Embracing minimalism when presenting science

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler said Einstein. Except, he didn’t. His version of the quote was four times longer.

I’m not surprised that it took a non scientist to paraphrase and create the short, popular version. As scientists, we are not accustomed to brevity. We want to provide every detail. We read papers filled with columns of 10pt text. We construct figures with dozens of lines and colours. We spare no bit of white space when we design posters. And don’t get me started on logos for scientific campaigns (long story short: too many elements, too many colours, and too literal).

We lack minimalism.

You may argue that detail, nuance, and chains of logic—hallmarks of science—are not easily reduced to 280 characters or a sexy soundbite. I don’t disagree. But there are still aspects of minimalism we should embrace.

Minimalism is …

Minimalism is a broad concept. To gain some idea, consider websites. Google’s homepage is 90% whitespace. The logo and search bar are surrounded by a moat of white. But minimalism isn’t just a lack of stuff. Photography websites can exhibit many photos at once while maintaining a minimal design. Tricks in this case are a limited colour palette or a theme unifying the photos.

google_homepage
Google’s homepage has a dozen links, but its use of whitespace keeps these from interfering with the only important component.

The opposite of minimalism is, say, dailymail.co.uk. Visit without an adblocker and you’re greeted with continually changing banner ads, autoplaying videos, pop-ups you need to dismiss, and some news stories I guess. (I’m doing you a favour by not linking to their website.)

Minimalism ultimately involves asking how few elements are necessary to convey your message. As a concept, it’s often associated with visual arts or software design. Here I will use the term in a looser sense: minimalism is anything in which ‘less is more’.

Minimalism in narrative

Scientific talks and papers need a story.

I’m not referring to invoking emotion or resonating with your audience. While important, these are beside the point. By ‘minimalism in narrative’, I mean having a throughline, a single thread that ties together your talk or paper.

To paraphrase Randy Olson, scientist-turned-filmmaker, there are two obstacles to finding a singular narrative. First, being convinced that the 43 points you want to make are too many. Second, and more difficult, taking your now-reduced list of three points and finding the one single story. Businessmen, politicians, and entertainers are all capable of finding the story. Surely, we’re smarter than them. Why do we so often fail to find a story?

Embracing story in your science should influence your data visualisation. For example, don’t develop your dialogue for a talk around what the figures show. Develop your figures to serve your story. Do that with minimalism in mind.

Minimalism in figures

Make a figure for the generals, as Claus Wilke says. Treat your audience as people who are smart, but lack the time to decipher a complex figure (e.g., army generals). Remove the tangential elements that don’t serve your story. Avoid the temptation to plot every detail just because you can. And make sure there are no redundant labels.

Be especially careful with small multiple plots. These are the plots with multiple panels that show the same quantity for different cases. When done well, small multiple plots capitalise on our ability to see patterns. When too detailed, small multiple plots lose their impact. Compare two examples that contrast characteristics of different cities. First, Geoff Boeing’s set of polar histograms of the orientations of roads in major cities. My closest current city, Portland, for example, is a grid of roads running north–south and east–west.

city-street-network-polar-histograms-alpha
Small multiple plots work well when you need only glance at each panel, if that. Click on image for the original.

Second, house prices over 10 years across 20 different cities:

chg-home-prices
When each panel has this much detail, having 20 panels becomes impractical. Click on image for the original.

Small multiple plots, or multi-panel plots in general, are sometimes unavoidable. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking if using only two or three panels, rather than 10 or 20, conveys much the same message.

Minimalism in scientific talks

Plan your talk. Then cut it by half. Once you’ve grieved the loss of half of your talk, cut it another 50%. That’s advice from Brené Brown, whose Ted Talks have garnered millions of views. Do the maths and you should have only 25% of a talk left over, right? To which Brown continues It’s seductive to think about how much you can fit into 18 minutes [the length of a Ted Talk]. The better question for me is, ‘What can you unpack in a meaningful way in 18 minutes?’. Whether your scientific talk is 12 minutes or an hour, Brown’s advice holds and alludes to a minimalist approach.

Speaking of hour-long talks, I’ve watched speakers half way through pick up their water bottle and go to unscrew the lid only to put the bottle back down without ever taking a sip. I must keep talking, the speaker seems to think. Take a pause? Perish the thought. Except a pause is to a talk what whitespace is to design.

That you cannot convey any information during pauses is not an argument against them. A pause can keep you from using um and ah. A pause after a statement can signal its importance and give the audience more time to digest it. And a pause can be used for chunking: if your talk has three parts, even 5–10 seconds of silence between parts will help highlight the separation and make the individual parts easier to recall. You don’t rattle off your phone number as a single string of 10 digits; you give it as three sequences with pauses in between.

The other component of a scientific talk, the slides, also benefit from minimalism. Simplify them. The elements you remove are just as important as the ones you keep in. Consider even throwing in a blank slide or two to move the focus back to you, the speaker. When was the last time you saw that?

Minimalism is a balancing act

Taking minimalism too far becomes a problem. Don’t let form get in the way of function. A clean website design, for example, cannot come at the expense of ease of navigation. Don’t hide a menu simply because it’s unsightly. Similarly, in science, a good story cannot come before scientific integrity. Don’t report exploratory results as confirmatory, or ignore experiments that negate your hypothesis. Stephen Heard highlights the subtle difference in what and what not to present: Choose results to present not to shape the conclusion, but to make the conclusion as clear as possible.

Simplifying your science rather than dumbing it down is another subtle difference. As Stephen Few remarks, when presenting information, we manage complexity by finding the simplest possible way to display it, never crossing the threshold into over-simplification.

Minimalism can be scary

As scientists, there will always be details of our own work we don’t understand. It’s tempting to hide our ignorance by obscuring it within the details. But in the same way that using big words and jargon doesn’t make you sound smarter, neither does over-complicating your science.

Let’s not be like the ancient mapmakers who, possibly in a bid to hide their ignorance, filled their maps with non-existent mountains, monsters, and cities. Instead, let’s expose the gaps. Let’s embrace whitespace.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

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