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The Art of Visuals in Organic Chemistry

November 21, 2018
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Infographics as a Powerful Communication Tool:

We live in a world of displays: on laptops, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches. These devices bring together technologies to make our lives better, but, above all, their key feature is that they’re primarily visual. Rich colors, high resolutions, and bright backlights enable an engaging experience. It is not surprising that these devices resonate with so many, since we are visual beings with significant portions of our brain dedicated to processing this kind of stimuli.

Recognizing this inspires us to explore innovative ways to communicate our ideas. For scientists, this is even more critical. What good are our ideas, research, and data if we cannot communicate them efficiently, comprehensively, and elegantly? This inspiration and a personal passion for art have shaped how I communicate my work and knowledge as an organic chemist and have, most recently, inspired me to create infographics. I hope that my inspiration, experience, and some of the principles that I share here will encourage you to incorporate infographics in your own publications, teaching, and learning, with a solution that I have found useful: ChemDraw.

The Inspiration:

I have always had a fascination with art and creative expression from as early as grade school through college and beyond. Using colored pencil as my primary medium, my sketches evolved to drawings, and my drawings evolved to thematic collections. Colored images were always more memorable than words alone.

This preference for imagery also influenced my choice of scientific field: organic chemistry. Early in my education, I was fascinated by the look of chemical structures. I still appreciate how concisely they can convey so much useful information. And I think that many chemists would know what I mean if I said that a given structure illustrates a “beautiful molecule”.

As a scientist, experimental data is the most important outcome of my work. However it is meaningless unless we can communicate it to others. Visualizations are our most powerful tool for accomplishing this.

This simple truth was also encouraged by my post-doctoral advisor, K. C. Nicolaou, who emphasized that a great publication should include schemes that are able to convey the complete scientific story to the reader before they look at even a single word of text.

This same principle appeared later in an American Chemical Society (ACS) webinar: Mastering the Art of Scientific Publication, that I attended. In particular, the discussion on preparing a table of contents with images resonated with me. This seemingly minor addition can make a publication stand out and be more accessible for readers. Infographics, which expand upon our traditional visual tools of structures, graphs, and tables, are perhaps the most striking and accessible way to accomplish that.

Infographics are very popular in the media and take center stage in some of the most-read publications including National Geographic and WIRED Magazine. They capture the attention of the reader and present information in a concise yet comprehensive and memorable way.

In chemistry, some of my favorite educational infographics are made by Compound Interest and Andy Brunning, who I discovered recently. His work has encouraged me to think about how I could create my own chemistry infographics using ChemDraw to organize and convey useful knowledge. Later this gave birth to my blog: ChemInfoGraphic.

Most of the subjects for my recent infographics are inspired either by chemistry tutoring or personal experience. When exploring a topic in chemistry or solving a problem, I have to identify what principles or patterns my student needs in order to see the bigger picture or to understand a key relationship. As I tackle these challenges, I think about how to visually organize these principles or relationships.

In making infographics I have three goals:

  1. To summarize the related information in a concise, useful, and presentable manner;
  2. To facilitate understanding and recall of the larger picture: see the relationship and connection between challenging concepts; and
  3. To encourage learning by presenting information from a different and sometimes unconventional perspective, utilizing mnemonic rules, for example.

Examples and Illustrations:

An effective infographic has several key features. It should maintain

  • Content accuracy
  • Be useful to the audience, and
  • Have aesthetic appeal.

Content accuracy is undoubtedly the most important aspect of any infographic. Usefulness is a rather subjective criterion. I find an infographic useful if it covers complex, narrow, or broad subject matter in a manner that is efficient, comprehensive, or even unusual, unexpected, or unconventional. It is also useful if it is memorable and helps to organize and easily recall concepts and relationships. The aesthetic appeal of the image captures attention and can also help with recall. Several factors contribute to aesthetic appeal: the size, position, and amount of text; the proportions and utilization of empty space; symmetry and color selection or complementary color combinations are also important.

Achieving all of this can be challenging, but with the right mindset and tools it can be accomplished. For the design of my infographics, ChemDraw has been my paintbrush. It is the best tool for creating a wide variety of visual representations. It is familiar to me from my graduate and post-graduate work and best-suited because it is designed specifically for chemists – though not only chemists use it. ChemDraw saves a lot of time to digitalize an image and has a library of premade building elements (templates) and simple images. Moreover, I find that the software is rather intuitive and versatile. Using creativity, I am able to not only draw a molecule (or chemical reaction), but also to create flow charts, diagrams, tables, and more complex schemes and drawings. I have created a diverse array of infographics using ChemDraw including:

Tables, Schemes, and Figures:
These infographics are more traditional, however, they can also be essential. I started using this sub-type initially to capture and demonstrate.

