As the climate crisis intensifies amid some persistent public denial of the science, there exists a necessary opportunity for scientists to engage in transdisciplinary collaborations, such as those with artists and designers, in an effort to both improve the communication of climate science, but also to bolster the production of scientific knowledge. We demonstrate how art and design can activate the human imagination and promote collaboration across disciplines in a way that the post-Enlightenment scientific endeavor has historically been unable to do and can provide a framework for developing sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. Here, we describe 2 studies that involved collaboration between artists and designers and climate scientists. The first study paired a team of designers and computer scientists with climate and atmospheric scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an effort to (re)build an exploratory research interface for the Multi-Angle Spectroradiometer Plume Height Project dataset. This project not only produced an aesthetic visualization interface with highly improved functionality, but it also demonstrated how an improved interface can enable scientists to pursue more and “better” research hypotheses. For the second study, we worked with artists at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to create three sonic-based art pieces that effectively communicated the science of climate change, appealed to human aesthetic judgment, and expanded the scope of our “ecological awareness.” We show that, while collaborations between artists and scientists are not necessarily novel, the integration of art, design, and science from a project’s inception can improve both the production of knowledge and constitute an entry point for regular people to understand and engage with their rapidly changing planet.

The science fiction novel Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, follows a young woman as she remakes her life and rebuilds society in the wake of devastating climate change. In this work—and in all of her novels—Butler implores us to use our imaginations as her characters construct new worlds in the ruins of environmental disaster. As Pough and Hood (2005) note, Octavia Butler often posits in her public speeches that “science fiction is not only about the problems of the world, but also about solving problems of the world,” a sentiment, when expanded to include the broader art world, suggests an important role for art in confronting the urgency of climate change. We surmise that the propensity of art and design to harness the limitless potentiality of human imagination in a way that the post-Enlightenment scientific endeavor has historically been less able to do can provide a framework for developing sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. In this article, we explore the ways that science, art, and design can be combined to accomplish this. After a brief, 3-year stabilization of the increase in annual global greenhouse gas emissions offered hope for the climate crisis (Jackson et al., 2016; Jackson et al., 2017), annual anthropogenic carbon emissions grew almost 3% in 2018 and reached their highest recorded level in human history (Jackson et al., 2018; Le Quéré et al., 2018). Although the coronavirus pandemic, which began in late 2019 and engulfed the planet in 2020, catalyzed a historically unprecedented reduction in carbon emissions (Liu et al., 2020), researchers agree that because this reduction came primarily from the transportation sector, it is not likely to persist once the world recovers from the pandemic in 2022 (Quéré et al., 2020).

The running mean globally averaged temperature is more than 1°C warmer than it was 120 years ago (Hansen et al., 2010; Hawkins et al., 2017; http://www.columbia.edu/˜mhs119/Temperature/) and continues to increase at rates never experienced by humankind (Hansen et al., 2006). Consequently, the impacts of climate change are no longer the hypotheticals of future dystopian narratives. Sea levels are rising at accelerated rates (Church and White, 2006; Cazenave and Llovel, 2010), disease is spreading (Rocklöv and Dubrow, 2020), extreme storms are becoming more common (Reidmiller et al., 2018), drought is multiplying (Cook et al., 2018), and heat waves are becoming increasingly dangerous (Hayhoe et al., 2010; Mitchell et al., 2016), to name a few. The challenges presented by these individual impacts, however, are compounded by the complexity, unpredictability, and nonlinearity of interactions (and cascading effects) among and within the climate system (Rocha et al., 2018; Lenton et al., 2019; Keys et al., 2019). A recent report by Spratt et al. (2019) goes as far as to suggest that the climate crisis may pose an existential risk for the continuation of human civilization.

And yet, much of this knowledge remains abstruse, cumbersomely documented, and opaquely presented (sometimes deliberately so by fossil fuel propagandists), making engagement with it by nonscientists difficult. This is likely one reason why many English-speaking people across the globe remain convinced that human beings are not responsible for the observed 20th and 21st century climate change (Goldberg et al., 2019; https://www.ipsos.com/en/global-trends-2020-understanding-complexity). Perhaps this is also why a recent poll of Americans by Pew Research found that, while 89% of respondents thought scientists were “intelligent,” only 54% of respondents thought of them as “good communicators” (https://pewrsr.ch/2Z2lX8S).

Scientists, artists, and designers therefore have an exciting and necessary opportunity to collaborate. While much has been written of the benefits of effective visualization for the communication of scientific research—and there appears to be some movement among scientific institutions to recognize the importance of storytelling and design—little has been published about the ways that designers and artists may participate in and contribute to the process of scientific knowledge generation within the framework of the scientific method (Board, 2018; Adam, 2020). This article builds on previous work by Galafassi et al. (2018) and Pereira et al. (2019) and explores the mechanisms by which design practice and artistic abstraction can be leveraged not just for improved communication but also for enriched production of scientific knowledge and stimulation of scientific imagination. Wetlands, as a transition biome, are an appropriate metaphor to describe the possibilities that arise from collaborations between artists, designers, and scientists. Wetlands are transition zones between permanently terrestrial and permanently aquatic biomes and are known for their distinctively high biodiversity, as well as their ability “to cleanse polluted waters, protect shorelines, and recharge groundwater aquifers” (Mitsch et al., 1986). Wetlands are uniquely productive precisely because they occur at the intersection of radically different biomes (Gosz and Sharpe, 1989). We hypothesize that the intersection of art, design, and science is likewise a similarly fruitful territory for exploration and productivity. And while our approach in this work is not entirely novel—designers have been working with scientists for years (e.g., Ito, 2016)—the collaborations described in this article expanded on previous attempts in a comprehensive and unique way. We also note that interdisciplinary fields that are proximal to climate science—such as sustainability science—have long employed interdisciplinary collaboration in pursuit of creative solutions to complex problems (Haider et al., 2018).

