Note: I submitted this topic as a proposal for a presentation at Spectrum 2017. Even though it was not selected, I still wanted to capture it as a blog post. In essence, this post would serve as the presentation’s white paper, which means this post is long!!

Ever since I was a kid, I enjoyed drawing and cartooning. I was a hack at best, but it was fun. I never took any formal art classes beyond middle school. I’ve spent time drawing with my kids (they are way more talented than me), and I even used simple drawings on a chalkboard (this was the late 1990’s – no smart boards back then) to depict Liam O’Flaherty’s short story “The Sniper” to a sophomore English class in my substitute teaching days. Initially, I used the drawings to help them understand some vocabulary used in the story (“parapet”), but I quickly realized that they were struggling with the story itself. I combined stick figures with the rudimentary drawings and got a collective “Ah-ha!” from the class! I felt I was onto something with this…

Many years later when I had switched careers from teaching to technical writing, I was employed by a company that distributed its products worldwide. Translating the supporting documentation was extremely expensive, so the group I was in started to produce wordless installation sheets for the hardware products in order to reduce documentation inventory and translation costs. These installation sheets contained very little, if any, text. The instructions to install, connect, and program the hardware were conveyed primarily by illustrations, like Ikea’s installation instructions but without the cartoon people.


In 2010, I gave a presentation at Spectrum, the annual conference hosted by the Rochester chapter of Society for Technical Communication (STC). My original topic was going to be on how to create wordless instructions using what my group had done as a case study. As I researched this topic, I stumbled onto Connie Malamed’s book Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand. I was fascinated by this topic! It ultimately became the subject of my presentation, and led me on a quest to further my education in this field. While searching for anything on Visual Language, I stumbled onto the Information Design & Technology graduate program at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Several things occurred that delayed my enrollment in this program, but I eventually did in 2014.

During the Spring 2016 semester, I took IDT 590 Visualizing Science & Technology. This was the class I had been waiting for! A class that would combine elements of graphic and information design with an emphasis on visual communication. The end product of this class would be a piece of functional art of a scientific or technical nature that each student would produce based on methodologies and processes that we would study.

This blog is as comprehensive of a walk-through of what I learned and created in IDT 590.

I warned you that this would be a long post…

What is Functional Art?

For IDT 590, we used Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization. In his book, Cairo defines functional art by juxtaposing it against traditional art:

…something that achieves beauty not through the subjective, freely wandering self-expression of the painter or sculptor, but through the careful and restrained tinkering of the engineer.

In order to create functional art, Cairo stresses that the designer must understand that perception and cognition are active processes and that a visualization is an active process that occurs in the mind as it analyzes and creates meaning.

Who is Alberto Cairo? Fair question. Here is the About blurb from his website:

Alberto Cairo has two decades of experience as an infographics and data visualization journalist and designer. He has led visualization teams in Spain, Brazil, and the United States. He teaches visualization at the University of Miami, and has worked as a consultant for companies, media organizations, and educational institutions in more than twenty countries.

If you’re curious, you can get a sense of his work by visiting the project samples that he has shared online. My favorite pieces is one he did for Época Magazine that illustrates the power of gigantic waves. This piece was discussed in detail in The Functional Art.


 My Design

The final project in IDT 590 was to create a visualization project, or functional art, that focuses on a scientific and/or technological subject. We had to define, research and implement our subject using the principles and processes studied in Cairo’s book. There was also an emphasis on visually explaining complex information clearly and functionally. This was exactly what I tried to do years ago creating the wordless instruction sheets!

In December 2015, the film Concussion, starring Will Smith, told the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, a forensic pathologist, and his fight against the NFL over his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL players. News headlines in 2016 and prior were littered with stories about sports-related concussions and their effects on the athletes. As someone who played backyard and high school football, and practicing Taekwondo as an adult, I’ve had my bell rung a number of times. So, this topic was of personal interest.

For my project, I chose to design a piece of functional art that examined concussions, the long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma, and the prevalence of concussions in sports.

While designing my visualization, I paid careful attention to Cairo’s guidelines and applied some of the Gestalt design principles.

Following Cairo’s Design Process

In The Functional Art, Cairo lays out his design process in six steps:

  1. Define the focus of the graphic, the story to tell, and the points to be made.
  2. Gather as much information as possible about your topic.
  3. Choose the best graphic forms that fit the goals identified in Step 1.
  4. Complete your research; sketch several drafts of your design.
  5. Think about a consistent visual style (typefaces, colors, fonts, etc.).
  6. Move the design to the computer.

