Kaleigh Ballantine, undergraduate student and graphic designer at NOAA, shares her thoughts on the nature of visual science communication
Growing up, I fell in love with art, science, the outdoors, and the ways they can all overlap. From dissecting owl pellets and drawing the little bones and fur inside of them to creating eye-catching posters to promote my school’s environmental club, I’ve always looked at design as a tool to explore the natural world. But as I grew up and saw those subjects drift apart, I felt like I was at a crossroads for what to pursue.
When having to pick a major between science or art during my college applications, I began to wonder if these subjects were realistically compatible. I knew I wanted to keep pursuing science, but I also felt that I couldn’t just leave my passion for design behind. At the time, I had never even heard the phrase “science communication.” I had heard of “STEM” — science, technology, engineering, and math — but never “STEAM” with an “A” included for art.
Despite this uncertainty, I decided to “follow my art” and create a path where I couldn’t find one. I’m now a third-year undergraduate student at Oregon State University where I major in environmental sciences with minors in oceanography, science communication, and graphic design. A bit of a mouthful, I know.
Fortunately, through this mismatched journey, I’ve realized that art and science aren’t as incompatible as I once feared. Alongside my studies, I’ve had the opportunity to work with NOAA’s Office of Education for the last two years, first as a visual science communication intern and recently now as a ‘real-deal’ graphic designer!
I wasn’t sure how pursuing a science major while doubling as a graphic designer would work out, but it turns out these two roles aren’t mutually exclusive — they actually enhance each other. Through my slightly tongue-twisting collection of majors and minors coupled with my work with NOAA, I’ve learned some key takeaways about overlapping art and science that might just be helpful for anyone navigating a path to do the same.
To celebrate World Ocean Day, my mentors asked me to create a graphic to represent each of the seven ocean literacy principles. These principles happened to be the very first thing I learned in my very first oceanography class, so I was so excited to learn I could make my own contribution to such a foundational concept in the field.
Any oceanography class I take consistently ties back to these principles. Having a developed understanding of what they mean and what processes they relate to made creating designs that encapsulate them so much smoother. Spending so much time researching and designing them also meant that when exams rolled around, I was pretty confident that I at least had these seven concepts down. They say if you want to learn something teach it, but I’ve found if you want to learn something, draw it!
Making trading cards for the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations ships and planes was a project that an intern before me had started that I was tasked with wrapping up. This project came to life for me when I took an intensive and immersive biological oceanography class through my college at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. This was my first time doing field work, and it was great to dip more into the hands-on science side of my studies. While there, I got to see iconic NOAA ships like Bell M. Shimada, Rainer, and Fairweather in person!
Given all my time working on the cards, I had fun reciting fun facts about the various ships to my classmates. Sometimes sitting at the computer staring at all the shapes and colors can make my work feel a bit disconnected from the real world. But opportunities like seeing NOAA’s ships in action was a great reminder that the science I get to draw and write about doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s going on around me all the time!
Making scientific infographics has become one of my favorite opportunities in my position. These projects perfectly encapsulate my love for combining engaging designs and accessible science education. For the meteorological vs. astronomical seasons and ocean in springtime infographics, I drew heavily from my academic experience in topics like atmospheric science, oceanography, and polar environments. While the final graphics may look simple, extensive research and planning went into the process of creating these and taught me just how much more I have to learn about different topics.
Having background experience from my studies allowed me to better synthesize the ideas into simple, accurate graphics and short text descriptions that wider audiences can engage with while avoiding scientific misunderstandings in the process. But even then, I’m never alone in these designs, and I always appreciate the guidance of my amazing mentors and the wider network of NOAA subject-matter experts for making sure we get it right!
Creating the NOAA-themed pumpkin carving templates and the NOAA Office of Education holiday cards were the first two projects I completed during my internship. Alongside making the designs, I also had so much fun carving them into pumpkins with my family, as well as seeing other people’s masterpieces using the templates across social media. In one case, we saw that someone in Hawaii had even carved one of my designs into a pineapple!
While these projects clearly leaned more toward the graphic design side of my studies, they still found roots in my STEM classes. Many of my environmental science classes have developed an emphasis on accessible science communication, sometimes in unconventional ways like making memes that summarize scientific articles or writing a podcast about the research we conducted in class. I’ve always been excited to see what my classmates come up with, and have found that, in my graphic design work, people are often interested to do the same. I’ve learned that making something fun that people are excited to engage with is one of the best ways to open the door for educational opportunities that truly resonate with a wide range of audiences. So have fun with it!
Being a student in a STEM major while working as a graphic designer is a combination I had never known could work out, but it turns out, they go hand in hand! I’ve fallen in love with the field of science communication and finding ways to visually share information about our planet with the world in a nature that aims to be both engaging and accessible. I’m so glad that when it came between choosing science or art, I chose not to choose.