Integral to our hypothesis is an augmentation of the scientific method with principles from the design method (Figure 1). A simplified model of the scientific method (depicted in Figure 1) posits that the generation of scientific knowledge begins with a hypothesis, continues with experimentation and analysis, and concludes with the publication and/or presentation of results. Despite the similarities between the design process and the scientific method, artists and designers routinely initiate a new project with a robust “understanding” phase where they engage with stakeholders and users to empathize with, learn from, and listen to their concerns and desired outcomes. This initial human engagement step is unique to the design process and is integral to the creation of a designed object. We contend, in this article, that it can be equally influential in the production of scientific knowledge. If nothing else, collaborations across radically unique disciplines can inspire “out-of-the-box” thinking that results in improved outcomes. Commercial designers who engage with scientists sometimes call this first step “front end development,” and it has proven to be an effective strategy. In the case of many large-scale environmental sensing platforms, such as satellites or meteorological networks, the absence of this engagement can limit the utility and reach of the data beyond the technical experts in the field. Figure 1 is similar to—and inspired by—Figure 2 from Purdy et al. (2019), an indication that this augmentation of the scientific method has been proposed by other scientists and is a credible approach.

Figure 1.

A comparison of the human-centered design process (top) and a simplified depiction of the scientific method (bottom). The design process begins with extensive conversation and collaboration with stakeholders and community members in what is described as the understand phase. This is followed by an ideation phase (ideate), a prototyping phase (prototype), and then finally a refinement (refine) and production phase (materialize). Similarly, the scientific method (depicted here in simplified form) begins with a hypothesizing phase, where preliminary research often leads to the formulation of a question, which is analogous to the Ideation step of the design process and typically entails scientists engaging with preliminary data to form a hypothesis, continues with an experiment phase (analogous to prototype) and ends with a conclude phase (analogous to refine). We argue that the scientific method would be better served if it also included an understanding phase as a precursor to hypothesizing (depicted here by the box with the question mark). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f1

Figure 1.

A comparison of the human-centered design process (top) and a simplified depiction of the scientific method (bottom). The design process begins with extensive conversation and collaboration with stakeholders and community members in what is described as the understand phase. This is followed by an ideation phase (ideate), a prototyping phase (prototype), and then finally a refinement (refine) and production phase (materialize). Similarly, the scientific method (depicted here in simplified form) begins with a hypothesizing phase, where preliminary research often leads to the formulation of a question, which is analogous to the Ideation step of the design process and typically entails scientists engaging with preliminary data to form a hypothesis, continues with an experiment phase (analogous to prototype) and ends with a conclude phase (analogous to refine). We argue that the scientific method would be better served if it also included an understanding phase as a precursor to hypothesizing (depicted here by the box with the question mark). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f1

Figure 2.

Sketches made during contextual inquiry. These sketches were made by designer Adrian Galvin during the “understand” phase (left column) and “ideation” phase (right column) of the design process (e.g., Figure 1 top). The sketches on the left were made by the designer as he listened to climate scientists describe the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer instrument. These sketches are Adrian’s interpretation of the information. The sketches on the left were made by Adrian Galvin during the “ideate” and “prototype” phases of the design process. The top right panel is a sketch of what the designers thought the final redesigned web interface could look like, and the middle right panel is a revised sketch of what the web interface could look like based on feedback from the scientists to the top right sketch. The bottom right photo is computer software engineer Jared Boone sketching the potential new web interface on a whiteboard during the Prototype phase. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f2

Figure 2.

Sketches made during contextual inquiry. These sketches were made by designer Adrian Galvin during the “understand” phase (left column) and “ideation” phase (right column) of the design process (e.g., Figure 1 top). The sketches on the left were made by the designer as he listened to climate scientists describe the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer instrument. These sketches are Adrian’s interpretation of the information. The sketches on the left were made by Adrian Galvin during the “ideate” and “prototype” phases of the design process. The top right panel is a sketch of what the designers thought the final redesigned web interface could look like, and the middle right panel is a revised sketch of what the web interface could look like based on feedback from the scientists to the top right sketch. The bottom right photo is computer software engineer Jared Boone sketching the potential new web interface on a whiteboard during the Prototype phase. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f2

In this article, we describe 2 case studies that pursued collaboration between artists, designers, and climate scientists in support of our thesis. The first study, conducted between 2018 and 2020 under a grant awarded by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), brought together a team of designers and computer scientists with climate and atmospheric scientists from the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument group to collaboratively build a new exploratory research interface for the MISR Plume Height Project (MPHP) dataset and then explored whether that process, and the new interface, sparked more (and better) moments of scientific insight. During the assembly of this interface, the principles of design and science were integrated from the project’s inception. For the second study, we worked with young artists at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in an effort to create three distinct sonic art pieces that effectively communicated the science of climate change, appealed to human aesthetic judgment, and expanded the scope of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls our “ecological awareness” (Morton, 2013). In this article, we discuss that while collaborations between artists, designers, and scientists are not necessarily novel, the integration of art, design, and science from a project’s inception can improve both the production of knowledge and constitute an entry point for “regular” people to intuitively understand the world in which they live. The examples presented in this article illustrate how transdisciplinary collaborations can challenge and enhance the traditional ways that climate scientists have constructed and communicated vital information about the climate crisis.

2.1. Background

We posit that designers, as specialists in the visual representation of data, can provide tangible support to a scientific research team by creating visualizations that harmonize the way that climate researchers think and work with approachable aesthetics. This study, led by designer A. Galvin, climate scientist M. Tosca, and applied science systems engineer Abigail Nastan (at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL]), extended the capacities of an existing data delivery system in the service of improved climate research production. Follow-on qualitative experiments suggested that this approach enabled researchers to ask new and “better” questions of their data.

This study supports conclusions made by other visualization usability researchers operating in transdisciplinary spaces. Namely, Saraiya et al. (2005) establish fundamental definitions for insight and discovery and conclude that “a primary purpose of visualization is to generate insight. The main consideration for any researcher is discovery. Arriving at an insight often sparks the critical breakthrough that leads to discovery: suddenly seeing something that previously passed unnoticed or seeing something familiar in a new light. The primary function of any visualization and analysis tool is to make it easier for an investigator to glean insight.” Saraiya et al. (2005) submit that effective visualization allows insight into datasets that can seem impenetrable—or at least exceedingly impractical to comprehend analytically or numerically—and they describe a methodology for assessing the efficacy that a visualization system has to stimulate scientific insight. In this case study, we expanded the scope of these conclusions and explored whether designers can spark moments of insight for scientific researchers by creating visual forms that literally show the researcher their data in a novel way.

