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Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers [Paperback]

Felice C. Frankel , Angela H. Depace

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Book Description

17 April 2012
Any scientist or engineer who communicates research results will immediately recognize this practical handbook as an indispensable tool. The guide sets out clear strategies and offers abundant examples to assist researchers - even those with no previous design training - with creating effective visual graphics for use in multiple contexts, including journal submissions, grant proposals, conference posters, or presentations. Visual communicator Felice Frankel and systems biologist Angela DePace, along with experts in various fields, demonstrate how small changes can vastly improve the success of a graphic image. They dissect individual graphics, show why some work while others don't, and suggest specific improvements. The book includes analyses of graphics that have appeared in such journals as "Science", "Nature", "Annual Reviews", "Cell", "PNAS", and "The New England Journal of Medicine", as well as an insightful personal conversation with designer Stefan Sagmeister and narratives by prominent researchers and animators.

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"Science photographer and systems biologist Angela DePace offer a wonderful solution to the problem. "Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers" is a how-to book on effectively utilizing modern computer graphics. Both authors have extensive experience in presenting complex data."--David Weitz, "Physics Today"--David Weitz "Physics Today "

About the Author

Felice C. Frankel is a research scientist in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at MIT and the recipient of numerous awards and honours for her work in visual communication. Among her previous books is Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image. Angela H. DePace is assistant professor, Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School. Stefan Sagmeister, a leading graphic designer and typographer, has a design firm in New York City.

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful insight into doing graphics right 9 May 2012
By Ursiform - Published on Amazon.com
As anyone who has suffered "death by PowerPoint" knows, graphics can provide the key insight or, most often, lead to utter confusion. This book tries to move technical illustrators toward the former.

I really enjoyed the earlier parts of the book, which I think offer practical advice and examples of making technical graphics work. It can be as simple as using color sparingly, or eliminating it entirely. Or aligning key elements in just the right way. Just looking through the examples can spur thoughts about how to make figures more clear.

Some of the case studies, unfortunately, impressed me less. They often involve very intricate structures, with graphical solutions that evolved over months. Most of these will not be helpful to average (i.e., well above average) person trying to clearly explain a complex technical point. It's not that they aren't impressive. But you don't learn to paint by having someone put a Raphael in front of you.

This book is worth the investment for the early chapters. Don't worry if some of the case studies leave you lost.

I was provided a copy for review by the publisher.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeous book, not so much on strategy 9 Nov 2012
By Shawn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The design and layout of this book is great, and is another example of how to present things. The authors do give a number of examples and highlight what they thought was done right and wrong. The before and after versions were very informative on a couple of points and gave me ideas.

That said, there was not an overall strategy that was being taught. It was a gallery of examples with very little conceptual backing for the decisions. Buy it if you want a gallery of examples. Otherwise, I would not buy it again.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspective on how to present scientific data in different graphical forms 29 Aug 2012
By E. Jaksetic - Published on Amazon.com
This lavishly illustrated book provides an interesting perspective on how scientists and engineers can improve their efforts to communicate research results by presenting scientific data in a variety of graphic forms. Rather than simply compare examples of effective and ineffective scientific graphics, the authors offer a conceptual framework for their observations, criticisms, suggestions, and recommendations.

The authors contend that:

(1) there are two categories of scientific graphics, based on the purpose or objective of the graphics -- explanatory graphics ("used to communicate a point or call attention to patterns or concepts") and exploratory graphics (used "to invite the viewer to discover information"); and

(2) graphical representations of scientific data can be categorized as three different major types: (a) "those that illustrate form and structure," (b) "those that illustrate processes over time and space," and (c) "those that encourage readers to compare and contrast."

The authors support these two basic contentions with explanations, arguments, and examples in the Overview section of the book.

In three sections of the book (entitled "Form and Structure," "Time and Space," and "Compare and Contrast"), the authors explore each of the three major types of graphic representations by using examples. Then, in the Case Studies section, the authors present brief essays by several researchers who explain how they created and adapted scientific graphics to better communicate complex and potentially confusing data. Finally, in the Interactive Graphics section, the authors show how interactive graphics are being used online to present scientific graphics that engage the readers by allowing them to explore the graphics interactively. The Appendix describes a Web site that the authors use to further explore the themes and ideas of the book, as well as a Further Reading list.

The book approaches a challenging subject in an interesting manner that offers the reader much to think about. Although it is definitely a worthwhile book, it should not be considered to be the definitive or final word on the subject of scientific graphics. Readers interested in the subject of how to better communicate scientific data should consider also looking at the following books: Stephen M. Kosslyn, Elements of Graph Design; Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative; Howard Wainer, Graphic Discovery: A Trout in the Milk and Other Visual Adventures; and Dona M. Wong, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don'ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must have tool for students and educators 19 May 2012
By Drew Endy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Visual Strategies" by Frankel & DePace is an exceptional book that teaches how to compose graphs, images, and visual representations in order to maximize meaning and to enable communication.

