ResearchMethods: Settling on a story line

This semester has been a busy one, and the weeks are getting away from me! There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m going to break it up into a few posts. Here, I’d like to catch up on the first couple of drafts of my soil poster for my research methods class.

The point of this draft was mostly to identify a narrative thread that ties together the different parts of our research. All semester, we’ve been collecting information from anywhere and everywhere; this is the moment where we need to start cutting and letting things go.

I’m sad to do it, but I decided to drop the investigation of soil types. It’s an extremely complicated classification system, and there aren’t really a lot of tangible implications from understanding it (other than realizing that soil is complex and really cool…).

I’m also reducing my emphasis on the soil microbiome and plant rhizosphere; that was what initially drew me into this project, but there isn’t a lot of coherent data out there yet, which makes comparisons and generalizations difficult. It’s a fascinating area, and I hope to come back to it someday, perhaps in a later version of this project.

Instead, I plan to focus on the climate and food production aspects of soil. These are pressing contemporary issues, and they affect everyone on the planet. There’s also a lot of great, homogeneous data available from the World Bank and other organizations, which makes it easier to get into the data and make comparisons.

My first draft leaned heavily into the colors of soil. I did really like how they looked on my screen (especially when zoomed in), but they printed horribly, and the text didn’t show up well at all.

soil poster_1

I did like the storyline that was beginning to emerge, though, so the second version had much of the same content with a much-lightened color scheme.

soil poster_4

When I spoke to Dietmar about the first draft, he suggested that it would be interesting to include spatial information about soil distribution. Since I’d decided not to push into the soil classifications, I found a map with information about global soil degradation instead. I also added a little bit more information to flesh out the details of carbon storage in the soil.

The lighter colors worked better, but I still felt that there was some room for improvement, especially when I saw the poster printed out. Several people commented that they liked the color scheme, but I still felt that the background was a bit too heavy and possibly interfering with legibility. It was definitely better, but still not quite there.

This version is the one that I presented in our class midterm review. We were lucky to have Kristian Kloeckl and Noah Paessel (who teach in the department) and Andres Colubri (from the Broad Institute) join us for the critique session. Since this draft was mostly about storyline, comments focused on that aspect.

As always, I got some really helpful feedback about things to consider as I continue developing the poster:

  • Andreas suggested that I should think about how to add a sense of scale and context to the data presentation; currently, everything is macroscopic and zoomed out – is there a way to bring the focus in to make it more personal? People are somewhat desensitized to large-scale statistics, especially in issues related to climate and environmental change. A personal view might help to make things more accessible.
  • Noah thought that it might be helpful to look at the amount of land per person, and how that has changed over time. Comparing this to the current population and growth predictions might help to make the land use question seem more urgent.
  • Kristian made the observation that soil is not a single entity, and that I am in fact dealing with multiple different “objects” in this one class. He thought it might be interesting/useful to layer in information about the different kinds of soil, and how that affects the discussion. He also mentioned a recent news story on mafias organized around sand mining to keep up with global demands for concrete buildings. In a followup conversation by email, he sent links to articles in the following publications: Wired, Spiegel,

This  last point is a totally different view on the topic, and one that is closely related to urban expansion and human rights issues.


At this point, I need to stop and refocus the content of the poster. My general sense from the midterm review was that people were interested in the facts and understanding the connection of soil to the larger ecosystem, but that they weren’t getting the “so what?” factor. In a way, the presentation was almost too exploratory, and people seemed to want to be told how the story personally affects them. Some people suggested that I use a fear-based approach to get more attention – that I should emphasize all the reasons that soil depletion is an environmental crisis and an emergency. I prefer to inspire a sense of wonder and awe, rather than harp on people’s fears (especially about environmental issues), but I do need to find a way to make that general, zoomed-out view fit with a more personal narrative that connects to the viewer’s experience.

I want this poster to frame soil conservation as a choice, and land as something that we can protect in a positive, proactive way, to ensure a sustainable future. Part of that narrative does involve understanding the threats and the urgency of the issue, but I don’t want the overall tone of the poster to be fear-mongering. I also want to propose solutions, or at least to indicate that possible solutions exist. Simply tearing down industrial agriculture doesn’t help to advance the conversation, and it’s not yet clear what the alternatives might be. Some people propose hydroponics, others no-till farming (I read somewhere that this leads to a huge increase in pesticide and herbicide use, as well as additional costs in machinery), others organic agriculture (widely proclaimed to be too inefficient to meet the food needs of a growing global population). The research article that I found the other day suggests replacing conventional fertilizers with bacterial ones; this seems like a promising way to enhance soil productivity without relying on chemical means, but the kind of agriculture used is still an important issue because of soil erosion.
I want to leave people with a sense of the importance of the soil, and with food for thought about how we choose to use and to protect it. I don’t want to leave them feeling like it’s a huge, unsolvable problem with no good solutions.

Finding a design solution that accomplishes all of those aims will be quite a challenge, and one that I’ll come back to another day.