Researchers from the University of Washington Interactive Data Lab conclude that significant interface latency decreases user activity and dataset coverage by depressing rates of observation, generalization, and hypothesis during exploratory research tasks (Liu and Heer, 2014). This statement can seem obvious to some. It is unsurprising to conclude that slower visualization systems reduce exploration; however, the authors argue for a deeper, more impactful, and surprising conclusion. They demonstrate that the inverse of the previous statement is also true: Systems that respond at the speed of a researcher’s thoughts enable greater dataset coverage by increasing rates of observation, generalization, and hypothesis (O’Donoghue et al., 2018).

Human–computer interaction and visualization researcher Dr. Scott Davidoff, manager of the human-centered design group (https://hi.jpl.nasa.gov/) at the JPL, takes these conclusions a step further in both informal magazine articles (e.g., https://plasma-magazine.com/2019/06/12/visualize-your-science/) and personal correspondence with the authors. He argues that improvement of a visualization system does not necessarily lead researchers to the same conclusions faster; rather, it enables them to reach more—and “more novel”—conclusions. This axiom supports the idea that there is a rich territory of opportunity in which designers, through novel visualization, can have a catalyzing impact on scientific research.

The MISR instrument team at the NASA JPL is a group of scientists, engineers, and software specialists who collect, format, host, and distribute imagery data collected by the NASA TERRA satellite (Diner et al., 1998). The instrument, which circles the entire planet from pole to pole every 90 min, is a passive sensor that measures the amount of solar radiation that is reflected from surface and atmospheric features in each of 4 spectral bands centered at 446 (blue), 558 (green), 672 (red), and 866 nm (near infrared, NIR) wavelengths from 9 distinct cameras. The cameras are fixed to unique angles ranging from directly overhead (nadir) to 70.5° forward and afterward of nadir. The MISR Interactive Explorer (MINX) software applies a stereoscopic algorithm (e.g., Figure 2) to these multiangular data and calculates, among other things, the altitude of smoke plumes produced by landscape fires (Nelson et al., 2008; Nelson et al., 2013). MINX has been used to analyze smoke plumes in North America (Val Martin et al., 2010), equatorial Asia (Tosca et al., 2011; Zender et al., 2012), Australia (Mims et al., 2010), and Alaska (Kahn et al., 2008) among others. Prior to performing altitude calculations, MINX utilizes a graphical user interface (GUI) that requires a human being to make choices about which smoke plumes should be digitized (Nelson et al., 2013).

Beginning in the summer of 2013 (and continuing through 2019), scientists at the JPL used MINX to manually collect the locations and properties (including altitude) of more than 70,000 fire smoke plumes occurring around the globe in an effort to construct a comprehensive dataset of smoke plume heights (Val Martin et al., 2018). This dataset, dubbed the Plume Height Project (MPHP; https://.jpl.nasa.gov/getData/accessData/MinxPlumes2/), begins in 2008 and currently includes over 4 full years of data. These data are critical for understanding the complex and regionally divergent relationship between smoke plumes and climate and how that relationship will evolve in a warming world.

Prior to the initiation of this study, the MPHP, despite its clear utility, was vastly underused by the global community of climate and atmospheric scientists because the data were stored in a difficult to access archive as individualized, confusing text files. The interface for exploring these data was old, designed by software scientists at JPL, and did not provide sufficient visual feedback, filter control, abstract high-level visualization, or download functionality. To address these obvious deficiencies, first identified by scientists M. Tosca and A. Nastan, the science team applied for (and received) a generous “Data to Discovery” art, design, and science grant from the California Institute of Technology, in partnership with California Institute of the Arts. Designer A. Galvin was then added to the project and worked with a team of designers, computer scientists, and climate and atmospheric scientists during the summer of 2018 to build an effective exploratory research interface for this data product, which aimed to improve on the existing interface in all of the previously mentioned dimensions. The end result of this endeavor was the creation of the Exploratory Research and Lookup Interface (MERLIN), which now joins a long and illustrious line of software named with nested acronyms (a NASA specialty).

2.2. Contextual inquiry, human engagement, and reflective sketching

Designer A. Galvin and his team of 3 began this project by first engaging in an exhaustive period of human engagement and contextual inquiry (e.g., the first step in the design process described in Figure 1). Climate scientists possess an immense breadth of information in order to perform their work, but this specialized expertise presented 2 challenges to our collaborative design team: First, in spite of their expertise, the climate scientists knew little or nothing about the design process, and, second, the amount of knowledge exchange necessary for effective collaboration between a designer and a scientist was greater than between a designer and a nonexpert. During the contextual inquiry/understanding phase, our designers had to process large volumes of information and then identify the relevant information.

Since this study extended the capacities of an existing system in the service of researchers, A. Galvin and his design team applied a multimodal course of discovery tactics in order to ascertain from their scientist collaborators where they thought the opportunities were. Specifically, to overcome the challenge of deciphering the overwhelming quantity of specialized information, the design team used a specialized type of sketching—called “reflective sketching”—applied as a follow-up to any contextual inquiry, interview, or codesign activity. The goal of this approach was to categorically distill, interpret, and then reassemble the scientific information that the designers received from the climate scientists onto sketchbook pages which captured what the designer(s) believed to be the key information. The left column of Figure 2, for example, shows sketches made by A. Galvin depicting his interpretation of the information he received from conversations with the scientists about the MISR instrument. The sketches were then presented to the scientists in a follow-up conversation, a step that allowed the designer(s) an opportunity to substantiate and clarify the accuracy and pertinency of the information received. This process allowed the team to not just make progress toward the redesign of the data delivery interface but also to understand how scientists construct knowledge about the phenomena that they study. As a result, this project expanded beyond the initial creation of a new visualization system and subsequently catalyzed a series of insight-focused usability studies, an in situ longitudinal workflow analysis, and a descriptive insight process questionnaire.

