphic designer with more than 24 years’ experience and a number of industry awards under her belt. She knows what she’s talking about.

Five tips for climate-ready communication

There’s a shift in climate change communication that is transforming the way that we talk about climate change science.

We no longer have to communicate to ‘prove’ the science. The science is sorted. Nor do we have to continue to go over basic terms and concepts. People know about greenhouse gases, and understand that their increasing concentrations are warming the planet.

The challenge now for climate communicators (and scientists) is making climate science accessible, useful and relevant to people, so they can use it to prepare for the impacts that a changing climate will deliver.

But how do we do this?

Here are my five tips for climate-ready communication:

  1. Remember that the science doesn’t have to be front and centre to be valued and of value.
  2. Make it relatable – local references provide a context people understand.
  3. Accentuate the positive.
  4. Cater for the different ways that people interpret information.
  5. Layer your information from general to detailed.

Climate-ready Victoria: a case study

climate-readyIn collaboration with Paul Holper (Scientell), we recently worked with the Victorian Government to prepare a series of regional brochures explaining the likely impacts of climate change and describing how best to adapt to them. This project provided the perfect opportunity to apply our five tips for climate-ready communication.

  1. We put the science in the back seat. While the latest climate science (the 2015 climate projections from CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology) was at the core of these products, it was not the focus of them. There’s no denying that this science is world-leading, and to those working in the field it’s all quite engrossing stuff. However, for the rest of us who don’t know our HadGEM2.0 from our MIROC5, the science can be incomprehensible and distancing.
  1. We made the material locally relevant. Climate change can feel like a global, almost abstract, issue that is ‘out there’ and too big to deal with now in our daily lives. We provided information about key towns in each region, showing the likely impacts of climate change in the readers’ backyards.
  1. We gave examples of what is already being achieved. The purpose of these publications is to inform and empower people to take action to adapt to a changing climate. We provided many examples of groups that were already taking steps in this direction to illustrate that you don’t have to be a G-20 government to make a difference. We wanted to show that communities all over Victoria are already getting climate-ready, so there’s no reason the reader couldn’t take positive action either.
  1. We catered for a range of ways for people to take in information. Some people are visual and interpret an image or a graph much more easily than a paragraph of text, while others lose the plot when they look at a plot, finding it much easier to understand a few lines of well crafted prose. So, we used different graph styles, photos and text. The text was clearly signposted with clear headings and subheadings, as well as pictograms that were repeated in infographics.
  1. We provided layers of information, so people could delve as little or as much as they wanted. Some people are happy with an overview, while others want to drill deeply into the detail. We used summary boxes and key message/statement headings, so the important points could be taken in at a glance. We expanded on these points in text and figures, and provided data sheets for people who really wanted the nuts and bolts. We also provided links to sources of further information.

The Climate-ready Victoria brochures and data sheets are available at

Research to community: key messages from the 2015 AMOS conference

Last week I had the good fortune to attend the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) conference in Brisbane. The theme of the conference was ‘Research to Community’, so as far as science conferences go, there was a significant focus on matters of communication – from how operational forecasters convey tropical cyclone information, to using communication as a tool to secure research funding.

For a science communicator – and particularly one who works a great deal in climate and Earth sciences – it was a fantastic conference to attend. (Congratulations to the organisers on a great program!)

With so many sessions, conversations and presentations, what do I think was the key message as far as ‘Research to Community’ goes?

It comes down to one word, which came up more than any other in all of the communication-themed plenaries and presentations: audience.

David Schultz (author of Eloquent Science) perhaps put it best in his plenary Communicating Science: Lessons for Scientists, Forecasters, Educators, and Students when he said ‘Pity the audience’. This isn’t to say ‘feel sorry for’ the audience, so much as ‘feel for’ the audience; think about who you are communicating to, what they want to know and how you can tell them so they understand.

Rod Lamberts echoed this idea in his (7 am the morning after the conference dinner…) science communication workshop, when he said ‘Humans first’. All too often we forget that we’re trying to get through to other people, with their own lives, contexts, problems and predispositions.

Unfortunately, the science communication cart often goes before the horse: we start with the how (‘we need a brochure’, ‘let’s get on Twitter’, ‘we should set up a blog’, etc.) before we consider the who – the audience.

Cartoon featuring a horse pushing a cart as another horse looks on

Give your communication the best chance of success  by putting your horse and cart in the right order:

  1. Work out why you want to communicate your science. What is your purpose? What do you hope to achieve?
  2. Determine who you need to reach to achieve your purpose. Is it the public, industry, the government, or a sub-set of one of these groups? The more specific you can be in working this out, the easier the remaining steps are.
  3. Work out what you are going to say. Make your message accessible for the group you identified in Step 2. It should be relevant, interesting and understandable to be engaging.
  4. Determine how you’ll get the message across. What format/channels/media are the people identified in Step 2 going to use.

