The NC Science Festival data placemat (pictured here) was born out of a team discussion as we prepared for the 2018 EvalFest data visualization workshop. Before the workshop, we were given a homework assignment to create audience persona sheets to emphasize the groups we wanted to target with our data story. Armed with these audience personas and access to data from our own festival as well as the EvalFest community, we started to create a document that could serve as a conversation starter for our Advisory Board members. When Karen Peterman, our external evaluator and EvalFest co-PI, suggested the idea of a data placemat, we realized this was exactly the format we needed for this purpose. It allowed us to create a large visual document with sections to address the needs and interests of various Board members. The placemat was also a perfect fit for our luncheon-style Board meetings.

As much as I’d like to say that we nailed the layout on the first try, we went through what seemed like a ream of paper sketching out various configurations of maps, circles, flow-charts, tables, graphs, pictograms, and pretty much any data visualization tool you can think of. With feedback from other workshop attendees and graphic design experts, we slowly converged on a design that featured a map of NC Science Festival events to show our geographic extent and growth over the years.

With an 11”x17” canvas, we had plenty of space to include other elements as well, and as we consulted our audience personas, we settled on two major sections: a comparison of our festival to others around the country and some of our big numbers and major claims. The majority of the placemat is dedicated to telling the story of our festival, starting with the maps showing our growth. Below that, we created a figure that shows our web traffic throughout the year as a way to highlight how our festival, by design, builds excitement for STEM at a specific time of the year. There’s always healthy discussion with our Board about extending our programming beyond our festival window, so we added this element to reinforce that while year-round programming is good, it’s not exactly our goal.

To round out the page, we decided to feature some figures that touch on our key constituencies: event hosts, schools, scientists, and the public. A network map highlights the new partnerships that event hosts form as a result of their festival involvement, a waffle chart shows the positive attitudes of scientists who participate, and we feature some big numbers (790 science nights at elementary schools and 2.2 million total participants).

Once we settled on the elements to include and the layout, we went through several more iterations as we refined the look and feel to fit our organization’s brand. Our first drafts used pretty much the entire color palette in our branding guide, but we settled on three colors to create a more simple, cohesive look for this document.

Finally, our placemat was ready to print and share. As we had hoped, the figures provoked some great discussion about the important metrics we should (and should not) target. It was met with overwhelmingly positive reactions from our Advisory Board members, and in fact, some took pictures of the placemat and texted them to their colleagues because they wanted to do something similar for their own upcoming meetings. The development team of our parent institution, UNC’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center also plans to use the placemat at their future stakeholder meetings. Looking further ahead, we have discussed using the placemat format in future iterations that focus on different audience personas like K-12 leaders and our event partners as well.

Written by Erik MacIntosh, North Carolina Science Festival Programs Manager