Sketching had several additional advantages and is something that can easily be replicated and employed by other research teams. First, visually articulating the received information onto a sketchbook page helped the designers refine and codify the design team’s conceptual understanding of the problem and eased the recall and application of the new knowledge at a later time in the design process. Second, the sketchbook, as an external artifact, provided the climate scientists with context into the design process and helped them offer more concrete feedback on the progression of the project. This collaboration showed that future users (aka the climate scientists) of the designed object were more willing to critique a designer’s sketch than to critique a designer’s interpretation of information in direct conversation. Third, the sketches themselves focused the direction of the collaboration, so that the ongoing conversation between scientists and designers did not divert from the narrowly defined task. Fourth, the sketches provided users clear visual evidence of how the scientific information they shared was interpreted by the designer, perpetuating a feedback loop which was useful throughout the development and progression of a close and long-term relationship between the scientists and designers. Finally, the sketches helped build consensus among the design team and set a standard for what the team considered to be the most crucial insights and information as the project moved on to subsequent phases.

Lawson (2004) notes the importance of sketching for design and discusses 3 methods of sketching that closely correspond to the reflective sketching that A. Galvin and his team used for this project. Lawson (2004) first describes presentation drawings, in which a designer “communicate(s) their work to clients and others from whom they may need some agreement, consent or permission to continue.” This type of sketching similarly involves a conversation between designers and “users” (analogous to the climate scientists in our work). However, reflective sketching is not meant to act as persuasion, and we worked tirelessly to ensure that they were, in fact, a nonpersuasive part of the dialogue. The right column in Figure 2 displays a few examples of reflective sketching that might be considered similar to these “presentation drawings.”

Lawson (2004) also introduces “proposition drawings,” which are similar to Donald Schön’s classical description of drawings as a space of conversation for the designer, which he refers to as “reflection-in-action.” The syntactic similarity is no mistake: Both the “reflective sketching” used by A. Galvin and Schön’s reflection-in-action rely on reflection as process. In Schön’s formulation, a designer progresses through the design method by continuously adding information to an initial sketch and then considering whether the added information is in harmony or conflict with the intent of the future designed object. If the added information is harmonious, the designer preserves the sketch and continues to draw. This method ensures that a conversation continues between designer and sketch; a conversation that becomes a kind of experimental dance that, over time, builds a coherent image. The sketches in Figure 2 can also function as analogies of these “proposition drawings.”

Ultimately, the intent of sketching—in this project and for all future projects—was to maintain a conversation between designer and scientist and to distill relevant scientific information into a coherent, agreed-upon aggregation of knowledge that influenced the design. Close collaboration between scientists and designers—especially in this initial stage—was the only way we could ensure that the outcome would be acceptable to all stakeholders. The sketches described in this section are a low cost, simple way that science teams can incorporate more “understanding” into the initial step of the scientific method (as proposed in Figure 1).

2.3. Ideation, prototyping, and refinement

Following the contextual inquiry phase, A. Galvin and his design team assumed full control of the direction of the project, progressing through the ideation, prototyping, and refinement phases described in Figure 1. Sketching was still utilized during ideation and prototyping, but it became more focused and less abstract (e.g., the second column of Figure 2) as the design team worked through various iterations of how the new interface would look and work. At the conclusion of each iteration, the design team met with the science team to assess whether the project was still on track to meet their needs, as well as to contextualize the harmony between the designed elements and their own research process. As the design became more detailed and appropriately adapted, it merged effective scientific utility with aesthetic beauty, suggesting that the strict societal dichotomy between “art” and “science” is not based in reality.

The ideation phase of design was intended to expand the solution space after the human needs and scientific context had been sufficiently understood in the first step. The design team, led by A. Galvin, produced as many ideas as possible in ultralightweight whiteboard sketches, attempting to push the space of design as wide as possible while maintaining connection to the core understanding of the climate scientists’ needs. Artifacts created during this phase were as ephemeral as possible, allowing the team to move quickly, and define as large a territory as possible. The ideation phase used here was nearly analogous to the process that scientists engage in when they generate and revise hypotheses before moving to more detailed analysis (Figure 1). Following each ideation, the design team met with the climate scientists in a modified continuation of the human engagement and contextual inquiry process that preceded ideation.

After the expansive ideation phase, the experimental prototype phase aimed to iteratively increase the fidelity of the most promising pathways while identifying the flaws in the least effective ideas and eliminating them from the pool of potential design candidates until a scientifically meaningful and visually clear set of core design propositions were selected. One of the most critical characteristics of these core design proposals was that they must facilitate exploration and should help the science team glean insight from the data more rapidly and effectively. In this project, these proposals served as an intermediary between higher order analysis of physical climate phenomena and the ability to interact with cumbersome and difficult-to-manage datasets. As computing power and storage capacity have increased in recent decades, the size and complexity of climate datasets has also grown. Most physical climate scientists are not explicitly trained to manipulate large datasets (though many do learn several computer programming languages and how to operate within a Unix operating system). The ever-expanding size of these datasets has made them impractical to explore and comprehend freely, which has substantially slowed the process of insight formation (Saraiya et al., 2005). The design team’s user-centered approach of understanding human needs, exploring as great a range of design propositions as possible, and testing each proposition until the most promising candidates were identified (and made high fidelity), allowed for the creation of a coherent set of solutions which, through their contextual clarity, simultaneously achieved scientific validity and aesthetic beauty.

Although the goal of this project was to produce a web-based data delivery interface, the first prototype was completed using paper and pen only (Figure S2). Generally speaking, a science research interface presents unique challenges for a design team in the prototyping phase because real data must be used in the prototype in order to gain any insight. For this project, those challenges necessitated a close, flexible collaboration between the designers and the computer scientists. Computer programmer Jarod Boone first created a flexible, searchable postgreSQL and Django database, which, if queried appropriately, returned basic visualizations, but had no GUI. After consulting the science team’s most prominent research papers, A. Galvin imagined realistic workflows and worked with J. Boone to create hybrid prototypes that allowed the science team to make real observations, detect interesting anomalies, and gain insights. This hybrid prototyping technique involved realistic data and interface components that were often presented to the scientists using sticky notes with permanent marker drawings. This removed aesthetic distractions and allowed the scientists to focus entirely on the data, while the design team continued to imagine and test those interface components that would be most useful. Each new prototype became increasingly and contextually specific and, over iterations, evolved into a well-adapted interface. This process facilitated an approachable collaboration with the science team, allowing them to glean more insight and express their needs more completely to the designers. This, in turn, helped the design team eliminate less suitable choices. Once the interface elements were chosen and evolved to a point where the whole team felt confident, the refinement phase began.