Steps 1-3: Define, Research, and Plan

Steps 1-3 were fairly straight-forward: define the topic, scope out its parameters, conduct the research. I scoured the Internet for as much as I could find on concussions from all sorts of perspectives.

Step 4: Sketch Drafts

I was excited and nervous about creating the sketches for Step 4. On one hand, I knew I would enjoy roughing out my design and seeing my research take shape. On the other hand, I was nervous – would I be able to take what ideas I had in my head and transfer them in a rough form onto paper? The purpose of the sketches was to get the ideas down on paper, and refine, refine, refine.

Sketch 1

With this sketch, I simply wanted to get ideas on paper. The components include:

  • Title block with introductory text
  • Main graphic depicting what happens to the brain upon impact
  • Sidebar graphic that defines Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
  • Sidebar graphic with charts (undefined at the time of this sketch)
  • Timeline graphic along the bottom depicting the controversy over concussions in football

After finishing this sketch, I thought about moving some of the components around as noted in the sketch.


Sketch 2

In Sketch 2, I made the changes that I noted in Sketch 1. The components are essentially the same, with the exception of dropping the timeline in order to allot more space for the other components. If space permitted, I would include short bios of three young football players who died from concussions, and who, upon autopsy, were also diagnosed as suffering from CTE.


Sketch 3

With Sketch 3, I tried using a layout similar to Cairo’s “Giant Waves” piece. I included a graphic that shows what happens to the brain at the microscopic level as a result of repeated brain trauma. This graphic basically shows the genesis of CTE in the brain. I also defined the subjects for my graphs:

  • Rates of concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures (practices and games) in boys’ high school sports
  • Rates of concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures in girls’ high school sports
  • Concussions as a percentage of total injuries across high school sports (boys and girls)

I also brought the timeline graphic back with a focus on concussions across all levels of football, from youth to professional.


Sketch 4

Sketch 4 also borrows from Cairo’s “Giant Waves” layout, but with this sketch, I tried to improve on space utilization from Sketch 4.


Sketch 5

With this sketch, I tried to combine layout elements from Sketches 1 and 2 (the ones that were not influenced by Cairo’s “Giant Waves”) and Sketches 3 and 4. By moving the title block back to a horizontal layout across the top, I created additional space for the other components. The timeline is once again dropped from this sketch.


Steps 5 & 6: Develop Consistent Visual Layout & Design on Computer

With these steps, it was time to think about a consistent and aesthetically appropriate scheme for colors, fonts, and typefaces that I would use and then start designing on the computer. The programs that I primarily used were the versions of Illustrator and Photoshop that are available in the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite, which, as a college student, I am eligible for the monthly student rate (a nice perk!).

Draft 1

Much like the first sketch, the first computer draft was simply to get ideas from paper onto screen. I didn’t concern myself with the consistent scheme at this point. I wanted to get rough ideas of the components on the screen. As expected, there was too much text.


Draft 2

In the second draft, I made more of an effort at applying a consistent color/font scheme and better sense of information flow. It was important for the audience to understand that each section of content told its own story about concussions, but together they presented a bigger picture. To do this, I relied on the section headings to give the audience the clues needed to understand at a glance what each section would entail. The bounding box around the middle section also helps show that its content is what goes on inside the brain by pointing back to the brain shown in the first section. The last section provides supporting statistical information, which was a requirement of the project.


According to my professor, the font I chose for the title didn’t really fit a key element of my design’s subject, sports, and it looked more like the font used on the “MASH” TV series:


I hadn’t thought about that, and after seeing her comment, I had to agree. I needed another font. She suggested something that resembled the ESPN logo:


The font used by ESPN is proprietary, so she recommended an alternative font called “Richardson Brand Accelerator,” which I used in the third draft.

Draft 3

As you can see from looking at the second and third drafts, not much really changed. And that’s because the purpose of the third draft was to fine-tune some items (like font choices) and get the draft ready for a usability test.


