Turning Difficult Concepts Into Pretty Pictures at MIT

It’s easy in data visualization to get caught up in charts and graphs. That’s because much of our work relies on cold hard numbers. But really, any imagery that conveys an idea is data visualization, which can be helpful to illustrate concepts, if not the numbers themselves. In the case of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research deals heavily in complex sciences, conceptual data visualizations — let’s call them illustrations — are particularly important. Christine Daniloff is the creative design director at MIT News, the university’s communications arm, and is responsible for illustrating its homepage. These illustrations set the stage for the underlying faculty and student work, instantly introducing visitors to the subject matter at hand — even if that subject matter is beyond them. Using Photoshop and Illustrator, Daniloff tries to convey the content of an article in a single image. Given the frequent complexity of the subject, it’s not likely an appropriate stock photo even exists, let alone one that would do the concept justice. In order to reach the popular publication’s audience, Daniloff must first get her own head around these difficult scientific concepts. This is a tall order because MIT research runs the intellectual gamut, from aeronautics to anthropology, from physics to urban planning. “The first thing I do is establish how this research or discovery applies to the broad audience,” Daniloff said. “I try and answer the question ‘why should we care?'” Some concepts are more difficult to illustrate than others. How would you visualize human language evolving from birdsong or how the US immigration policy affects entrepreneurship (see below) without it seeming hokey? Here, we’ve included a number of Daniloff’s illustrations, along with links to their attendant articles. How would you would approach each subject?

How human language could have evolved from birdsong

Linguistics and biology researchers propose a new theory on the deep roots of human speech.


Chips as mini Internets

The data-routing techniques that undergird the Internet could increase the efficiency of multicore chips while lowering their power requirements.


A safer way to vaccinate

Polymer film that gradually releases DNA coding for viral proteins could offer a better alternative to traditional vaccines.


Why innovation thrives in cities

Double a city’s population and its economic productivity goes up 130 percent. MIT researchers think they know why.


Glasses-free 3-D TV looks nearer 

A new method for producing multiple-perspective 3-D images could prove more practical in the short term than holography.

Pruning the power grid

New algorithm quickly identifies the most dangerous risks in a power grid amid millions or billions of possible failures.


The high value of water

Study: People willing to pay more for running water report much higher levels of happiness when they have it.


A biplane to break the sound barrier

Cheaper, quieter and fuel-efficient biplanes could put supersonic travel on the horizon.


3 Questions: John Gabrieli on studying traumatic memories

Sept. 11, 2001, is a day that lives in infamy. But how accurately do we remember it?


Q&A: U.S. immigration policy and entrepreneurship

MIT’s Bill Aulet, Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook and Edward Roberts discuss the challenges facing foreign-born entrepreneurs under U.S. immigration policy.

All images courtesy Christine Daniloff/MIT News. Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at GigaOM. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.  

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