During refinement, the design team improved on the elements of the interface that were evolved and developed with the science team, a process that ensured that the resulting interface could support each individual scientist’s unique research needs and be appropriately simple to use, especially for new users. This required a detailed examination (and reexamination) of every interactive pattern, button, slider, type style, and color choice. The designers removed every extraneous detail and eliminated any element that was distracting or unsuitable to the now well understood needs of the science. This slow, careful process of refinement ensured contextual accuracy and produced the interface’s best version of scientific utility balanced with aesthetic beauty.

2.4. Results, discussion, and insights

The primary objective of the design team was to produce a visualization interface with appropriate clarity and flexibility to allow scientists to offload some of the cognitive work of understanding complex datasets, which helps them to examine more complicated phenomena than pure abstract or numeric data analysis. The newly designed data delivery interface—delightfully named the MISR Exploratory Research and Lookup Interface: MERLIN—successfully incorporated both functionality and aesthetics (Figure S1); more detail on the finalized interface can be found at A. Galvin’s project space: http://adriangalvin.space/merlin. We show that a designer can function as a useful component of a research team, recursively introducing visual forms that have the potential to spark novel or unexpected moments of insight. This statement was especially true when designers were involved at the initiation of the research process. Generally speaking, data visualizations of appropriate clarity and flexibility allow scientists to offload some of the cognitive work of understanding complex datasets prior to more detailed analysis. This then allows for an examination of more complicated phenomena and eliminates the need for abstruse and laborious data partitioning prior to any climate-driven analysis.

Our initial hypothesis proposed that a visualization interface of appropriate clarity would allow researchers to access understanding that they might not otherwise have been able to. After the initial construction of MERLIN in the summer of 2018, we tested whether more and “better” novel insights could be generated via the redesigned interface and whether scientists were able to connect those insights into a coherent story or hypothesis. To test this, we designed 3 qualitative investigations. First, we asked climate scientists who use the MPHP to substitute the new interface for the old one and then record their daily research activity using MERLIN over a 2-week time period and to note their moments of insight in a logbook. We present an example of this process in Figure 3, where the dark blue dots indicate when the user readjusted the new MERLIN interface, the light orange bars specify when the user was inspired to ask a new question of the data, and the dark orange bars denote when the user felt confident enough in her data exploration to posit a fully-formed hypothesis.

Figure 3.

Insight process map created by A. Galvin interpreting and depicting the workflow of users interacting with the new MERLIN interface. This “insight process diagram” tracks the workflow of an atmospheric scientist utilizing the new MERLIN interface. The user’s original notes were made in logbooks designed by A. Galvin (and depicted in the 2 images at the bottom). The dark blue dots represent moments when the user/scientist readjusted the interface, and the royal blue bars represent those time periods when the user interacted continuously with the new interface. The light orange bars correspond to periods when the user conceived of a brand new question about the observations they made using the newly adjusted interface, and the orange dots indicate when the user felt confident enough to declare a new hypothesis about the fire plume data. These workflow diagrams (one of which is depicted here) conclude only when the user arrives at a novel hypothesis (orange bar). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f3

Figure 3.

Insight process map created by A. Galvin interpreting and depicting the workflow of users interacting with the new MERLIN interface. This “insight process diagram” tracks the workflow of an atmospheric scientist utilizing the new MERLIN interface. The user’s original notes were made in logbooks designed by A. Galvin (and depicted in the 2 images at the bottom). The dark blue dots represent moments when the user/scientist readjusted the interface, and the royal blue bars represent those time periods when the user interacted continuously with the new interface. The light orange bars correspond to periods when the user conceived of a brand new question about the observations they made using the newly adjusted interface, and the orange dots indicate when the user felt confident enough to declare a new hypothesis about the fire plume data. These workflow diagrams (one of which is depicted here) conclude only when the user arrives at a novel hypothesis (orange bar). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f3

We next performed a controlled environment “think aloud” study where we observed climate scientists interacting with the newly designed interface and qualitatively measured when new moments of insight were reached. These studies are also still ongoing and summarized in Figure S3 (the diagram is similar to the diagram in Figure 3). Finally, we also asked 7 climate researchers, working at 4 distinct institutions, who are actively publishing in the scientific literature, to describe in writing how they understood their own process of insight and discovery in the context of their self-selected “most impactful paper.” These summaries provided historical, longitudinal, and observational evidence that climate and atmospheric scientists construct knowledge through the complex nonlinear process of insight and discovery (Figure S4). Meanwhile, work at JPL is ongoing to publish an operational version of the MERLIN interface at the Atmospheric Science Data Center that will replace the current MPHP data access hosted on the MISR website. MERLIN is expected to go live in late 2021; this will aid, greatly, in the expansion of these qualitative studies.

These initial results provide some qualitative evidence that thoughtful design can catalyze the production of knowledge and that intentional collaborations between designers and scientists can augment the scientific method in ways that improve its utility and output. It is beyond the scope of this article—and our expertise as designers and physical scientists—to determine whether the change was statistically significant, but we note that our qualitative results present a compelling case. Future work will continue both the qualitative and quantitative assessments of our approach. Ultimately, we show that designers play an important and critical role in catalyzing moments of insight that may prove beneficial to climate change research, and we encourage scientists to incorporate reflective sketching and a robust “understanding” phase into the beginning of their scientific knowledge production process.

