Designing Science Communication

Part I: A Foundation

Jen Briselli
Aug 26, 2014 · 11 min read


I want to help the science community communicate better.

Why “Design Strategy”?

Design no longer refers solely to the styling or visual treatment of a product. These days, there is no shortage of “thought leadership” (eyeroll) on Design Thinking, but as Charles Eames so simply defined it:

Human Centered Design

Building Blocks

In my own discovery process, I’ve found an incredible wealth of knowledge in the field of communication research, or the “science of science communication” as it’s sometimes called. In a perfect world, scientists and science communicators could themselves explore this primary research, but even for those with the inclination to do so, there is rarely the time or the resources available to read stacks and stacks of papers. While I’d certainly encourage anyone interested to explore this primary research, my goal is to help make insights from that knowledge actionable.


Every word, image, idea, impression and experience is framed by its context and the medium through which we experience it. Framing is a widely understood concept, especially relevant to the study of rhetoric, but also central to the problem of science communication.


As surely as it can be used to fabricate false arguments, exploit emotions, and claim undue authority, the field of rhetoric also offers a window into the more noble application of its art to understanding the audience on a deep level and determining how their needs for logical argument, emotional resonance, and trust inform communication strategies.


Craig Waddell wrote (way back in 1990!) that scientists possess an important responsibility in this process via two functions: lobbying and informing.

Theories of Audience

So maybe you’re convinced you should more carefully frame your communication and make stronger appeals to ethos and pathos. Both of these implications require a deeper understanding of your audience.

Cultural Cognition

The Cultural Cognition Project is a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities. Project members use the methods of various disciplines — including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science — to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates. The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decision making by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policy-making.

Six Americas

In 2008, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication used nationally representative survey data on global warming beliefs to identify six distinct groups of Americans – “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” Since then, they have tracked the size of these six audiences — and the ongoing evolution of their beliefs, behaviors and policy preferences — through a series of national surveys.

Moral Foundation Theory

Jonathan Haidt popularized Moral Foundations Theory in his book, The Righteous Mind. This theory describes six foundations as the basis of innate human moral reasoning:

Fear & Loss Aversion

Change is hard. Whether its a threat to physical environments or mental states, people tend to fear loss and avoid threatening situations and attitudes. This article hits some of the high points on why change is so threatening, and this study demonstrates how even watching a scary movie can entrench us deeper in our beliefs. One implication worth taking from social scientists’ current understanding of fear and persuasion is that people are far more likely to consider other points of view when they feel relaxed and self-affirmed.

A Preview

From the preceding concepts, theories, and models, the following six facets crystallized into a design strategy for science communication— one that is both widely applicable and yet actionable for many types of practitioners.

A Design Strategy for Science Communication