 Usability Survey

Up to this point, the only person other than my professor who had seen my work was my girlfriend, who offered good advice throughout the project. Now it was time to solicit feedback from other people. My subjects consisted of three females and three males of varying ages:

  • Documentation Team Manager (female)
  • User Experience Team Manager (female)
  • Two Technical Writers (one female; one male)
  • Retired MIS Director/Project Manager who coached youth soccer & softball (male)
  • Third-year Industrial Design student who played youth soccer for 10 years (male)

Using a PDF of the third draft, this group completed a short survey that I put together using Survey Monkey. Below is a summary of the survey results:


The final question in the survey asked the participants to select five words that best described their overall experience viewing my design. Below is a word cloud of the adjectives selected that I created using Wordle:


Based on the summary of comments and the word cloud, I felt that the participants were engaged by the third draft, but there was some room for improvement. Based on their feedback, I made the following changes:

  •   Change the main title from “Head Games: A Look at Concussions in Sports” to “Head Games: A Look at Concussions”
  • Fade the background image out more than it already is; remove it entirely if it still interferes with readability
  • In the first section:
    •  Replace the image of the head and brain with an image that shows an outline of the skull
    • Move the image and its callouts down to create more white space between the introductory paragraph and top callout; adjust the pointer for the middle section accordingly
  • In the last (chart) section:
    • Change the title from “Unnecessary Roughness” to “Impact in Sports”
    • Define what an athletic exposure is
    • Label the x-axis on both charts

With this feedback, I felt ready to finalize my design.

Final Draft

And here it is:


In addition to applying the usability survey feedback, I made two other changes:

  • Labeled the data columns in both charts with actual values
  • Reordered the columns by descending value rather than by sport to improve readability (more on this below)

What I Learned

To say I learned a lot about the design process and taking a visualization through the stages of definition, development and completion is an understatement! However, below are the top things I learned from this class and project.

About Graphic Design

Following Cairo’s design process steps provided a sound structure that helped guide me through this project:

  1. Define the focus of the graphic, the story to tell, and the points to be made.
  2. Gather as much information as possible about your topic.
  3. Choose the best graphic forms that fit the goals identified in Step 1.
  4. Complete your research; sketch several drafts of your design.
  5. Think about a consistent visual style (typefaces, colors, fonts, etc.).
  6. Move the design to the computer.

Once I moved to Step 6, I found myself going back to the sketches to re-prioritize the points I wanted to make, revising or deleting content that simply no longer fit the scope and shape that my design had taken. I made several digital drafts of my design and moved back and forth between these drafts re-purposing content as needed.

My favorite piece of the design, the image of the football players, simply could not be used as originally intended. It ultimately became the background image in the middle section. Even then, it almost was eliminated due to comments made during the usability survey that said the image interfered with readability. I will discuss this image in more detail below.

When the design was close to completion, I looked back at my sketches and was surprised to see the evolution from sketches to nearly final draft. The final draft resembled the sketches to an extent, but it really had become its own entity. However, the sketches served their purpose of helping me transfer the ideas I had in my head to paper where I could analyze them.

 About Gestalt Theory

There are many books and websites that will provide definitions of the Gestalt Theory and examples of how it relates to design work, but I like the definition that designer and author Andy Rutledge provides:

Gestalt principles of perception help to take the guesswork out of design. For instance, once the page content is defined and the communicative objectives are known, Gestalt principles make clear how to distribute elements on the page, when and why to use line delineation, background shading, a gradient, or when and why to group things in an enclosure (or not).

There are typically five principles. Here, I will focus on the three that I applied in my design:

Figure Ground Relationship

This principle states that elements are perceived as either figures (distinct elements of focus) or ground (the background or landscape) on which the figures rest. This principle also helps separate content from structure.

The following are examples from my design of the Figure Ground Relationship:

  • The banner: The red banner at the top distinguishes and separates the title from the design. It makes the title stand out as a figure element.
  • White background: The white background helps make the content stand out as figure elements.
  • Faded image of football players: With the opacity set very low, this image helps to break up the monotony of the white space. It helps focus attention, but, overall, it does not detract from readability.

Uniform Connectedness

This principle states that “…elements that share uniform visual characteristics are perceived as being more related than elements with disparate visual characteristics,”(Rutledge). The use of bounding boxes, lines (rules), or arrows are ways to show connections between related elements.

In my design, I used the following:

  • Bounding boxes: The bounding boxes used in the middle section, “What Happens Inside the Brain,” help group the entire section together as well as the elements that discuss a healthy brain versus an unhealthy brain. The outer box is also used as a callout from the image in the first section to show how the content in the middle section relates to the content in the first section.
  • Use of lines (rules): In the middle section, I used rules of all sorts to identify and link elements together. Some rules simply point to elements; other rules are used to show an expanded, close-up view of microscopic structures in the brain.