This project, led by artists from the SAIC, was an aural investigation into how climate data can be rendered into sonic art in an effort to increase the access to—and comprehensibility of—abstruse climate knowledge in the service of engaging the public imagination. Here, we describe 3 distinct works: The first, by Ilai Gilbert, is titled Plastic City; the second, by Kelvin Wells, is titled Additive Synthesis of a Climate Crisis; and the third was a panel discussion, organized and led by Grant Tyler, called Climate Technics: Dance Music as Climate Activism? All 3 pieces utilized the potential afforded by music and sound to engage with the climate crisis and are publicly available for viewing and listening on the internet. This case study is markedly different from the first in that, for these 3 art pieces, public knowledge and engagement with the climate crisis was the focus instead of the usability of climate data and robustness of the scientific method addressed in Case Study #1.

3.1. Plastic City

Plastic City, a multimedia piece by artist Ilai Gilbert (who uses the moniker “11ai”), portrays a fictional location in the future where people live sustainably in the ocean. In this work, a speculative vision of a self-determined, sea-bound city made from recycled plastic emerges depicted through an electronic music album In Water, and its peripheral multimedia works consisting of zines, animated music videos (Figure 4), and art software.

Figure 4.

Self Patcher music video scenes (top row and bottom left) are shown alongside a frame from the original source rendering of the city (bottom right). The music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3Y7pmYTmRs) starts with an exposition explaining the setting, narrative, and function of the city, followed by MTV-style music video opening credits (top). An air vehicle is shown approaching the Plastic City in an image taken from the real-time 3D animation (bottom right). The skyscraper-like spires in view evoke a typical city skyline but elude definition, perhaps not acting as buildings at all but rather as parts of the city’s ecological infrastructure. The related frame in the final music video (bottom left) was produced by running the original animation through the Sandin Image Processor, a modular analog video processing system and video synthesizer from the 1970s that prototyped open-source technology ethics. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f4

Figure 4.

Self Patcher music video scenes (top row and bottom left) are shown alongside a frame from the original source rendering of the city (bottom right). The music video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3Y7pmYTmRs) starts with an exposition explaining the setting, narrative, and function of the city, followed by MTV-style music video opening credits (top). An air vehicle is shown approaching the Plastic City in an image taken from the real-time 3D animation (bottom right). The skyscraper-like spires in view evoke a typical city skyline but elude definition, perhaps not acting as buildings at all but rather as parts of the city’s ecological infrastructure. The related frame in the final music video (bottom left) was produced by running the original animation through the Sandin Image Processor, a modular analog video processing system and video synthesizer from the 1970s that prototyped open-source technology ethics. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016.f4

Exclusively powered by renewable energy, the “Plastic City” floats through the Earth’s oceans filtering and collecting plastics and microplastics from the water to repurpose into infrastructure or convert into synthetic fuels. The “Plastic City” operates on what the artist calls “waste-to-energy and circular economics.” Since its infrastructure is based on environmental restoration, the governing system is based on resource efficiency, ecological balance, and the residents’ quality of life.

The city’s technology responds and adapts to natural cycles rather than manipulating them, in contrast to our current way of life. The first song from the album In Water, titled Aquatic Mechanis, portrays the harmony between the synchronous movements of the city’s machinery and the ocean’s amorphous waves by entangling driving rhythms with flowing synthesizer sounds. The city changes shape with modular computer-controlled tensor structures to preserve or collect heat depending on the weather, while wind, solar, and water provide abundant energy.

Songs with titles such as Subpass Racing and Hammerhead Aquarium vividly illustrate the technological and recreational nature cultures that give the city life. The music video for Self Patcher tangents on the street-hover racing subculture that develops alongside more efficient and novel transportation methods. The zine references these flying machines as well, listing electrified road and rail vehicles along with gliders as options for transit within the city, all powered by renewable energy or plastic-derived ethanol.

As a playful experiment in hypothesizing and imagining what a sustainable future could look like, this work purposefully does not focus on the impossibilities of the technological scope of such a city. Instead, it opts to remain immersed in the potential for a climate change–centered story that isn’t driven by pessimism. In this way, then, “Plastic City” could be considered a work of “Solarpunk” art, similar to work by Dr. Andrew Merrie (https://radicaloceanfutures.earth/oceans-back-from-the-brink) and Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro (Lodi-Ribeiro et al., 2018). Solarpunk, an emerging genre of science fiction-based art and literature, was recently defined by Reina-Rozo (2021) as a

[…] movement […] characterized by the creation of speculative worlds where social ecology, democratic technology, and solar, wind, and tidal energy are crucial elements for collective well-being that surpass the capitalocene and its roots in social inequality and the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

By depicting an equitable and sustainable future that does not deny the reality of climate change but rejects the inaction of contemporary institutions, the “Plastic City” project aims to embody new ways of imagining a response to the climate crisis.

In this way, the creation and existence of “Plastic City” is similar to the creation of MERLIN, described in Case Study 1. Specifically, because nonscientists interpret scientific information differently than scientists, the visual and sonic artifacts created by artists in response to scientific information can foster a conversation between artists and scientists much like the “reflective sketches” that have been previously described.

3.2. Additive Synthesis of a Climate Crisis

Additive Synthesis of a Climate Crisis is a digitally manipulated recording, composed by artist Kelvin Walls, of Jimi Hendrix performing “The Star Spangled Banner’” at Woodstock in 1969. The number of sinusoids representing the frequency content of this recording increases through the duration of its playback at a rate corresponding to the cumulative sum of carbon emissions emitted by the United States as measured at the beginning of each year from 1969 to 2019. The piece aims to interpret Earth’s atmosphere as a spectral domain and carbon dioxide (CO2) as sinusoids which enhance the resolution of the dire situation conferred by the climate crisis.

Within the selected span of years of CO2 data—the length of which is scaled to the duration of the audio recording—individual years can be heard as oscillations in total signal gain. Starting at zero and concluding with a total of 71,955 million tonnes, each year’s cumulative sum of carbon emissions is rescaled to be represented by a range of sinusoid quantities from 16 to 524,288. This piece’s audio synthesis uses the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm. Because the number of sinusoids in an FFT window must be a power of 2, the relationship between tonnes of carbon and number of sinusoids is not precisely proportional. Instead, the relationship is conveyed through the gradual passing of certain thresholds defined by possible FFT sizes. At various moments during the audio’s playback, the time elapsed corresponds to a year during which rescaled carbon levels are equal to or greater than a previously unsurpassed power of 2. During such an occurrence, the audio becomes represented by a number of sinusoids equal to the just surpassed power of 2. This quantity of sinusoids is maintained until the rescaled CO2 levels correspond to the next viable quantity of sinusoids.