Always put your audience first. It’s not always easy, but it will help you structure your communication activities, and it will give your audience the chance to be as excited by your work as you are.

Five tips for audience-friendly presentations

The audience is the whole point of a presentation. This seems an obvious statement, but when we’re wrapped up in the development and delivery of a presentation it’s easy to focus on the information we have to tell and how we feel about giving the presentation rather than what the audience wants (or needs) to hear from us and how best to convey that information to them.

Giving some thought to your audience’s needs will help you structure and deliver a presentation that minimises distractions and maximises you message. Here are five ways you can make your presentation more audience-friendly.

  1. Let your audience know at the start if they can access a copy of your presentation.

Do you have handouts? Are the slides available somewhere after the presentation? Is there a companion report or publication? Can the audience contact you?

These may seem trivial details, but could mean the difference between your audience being focussed on what you’re saying and your audience missing your point completely because they are busy rummaging through their bag for a spare pen or frantically looking  over their neighbour’s shoulder to see if they managed to copy the third dot point on the previous slide.

  1. Give your audience a framework for your presentation.

I had a wonderful chemistry lecturer who started each and every lecture by saying: ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to tell you, then I’ll tell you, then I’ll tell you what I told you.’ It turns out he wasn’t only interested in making sure we were up on acids and bases, but also how to talk about them. While the finer points of my chemical knowledge may have faded over the years, this advice for structuring a presentation has served me well on more occasions that I can count. So…

  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Always use an overview slide to start your presentation, so your audience knows broadly what you’re covering and how all the material you’re going to present fits together.
  • Tell them. Make sure your content reflects your overview with clear signposts (such as headings) so your audience knows where they are up to in your presentation.
  • Tell them what you told them. Recap the material you covered in a conclusion that mirrors (but does not have to exactly replicate) your overview.

By doing this you are not only providing a structure for your presentation (that both you and your audience can follow), but you’re also reiterating your key points so they stick (hopefully!) in your audience’s mind.

  1. Don’t read off the slides.

This is a big one. If you’re going to put your whole presentation, word for word, on the slides then stand there and read it, you might as well just give everyone a handout at the start and not bother presenting.

To avoid the temptation of reading your presentation, keep your slides concise. Slides containing just key points, concepts and illustrations are easier to read than those crammed full of word. Fewer words means you can use an appropriate text size (you really don’t want to go smaller than 20–24 pt) so these words can be read, even from the back of the room. Just putting up your key points also means that your audience doesn’t have to trawl through tightly packed words to determine the critical information on that slide.

The biggest benefit of not reading your slides (although it may not seem like a benefit if you are a reluctant presenter) is that you are now free to look at your audience as you present. This will make them feel part of the presentation, so they are likely to be more engaged, and will also give you the opportunity to gauge their reception of your presentation as you go.

  1. Don’t get carried away with or rely too heavily on the tech.

At the end of the day, bells and whistles are just distractions – great if you have no content and you’re trying to hide the fact, but not so effective as a means for conveying information.

One of the worst examples is use of excessive animations and transitions on slides. We’ve all been at presentations where headings fly in from the side like spinning tops, then fade out to the next slide – often before we’ve had a chance to take that material in. Ideally, your audience will be thinking about the point you just made, not wondering where and how the next point will appear.

Linking to external websites, applications and databases is also fraught with danger, because there is always a chance it’s not going to work – particularly if you’re presenting in an IT environment that is not yours. If these demonstrations are essential for your presentation, always have a Plan B in place. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if half of your presentation is taken up by you trying to log into a database or run an application. ‘It worked when I tried it earlier’ is not going to keep people engaged.

  1. Be aware of your timing.

Respect the time limit you are given. There’s generally a very good reason for it. There may be other speakers before or after you. Your audience might have other commitments that you are not aware of. The venue might be booked by another party at the conclusion of your presentation. Even if you don’t take notice of the timing, there’s a good chance your audience will – particularly if you’re at a conference where there are other presentations to get to. Don’t run the risk of half your audience missing your big finish because they’ve already left.

Having said this, be prepared to lengthen or shorten your presentation if necessary. It’s always handing to have some extra material (if not slides) handy that you can draw on if you finish early or questions are few and far between. Similarly, if the speaking schedule is running late, consider abridging your presentation. This doesn’t mean you should cut out important information, but perhaps be prepared to go into it in less detail or providing external resources (or your contact details) so people can get more detailed information after your presentation.

