infohackit: helping scientists to communicate important messages through design

infohackit co-founder Peter Moore Fuller talks to us about their recent workshops with the British Antarctic Survey and why they include Affinity Designer training in all of their programmes.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your company, infohackit.

infohackit started as a 12-hour hack event in 2015, bringing together scientists and designers to find new ways to communicate research. We were then asked to devise training so that scientists could produce their own design work. At the time, I was creative director of a regional design agency, but for the last couple of years, I’ve been training full time. We mainly work for research institutes and universities.

Why is visual communication important in the scientific field?

It’s a way of telling people about your research methods and results, and in doing so, starting the process of somehow changing the world with your science. Most of our clients are researching environmental, biological, and health sciences, so we’re looking at topics like climate change, biodiversity, global health. Not many people outside of science know that scientists are expected to create posters, data visualisations and infographics for audiences as diverse as school children and policymakers.

Infographic by Peter Davis

“Design software and training are useful as it equips me with a range of skills that I can use to communicate complex ideas to non-expert audiences. Visual communication helps maintain engagement and improves the overall communication of the important messages.”

Peter Davis—Physical Oceanographer BAS

Good visual communication can be the difference between a research project never being heard of outside academia and affecting millions of lives.

Visualisation is also an amazing opportunity to gain perspective on your research. Imagine spending three years in a lab, writing an 80,000-word thesis and then being asked to summarise all that experience and prose into a 1200 x 675px png for Twitter. It’s not an easy process.

How do you work with scientists to develop their design skills?

We start simply, with a theoretical understanding of colour systems, image types, typography and composition; and then we use Affinity to create basic shapes, icons, simple vector-based illustrations. Once those skills are in place, we can apply them to poster design, infographics and other visual outputs.

An ocean glider graphic from a training session
Why did you switch to Affinity Designer for your training?

One of our PhD students told me about Affinity Designer, and to begin with, we considered switching mainly due to cost. Not many of the people we train will use design software every week, so having non-subscription-based software is important to them.

After early testing at training events, we realised that people were learning more quickly than they were using Illustrator or Inkscape. For me, Affinity has the right balance of depth of function vs ease of use, and an awesome UI.

We now include the software as standard in our training programmes, which is a massive leap forward for the legacy of our work.

Infographic by Susie Grant

“I’ve continued to use Affinity Designer since the training course, and really enjoy the possibilities it offers to create visuals with so much more detail and control. I’ll definitely keep using it in the future, particularly for scientific figures, posters and infographics. The easy transfer into PowerPoint has also been great for improving my presentation graphics.”

Susie Grant—Marine Biogeographer BAS
Why were you approached by the British Antarctic Survey?

The British Antarctic Survey had heard about a programme we ran for a group of ecologists in 2020 and were keen to run something similar. Like many scientists, they often see fantastic visuals in other people’s research papers, at conferences and in magazines like National Geographic, and they wonder—‘how the heck do you do that?’. BAS have fantastic comms and creative teams, but they don’t have enough hours in the day to help everyone communicate, so it’s up to the scientists to skill up and try it themselves.

How was the course delivered?

We run a community on Slack, and the workshops were all delivered live via Zoom. I’ve logged hundreds of hours on Zoom in the last 12 months! It works really well and means we can work with groups with a wide geographical base. BAS’ main office is in Cambridge, but we had scientists joining from all over the UK. I don’t think anyone actually in Antarctica attended, but we did have someone juggling the workshop with piloting a drone chasing an iceberg!

Infographic by Laura Gerrish

“Affinity Designer has quite a few extra abilities and tools compared to what I was used to, and it has been really interesting investigating some of the fun features that the software has.”

Laura Gerrish—GIS and mapping specialist

After basic Affinity training, we looked at posters, infographics, visual abstracts (a visual summary of a research paper), making animated gifs, integrating Affinity graphics into Powerpoint, designing with the Pen Tool and brushes in detail and also some isometric drawing. We ran 20+ workshops over two months.

How did the scientists find using Affinity Designer?

We found (as we always do) that the scientists picked up Affinity very quickly. Our training is designed to make sure that everyone can improve. Not everyone can draw, but anyone can put shapes together in meaningful ways, trace a photo, and learn how to use a grid system.

Infographic by Matthew Chadwick

“I will definitely use Affinity Designer to create visuals in the future. There are now features and design choices that I can add into my graphics I wouldn’t have dreamed of before.”

Matthew Chadwick—PhD student BAS
What do you enjoy most about the training you do?

My job is to give the super-power of great visual design to a group of people that really need it. Every brief is important and could change the world. I love getting an email a year or two after a training programme from a scientist saying—‘hey look what I did!’.


You can find out more about infohackit and their training courses at infohackit.com.

For more information on the British Antarctic Survey, visit their website.