The recording of Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock was chosen for its political implications. Furthermore, the performance occurred in 1969 which, for a dataset that extends to 2019, delineates a convenient time span of 50 years. More importantly, Hendrix’s performance offered a depiction of the U.S.’s collective anxieties which, at the time, mostly centered on the war in Vietnam. Additive Synthesis of a Climate Crisis appropriates the core expression of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” and applies it to the most severe crisis facing our contemporary world: climate change.

Like “Plastic City,” “Additive Synthesis of a Climate Crisis” explores how music can function as a uniquely powerful medium through which people can engage with recondite information. Music, as both an experiential and interpretative practice, can trigger human imagination in ways that graphs, figures, numbers, and even aesthetic imagery cannot (Bolderman, 2020). Through music, our minds can access abstract worlds and futures and, simultaneously, move toward an improved understanding of complex scientific concepts. This project adds to the growing body of climate change–focused sound art.

3.3. Climate Technics: Dance music as climate activism

“Climate Technics” was a panel conversation organized by authors Mika Tosca and Grant Tyler, which sought to illuminate the potential of art—specifically techno music—to affect climate change awareness and reform. The goal of this initiative was to initiate the formation of a collective of techno DJs, critics, and promoters that would organize performances and events to fundraise and advocate for climate change reform. This panel, which also included exclusive DJ sets inspired by the climate crisis (https://soundcloud.com/clubchow/clubchow-mix-for-climate-technics-5_22_2020 and https://www.dropbox.com/s/ojb7selj6swlrcw/ARIEL%20C%20MINUS%20TV.m4v?dl=0), was the first step toward that goal. We had initially intended for the panel to be a live event where attendees could first listen to the panelists and then engage with the exclusive mixes, but the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to hold the panel virtually, through Zoom. The panel, broadcast during the spring of 2020, ultimately hosted a conversation between Ariel Zetina, a Chicago DJ signed to techno label Discwoman, Kimwei McCarthy, a UK-based musician and activist associated with Extinction Rebellion, Kevin Chow, an independent Chicago-based techno DJ who uses the pseudonym “Club Chow,” climate scientist Mika Tosca, and artist Grant Tyler.

We began by asking our panelists how techno/club practitioners could and should engage with the question of climate change. Specifically, we encouraged panelists to consider how art can respond to science and prompt societal change and whether techno can mobilize and energize demands for climate action. We also asked our panelists to address whether political reform needed to be paired with changes to the techno movement and community and whether the history of techno as an inherently political art positions it as a vanguard toward actualizing solutions to the climate crisis.

Some of the discussion centered on lifestyle choices; panelists asserted that techno fans should support local artists to reduce the level of air travel by touring DJs, and promoters should power their raves with solar panels. Beyond that, though, the panelists agreed that the historical relationship of techno music to social and political movements—that is, techno was created as a liberating force in the ongoing struggle for queer and Black equity in the United States, and as the ecstatic sound of freedom in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse—has a responsibility to thoughtfully engage with the climate crisis. We concluded the panel by broadcasting 2 exclusive mixes created by artists Club Chow and Ariel Zetina that were inspired by, and centered on, climate change; links to those mixes are above and in the Data accessibility section. Both mixes are publicly available and, as with the previously described sound projects, add to the growing body of work that fuses climate science with sound art. Ariel’s mix, which is paired with a video depicting natural landscapes, is downtempo (to contrast with the more “earthly” landscapes depicted in the video), serene, experimental, and builds to a powerful and thought-provoking conclusion. Kevin’s mix, which begins with the sound of birds chirping, is ethereal and full of techno that sounds like (and in some cases, mimics) different natural landscapes; his mix is also faster than Ariel’s but comes to a very serene and inspiring conclusion.

This panel explored the utility of art—specifically techno—to develop a more complete and adaptive understanding of the magnitude and breadth of the climate crisis. Successful art, the panelists argued, actualizes the aesthetic experience of its historical moment in the form of a visual or sonic object and should effectively stimulate the imagination of its audience. While these ideas might seem distant from the historically defined task of the natural scientist, the panelists argued that, like techno, the production of scientific knowledge was also an artifact of its historical moment and an abstract representation of the complicated observations of our world. When collaborations between art and science are successful, they can demystify and provide access to the aesthetics that underlie all scientific knowledge, and they can mediate knowledge and practice. The panelists stressed that techno does all of these things and more, and they asserted that art about climate change doesn’t have to be didactic to be useful in fomenting solutions to the climate crisis. Techno music, in its multifarious manifestations—from the minimalist tones of Robert Hood to the thumping ecstasy of Jeff Mills—can inspire human imagination by activating the aesthetics and making us think, of the material world in a way that the often narrow and insular discipline of climate science cannot.

3.4. Discussion and insights

The 3 works of art described here offer a unique depiction of the climate crisis through the utilization of sonic art. Artist 11ai’s “Plastic City” offers a vision of the future that is not constrained by technological unknowns and that challenged our imaginations in ways that traditional science communication does not. Kelvin Wall’s “Additive Synthesis of a Climate Crisis” transforms a known musical experience into a less familiar—and substantially less “comfortable”—one by the incorporation of sonically modified representation of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. And, finally, Grant Tyler’s Climate Technics panel, and associated DJ mixes, addresses the question of how the techno music community should leverage the political nature of electronic music to affect changes to climate policy and spur climate action.

While the first case study (MERLIN) focused on the potential benefits to the production of scientific knowledge resulting from close collaboration between scientists and designers, this second case study shows how art—and specifically sonic art—can engage the public imagination and inspire climate action. The 3 works of art were not produced in a vacuum but were instead the result of a semester’s worth of extensive climate change–related research. And while all 3 artists engaged with the climate research in unique ways, it is notable that each artist only conceived of the form their eventual work of art would take after weeks of meandering, directionless exploration of the scientific research and regular weekly engagement with a climate scientist. In a way, then, the process that these 3 artists practiced in the creation of the work described was similar to the initial “understand” step of the design-making process employed by Adrian Galvin and his team of designers in the first case study, providing more qualitative evidence that transdisciplinary collaboration can help solve the climate crisis.