Survey: social media and science snapshot

Social media offers scientists and science communicators unprecedented opportunities to engage with the public and peers, and to promote their science. However, with so many channels, so much content and so many players, social media also throws up its fair share of challenges.

To ensure we are making the most of social media opportunities (and minimising the challenges) it is useful to take stock of our current activities and attitudes when using these tools for science communication. So, I’m conducting a survey across the Australian science community to develop a snapshot of social media use for science engagement.

About the survey

The survey will provide a snapshot of who is using social media, what social media they are using and how they are using it, and also what attitudes are held by scientists and science communicators about the value and success of social media for public engagement and promoting science.

This snapshot will provide some useful insights into current practices that can guide future forays into social media. It will also form the basis of ongoing examinations of science and social media.

Who can participate?

Anyone who is involved in communicating science – researchers, communicators, administrators and others. All responses are welcome!

When will the results be available?

The survey is open from  13 May until 3 June 2015. Results will be published on this website in July, and will be reported through other relevant channels. Follow me on Twitter for updates.


[Image credit: Icons made by Elegant Themes, Freepik, SimpleIcon, Bogdan Rosu from is licensed by CC BY 3.0]

An effective two-step communication strategy

There is a simple, two-step approach to effective communication that will work every time:

  1. Plan it
  2. Do it

The importance of planning

All too often we see communication activities that are ad hoc or scattergun. Apart from the odd lucky hit, the rest of the effort ricochets out into nowhere.

A planned approach will provide direction and ensure that resources are allocated and used in the most effective way. By establishing what you want your outcomes to be (your goals), who you want to reach (your audience), what you want to convey to them (your message), and how you’re going to do it (your tools and timing), you provide yourself with a framework that directs your communication activities.

Additionally, and perhaps even more usefully, because a communication plan provides this framework, it will help you when unexpected issues crop up. Decisions will be more easily made on the fly because your reference points (goals, audience, message, tools and timing) have already been established. This can save not only time and resources, but also much personal angst and ‘discussions’ with colleagues down the track!

Just implement it.

Implementing a communication plan is the fun part! Perhaps this is why many people jump straight to the ‘doing’, bypassing the ‘planning’ completely.

Your plan allows you to focus on getting in and getting the job done because your actions are all laid out before you. There’s no stopping mid-stream wondering you’re doing the right thing. Similarly, there’s no wasted effort or resources because your activity has a place or purpose in the bigger communication picture.

You can enlist the services of others to assist, because the plan makes sure everyone knows what has to be done, why it’s being done, and where and how it’s being done (not to mention, who’s doing it). Implementing a plan where everyone’s enthusiasm is directed to where it is most useful makes the task so much easier, so much more enjoyable and so much more effective.

Factor in both planning and doing from the outset, and you’ll be off to a flying start!

How rockets, helicopters and good science communication work

I’m so glad that four-year-old Lucas Whitely (and his dad) contacted NASA for some help with Lucas’s homework. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t get to watch, enjoy and learn from this:

Why is NASA engineer Ted Garbeff’s video response to Lucas so great? Because it’s all about Lucas.

It’s not about how great NASA is (although they certainly picked up some PR credit as a result of this video, which did the internet rounds when it was originally posted). It’s not even about how clever Ted is (although as a research engineer in experimental fluid physics at NASA’s Ames Research Center, he obviously is). It’s about answering a child’s questions in an interesting and engaging way.

The key strength of Ted’s response is that it explains some fundamental ideas about science and technology in simple, relatable terms without dumbing it down. It doesn’t use complicated words when simpler ones are more than adequate. It uses examples that a four-year-old English child would understand – to the point of using pounds and pence instead of dollars and cents.

(In fact,  I think Ted’s explanation of counting by starting with 10 (fingers), then 100 (pence), then 1000 (grains of sand in a spoonful) before talking about really big numbers is elegant.)

The other strength of the video is its authenticity. High production values have their place, but not in a video message to a four-year-old. This really is just Ted answering some questions about space, and telling Lucas about his fun job where he gets to play with cool toys and learn about the world.

So, lessons from Ted:

  • Remember who your audience is, and speak to them in terms they understand.
  • Explain abstract concepts using concrete, real world examples that your audience can relate to.
  • Explaining a complex idea using simple words and concepts is not dumbing it down (or certainly shouldn’t be).
  • There are many opportunities when more can be achieved for an organisation or brand by authentic, honest communication than staged, corporate messaging.