Nomenclature of Organophosphorus Compounds table
Figure 1

Nomenclature of Organophosphorus Compounds table: This infographic provides a summary and general trend (color-coded: blue color for P(III) and maroon color for the higher oxidation state P(V)) to name ogranophosphorus compounds containing O and N atoms. Here I used gradient and color to make the infographic both visually interesting and to show key groupings and common elements among the structures and their names. ChemDraw’s tools make it easy to add visually interesting color gradients.

Flow Charts:
These are generally great for summarizing. I often use them to condense and compare one or several chemical concepts, especially if different (sub)levels of classification are involved. For example, Stereoisomerism in particular (and Constitutional or Isomerismflow charts) compare the differences between conformational and constitutional isomers and demonstrate the relationship between several commonly used terms such as: enantiomer, diastereomer, epimer, anomer. I strive to make it a condensed yet comprehensive reference source for my students and myself. And I specifically focus on highlighting relationships, differences, and similarities with other terms and definitions by presenting classifications and representative examples. (See Fig. 2)

Stereoisomerism Flow Chart
Figure 2

Stereoisomerism flow chart: This infographic summarizes the relationship between configurational and conformational isomers. It also classifies other type of isomers (diastereomer, enantiomer, atropisomer, etc) with numerous examples. The consistent use of color helps to quickly determine the appropriate and historic nomenclature conventions. I also used the “single bond” tool in ChemDraw to create a classification hierarchy.

Star Diagrams:
These infographics are very popular and useful for conveying the breadth of chemical properties of a particular functional group, class of compounds (Alkenes, Alkynes, Alkyl Halides, etc) or a reagent (Grignard). Such symmetric infographics emphasize the diversity of chemical transformations and help students to memorize individual reaction conditions.

I encourage the thoughtful use of colors to convey useful information, especially if the main feature of the infographic is breadth and diversity. This is illustrated in the case of Alkyl Halides and Diazonium Chemistry. The central element uses color to capture attention and create a focal point and the emanating arrows guide the eye to the variations around the center. Here color helps to focus attention on the difference between the structures around the center and emphasizes the synthetic diversity of diazonium chemistry. (See Fig. 3)

Diazonium Chemistry Star Diagram
Figure 3

Diazonium Chemistry star diagram: This infographic summarizes the synthetic utility of diazonium salts and demonstrates the scope of functional groups, which can be accessed using this approach. Here a focal point with arrows guides the eye, and consistent use of color helps the reader see the differences between structures.

Grignard Star Diagram
Figure 4

Grignard star diagram: This infographic summarizes the versatile chemical reactivity of a Grignard reagent and emphasizes its capability to react with a vast scope of functional groups.

Additionally, the popularity, simplicity, and usefulness of star diagrams encouraged me to develop additional variations to capture more general synthetic approaches and transformations: Aryl-Aryl Coupling or Condensation reactions (See Fig. 5).

In those cases, the infographic is less specific with respect to particular reaction conditions or functional groups and usually highlights a wider scope of numerous named reactions. These are best for illustrating the bigger picture and providing a more general overview of synthetic transformations. For example, we can group the reactions in chronological order to present them from a historic perspective.

Aryl-Aryl Coupling Star Diagram
Figure 5

Aryl-Aryl Coupling star diagram: This infographic summarizes general scope of aryl-aryl homo-coupling and hetero-coupling reactions with a special emphasis on named metal catalyzed aryl-aryl coupling transformations. It creatively presents the years of discovery of each coupling reaction in chronological order mirroring the progression of time on a clock.

These infographics illustrate several examples of formats that I have used, each suited for the type of information it conveys. The versatile palette of tools in ChemDraw and thoughtful planning have helped make the creation of the visuals efficient.

My foray into creating infographics has helped me to organize key concepts and information and to present them in a concise, memorable, and creative fashion with the help of my digital paintbrush: ChemDraw. By creatively organizing and presenting ideas using a smart layout, color scheme, and illustrations, I have strived to create visual summaries that are pleasant to look at and useful to reference. A balanced combination of art and science, they present a novel and creative way to convey information. They fulfill our inherent preference for visuals and help to communicate knowledge and information in science. I hope that sharing my inspiration and approach will encourage the incorporation of infographics in teaching, learning, and publications.


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