Artists and designers can catalyze novel moments of insight for climate researchers, help augment the scientific method to improve its utility, and enlighten the general public to complex scientific concepts by visualizing, translating, distilling, and interpreting abstract science into objects and artifacts. These designed objects and artistic artifacts allow researchers and the general public to experience information in a way that activates their imagination. This approach is not brand new; indeed, the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University has been tackling the ways that science fiction can ignite the human imagination and propel humanity toward solving the climate crisis. In 2019, they released an anthology titled The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, which describes “human futures powered by solar energy” and utilized science fiction as a tool to imagine optimistic futures, much in the way that Octavia Butler and her Afrofuturist contemporaries have been doing for decades. Australian-born artist Natalie Jeremijenko has also been creating climate change–inspired art for decades; her work has been described by Grist magazine as being part “art installation and [part] science experiment” (https://grist.org/article/this-artist-is-using-technology-to-bring-nature-back-into-the-city/).

A 2019 report, issued by the IPCC, addressed the obvious need for climate action based on improved scientific understanding among the general public. The report writes of incontrovertible evidence that anthropogenic impacts have already impacted human as well as natural land and ocean ecosystems and the critical services they provide for our species, and these impacts are certain to become worse over the next century (Allen et al., 2018). In response to the call for transformative change, the Nature Futures Framework (NFF) was established in 2020 out of a critical need to develop positive human–nature scenarios for the future of the planet. During the development of the NFF, stakeholders identified the need for a heuristic framework through which people can engage with and interrogate human–nature relationships in a positive way. Through this heuristic, the NFF was used to generate a number of Nature Future Scenarios which balance an appreciation of nature with the need to build a sustainable future for all of human society (Pereira et al., 2020). Noting the urgency of the climate crisis, this article describes a rich and rewarding territory for exploration, in which artists and designers can move climate scientists toward deeper insight and novel discovery in their pursuit of knowledge production, and can welcome the public into elevated scientific understanding of the climate crisis. The work described here was built on previous work by Pereira et al. (2019) and Galafassi et al. (2018) who also assert that the involvement of art and design in the scientific process can go beyond raising awareness and can participate in knowledge production.

In this article, we chronicled 2 projects that also explored the intersection of art, design, science, and imagination. In the first study, we brought together designers and climate scientists in an effort to build an improved data delivery interface. The insights we ascertained from that experience helped actuate several subsequent follow-up projects, which elucidated the ways that designers assist in the exploration, testing, and definition of new scientific insights and discoveries. These projects are ongoing and offer almost unlimited potential for exploration and expansion. The second study involved collaborations between 3 young artists and a climate scientist and produced sonic art objects that communicated climate science in engaging ways and activated human imagination in the service of finding solutions to the ongoing crisis. Taken in total, our work provides qualitative empirical support for the hypothesis that artists and designers have an important role to play on scientific research teams, both in catalyzing novel discovery and in conveying those discoveries to the public.

-The Plume Height Project (MPHP) data are downloadable from the legacy interface which is located here: https://.jpl.nasa.gov/getData/accessData/MinxPlumes2/.

-Images of the new, redesigned interface for the MPHP are located at Adrian Galvin’s website: http://adriangalvin.space/merlin. An operational version will go live in late 2021 after institutional quality control and logistics have been suitably completed.

-All 3 works of art from Case Study 2 are located here: http://mikatosca.com/work.

-Club Chow’s techno-climate mix can be listened to here: https://soundcloud.com/clubchow/clubchow-mix-for-climate-technics-5_22_2020.

-Ariel Zetina’s techno-climate mix can be listened to here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/ojb7selj6swlrcw/ARIEL%20C%20MINUS%20TV.m4v?dl=0.

The supplemental files for this article can be found as follows:

The supplemental material for this manuscript is included in a separate document which contains 4 supplemental figures.

This work was funded, in part, by a Caltech/JPL/CalArts Data to Discovery Summer 2018 grant (https://datavis.caltech.edu/) and was partly conducted in conjunction with designer Adrian Galvin’s 2019 Masters of Design thesis at the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. We thank scientists Abigail Nastan, Michael Garay, and David Diner for their invaluable contributions to this project. We are especially grateful to software engineers Jared Boone and Sebastian Val for their tireless efforts bringing MERLIN to life during 2018 and 2019. The artwork described in this manuscript was created and produced at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during 2019 and 2020. We thank Andrew Seber, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Chicago, for his important insights and conversations about this work. We also thank Chicago DJs Kevin Chow (Club Chow) and Ariel Zetina and UK-based musician and activist Kimwei McCarthy for their valuable contributions to this project.

This work was funded, in part, by a Caltech/JPL/CalArts Data to Discovery Summer 2018 grant (https://datavis.caltech.edu/; https://datavis.caltech.edu/projects/merlin/), a subcontract provided to M. Tosca by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL Subcontract #: 1570463), and startup faculty funds provided to M. Tosca by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

None of the authors have any competing or conflicting interests.

Contributed to conception and design: MGT (all), AG, AMN (Part 1), IG, KLW, GET (Part 2).

Contributed to acquisition of data: MGT (all), AG, AMN (Part 1), IG, KLW, GET (Part 2).

Contributed to analysis/interpretation: MGT (all), AG, AMN (Part 1), IG, KLW, GET (Part 2).

Drafted and/or revised the article: All authors.

Approved the submitted version for publication: All authors.

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How to cite this article: Tosca, MG, Galvin, A, Gilbert, I, Walls II, KL, Tyler, GE, Nastan, AM. 2021. Reimagining futures: Collaborations between artists, designers, and scientists as a roadmap to help solve the climate crisis. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 9(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2021.00016

Domain Editor-in-Chief: Alastair Iles, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

Knowledge Domain: Sustainability Transitions

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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