The importance of this book, and Frankel's most closely related work, Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image, is hard to overstate.

Speaking only for myself, I experienced an educational system that emphasized only written communication skills, with too much emphasis on prescriptive rules of composition and grammar, and little to no emphasis on communication of truth and meaning. As a professional teacher and researcher I now suspect that most if not all of my students and colleagues suffer from a similar one-dimensional "communication indoctrination."

Thus, "Visual Strategies" fills two key gaps in my education and that of my students. First, this important book teaches how to compose and communicate visually, in support of representing questions, truth, puzzles, and complexity. Second, the book teaches how to explore intent and meaning, so that others who are on the receiving end and must look (not just read or listen!!!) have a better chance of understanding.

The book's contents start out simply and are thus very accessible. Yes, the later entries are more advanced but this simply provides "staying power" for the returning reader, as we might each become more skilled in visual communication strategies.

Could the book be improved at all? Yes. For example, I believe that there is a risk that beginning students of "visual strategies" might be overwhelmed and "get lost" in trying to apply the myriad lessons to their own lessons and work. It would be great to have explicit guidance for how to "triage" or "throttle" the application of visual communication tools, so that students might feel more comfortable with cycles of rapid prototyping or quick and dirty drafting of visual images, versus assuming the potential risk that every visualization must be a masterpiece from the start.

But, I would be an idiot to consider potential for modest improvement as a flaw that should detract from what is a rare and important masterpiece of teaching. I am certain that this book will be shared among the desks and minds of my students for decades to come. The pages of our first copy are already earmarked.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but not great 1 Feb 2013
By John S. Walker - Published on Amazon.com
I bought this (not on amazon) a few weeks ago. I teach statistics and also statistical graphics, so I try to stay abreast of what's on the shelves to recommend to students. I'd tell them to give this book the once over in the library, but not to go straight out and buy it. Statistical graphics have two interdependent aspects to them; how they look, their design and how much information they convey, their content. As I said they are not independent but they can be optimised to become a good looking graphic that conveys the maximum information. This book skews toward the design end of the range. I don't imply that this is unacceptable, they stay well within the range of acceptable scientific practice, but the bias is definitely present; from the prismatic cover to the dominance of graphics over short, sharp, almost bulleted, paragraphs of text, design dominates.

The initial section is about basics; how to present data, questions to answer about the purpose of the graphic and it's audience. It's thin on details of technique and some of it's examples are not the best in execution. To whit, the use of rainbow scales for continuous variable is generally not advisable since there is no implicit ordering. There are much better scales to use, many based on cartographic principles (e.g. see Cynthia Brewer (2005) Designing better maps). The next chapters are vignettes and case studies organised by content and design constraints - Form and structure, Process and time, Compare and contrast, Case studies and Interactive graphics. The book also has a very nice visual index showing thumbnails of the designs in each vignette and case study. Some of the examples are outstanding, including Felice Frankel's photographs of two colored waters creating contrasting square drops on a hydrophobic grid - a beautiful image that makes a sound scientific point; the two droplets don't mix.

The design of the book resembles that of a tabbed software manual and in doing so reveals the limitations of todays graphics designers who, in their advertising and commercial art heavy design courses, have little contact with the details of book design. A manual is designed with tabs so that short, relatively independent, entries can be consulted to solve a particular problem. Despite the design, and the attempts of the authors, this is not that kind of book. The case studies and vignettes are enjoyable reads, especially the one by Jane Richardson about redrawing a molecular diagram for a paper she was reviewing - I liked her drawing better than the final author generated one, but do not represent descriptions of how to solve a problem. They provide useful ideas and after reading several you gain a feel for how the authors would solve the problem, but patterns for solving a design problem they are not. The tabs get in the way of actually reading the book continuously. A better solution that would have been regular cut pages with color boxes printed to the edge of the page -- it would have provided quick access to sections by the color on the edge and a whimsical note in the preface could have told readers to write the name of a section on the edge of the book over the relevant color.

While I have focused on the shortcomings of the book, it does have many highlights (I've mentioned a couple of them) and the visual design approach it offers is admittedly quite pleasing to the eye. I would suggest that this is a secondary book for scientists or students to read after they have read Tufte or Cleveland. The classic approach to statistical graphics of emphasising data content over appearance is still the preferred approach in scientific papers, but in grants, where salesmanship plays an unspoken but significant role, this book could have much to offer to someone designing persuasive graphics.
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