Good Continuation

This principle states that “…elements arranged on a line or curve are perceived to be more related than elements not on the line or curve,” (Rutledge). In other words, the use of a grid helps facilitate good continuation “…the grid…is most useful in bringing order to a layout, but it also is useful in indicating context,” (Rutledge).

To get a general idea of where to align elements in my design, I used the Rule of Five to place guides across the screen. The Rule of Five states that “three’s and five’s create…what are considered magic intersections…the theory is that where these lines intersect create pleasant design locations for elements on your page.”

I placed guides approximately five inches apart horizontally and vertically across an 11 x 17 artboard in Adobe Illustrator:


The principle of Good Continuation also applies to bar graphs: information positioned along a continuous line or curve suggests a relation and is easier to read (Rutledge). After reading this, I revised the bar graphs in my design:


Reordering the bars in descending values makes it easier to compare values across sports and genders.

About Usability

Conducting the usability survey was very rewarding. Where I currently work, I participate as an observer on usability tests conducted on software applications that I am documenting. We use Morae by Techsmith to conduct and record the tests, and then analyze the results. I hear what the participants say (they are instructed to do “think aloud”) as they work through scenarios and answer the surveys. Some interesting patterns emerge regarding user struggles, which we then use to improve the software and documentation.

I approached the usability survey I conducted for this project much like my co-worker does when he prepares the scenarios and helps facilitate the tests. However, the preparation was much different. Instead of preparing user scenarios for interactive questions, I needed to write non-leading questions for a static design, which was very difficult to do. I ultimately wrote questions that focused on design principles that did not require a background in graphic design to understand, yet provided valuable feedback on design effectiveness and opportunities for improvement. I borrowed the final question (selecting adjectives that best defined the user’s overall experience) from our usability tests, but modified it for my needs.

I found the results to be very valuable and insightful. I prioritized the results and addressed the issues that I could feasibly do in the remaining time I had. As a result, I felt my final draft was better.

 About Adobe Illustrator

Earlier in my career as a technical writer, I was very proficient with Macromedia Freehand. I had learned how to extract 3D models from UGS TeamCenter and bring them into Freehand to produce technical illustrations. Freehand went defunct and I moved on. Adobe Illustrator became my primary drawing tool. I was not very familiar with Illustrator (I was more familiar with Adobe Photoshop). This project gave me the opportunity to really dig into Illustrator and gain confidence with it.

I liberally employed the following tools in Illustrator while designing my functional art:

  • Re-purposing raster images found online into vector art using the Trace tool
  • Editing my newly re-purposed vector art with the Knife and Scissors tools
  • Creating 3D shapes using the Extrude & Bevel tool
  • Converting colors using the Adjust Color Balance function

To learn how to use these tools in Illustrator, I leaned heavily on Adobe’s support forums and video tutorials on YouTube.

I applied what I learned to create a vector image that would ultimately serve as the background image in my design. The original photo is from a high school football game:


And here is the vector version:


I only wanted the player tackling #1 by the leg in color as he would have had the callout box containing the middle section point to his helmet. Unfortunately, there was not enough space in the first section for this image. Making it smaller would have reduced its effectiveness. So, I used it as a background image with the opacity pushed up high in order to fade it out enough so it would not interfere too much with the content in front of it.

Creating this image required me to trace it, turn it into vector (editable) art, and create several layers in order to control which parts contained color and which parts were grey scale. I used the Knife and Scissors tools to cut paths, remove background content, and create smaller independent pieces for the color. This was quite a challenge, but one that I enjoyed so much that this was my favorite part of the project (and I almost had to drop it!).

I also used the graph tool in Illustrator to create the bar graphs. Cairo provided a brief overview of this in the DVD that accompanies The Functional Art. He also showed how to then break apart the generated graph to further refine it. I had never used Illustrator to do this, so this was something new.

In Closing

The end – finally!! For those who made it, thanks for reading!

IDT 590 was an enjoyable, challenging, and educational experience – exactly what graduate school is supposed to be! I look forward to using the skills I gained from this project on future design work. It was a great experience that helped bring my early dabbling in doodling and my interest in Visual Language to full circle.