This is the second post in a 3-part series covering Meredith Boyter Newlove’s career and examples of her consequential work with the CDC.
Meredith Boyter Newlove is a health communicator specializing in creative data visualization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her “data viz” colleagues make up one of six specialized creative teams that support all CDC Centers and Emergency Responses including COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola. Meredith earned dual BFAs in Graphic Design and Scientific Illustration (2004) from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science (2008) from the Medical Illustration Graduate Program at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) now Augusta University. Driven by a love of color, design, nature, and people, Meredith considers her work in global public health—surrounded by top-notch creatives and experts in science and communications—her dream job and a true privilege.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your current role at the CDC?
These days, most creatives wear multiple hats… and my collection is growing. I think of my role as a sort of “creator-coordinator-communicator.” Starting in early March 2020, as the coronavirus took root in the US, I’ve had the opportunity to visualize data as part of the CDC’s COVID-19 Response. The good fortune to transition into—and learn—data visualization and other new roles during a pandemic is not lost on me. I am incredibly thankful that, by the start of 2021, our branch had built a small data visualization team!
Our four-member team develops data-forward graphics. These include diagrams, infographics, journal figures, dashboard designs, interactive prototypes, and conceptual narratives. First, we do research to explore the concepts behind these graphics. Later, we iterate design ideas and drafts. When completed, our graphics take the form of static and animated web media that range in complexity.
As a teammate, I contribute skills in design, illustration, and art direction. I participate in cross-team multimedia campaigns, and develop branding and style standards for CDC programs and initiatives. Day-to-day, I design with data and/or public health messaging. But I also do a fair amount of consulting and presenting, motion graphics, and the occasional illustration. In contrast to previous, more production-centered roles, I have new opportunities for creative pathfinding with communicators, subject matter experts (SMEs), and leadership. For instance, I currently manage visual strategy for the CDC’s Public Health Data Modernization Initiative campaign. This involves equal parts SME engagement, communications consultation, and visual product development with a small, cross-branch team.
2. How do you build trust among your data-driven colleagues that visualization and creativity are essential to good communication?
You may know the adage, “Good design is invisible.” It’s true! In a visual, you don’t always consciously notice the information hierarchy as such, or the smaller details, typefaces, or grid, because you’re receiving the message. As we all know, in public health communications, the message is everything. At the start of the pandemic, a talented CDC SME remarked, “We are asking people to be epidemiologists along with us.” For me, this was a call to make principled design choices and avoid making assumptions about what people know and understand. At the pace of scientific discovery, working to inform an anxious and often skeptical public, keeping it “simple” can be hard. I’ll share a couple of examples:
First example: From March to May 2020, CDC scientists conducted a large-scale geographic coronavirus seroprevalence survey in ten U.S. sites. Such surveys quantify the fraction of people in a given population with antibodies against the coronavirus. These surveys can give epidemiologists a rough idea of how many people in that population have been infected with the virus. This was the first and largest study of its kind, with results arriving in a staggered stream during the summer.
The Epi Task Force and other Response staff planned and prepared communications for several audiences around this groundbreaking data. The cornerstone was an article, “Seroprevalence of Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in 10 Sites in the United States, March 23—May 12, 2020,” to be published in JAMA Internal Medicine a short time after all of the study results were available.
We “embedded” a creative point of view (POV) in serology communications efforts from the start. I would take part in discussions, get my head around the imminent findings and their implications, and provide visual perspective. It was quite rare to include a creative POV in discussions this early on! In several brainstorming sessions—so fun!—a small group of science and communications SMEs and I planned strategy and dissected upcoming data viz challenges.
Now, it took me a minute to grasp the studies’ methods and findings and correlate them to my knowledge base (it had been a while since school). The SMEs and I had to figure out how to use visuals to help the general public understand seroprevalence concepts, what this data means, and why it matters. My instincts told me that simple, explanatory visuals could clarify some of the baseline concepts of serology that were new and unfamiliar. So, as much for my own as for others’ understanding, I did some research and sat down to explore in Adobe Illustrator.
I drew an antibody, then a blood vial with detected antibodies (positive result) and one without. Then came matrices of little, selectively filled blood droplets to help clarify seroprevalence and its estimates in sample and actual populations. I added some labels, prepared the piece as an infographic, and shared it with the Epi Task Force team. They welcomed the resource and after a couple of rounds of clearance, “What COVID-19 Seroprevalence Surveys Can Tell Us” ended up on the CDC COVID-19 Serology site! Frequent consultations, open-ended explorations, and iterations across several visual products ultimately helped our SMEs and communicators identify clear and meaningful ways to present tough epidemiologic concepts.
Second example: During the pandemic, we know the public has faced obstacles to understanding, including unfamiliarity with the science, widespread misinformation, and fear. An early communications challenge was convincing the public that COVID-19 is not “just like the flu,” but much more deadly.
In April 2020, communicators and epidemiologists on the Epi Task Force needed a visualization showing the combined mortality rate of pneumonia, influenza, and COVID-19 (PIC) that would emphasize COVID-19’s stunning contribution to this rate. The original static graph showed a mortality line peaking in the 2017, 2018, and 2019 flu seasons and spiking to an extreme height soon after the first COVID-19 death certificate occurred. But without color and more visual context, the message couldn’t transcend the format. The primary epidemiologist, the lead health communications specialist, and I iterated until we’d rendered the visual takeaway unmissable. Next, we added labels and bright data points at the peaks. We animated the line along its path—adding interest and drama with motion—and ultimately, created something totally new. The visualization also earned impressive social media metrics!
It was during these collaborations that our small teams realized we had built an agile partnership that worked: A science-communications-creative core team. This model has helped us see challenges “in the round.” Each expert can focus on their own area of specialization—and contribute effectively to the process—more efficiently than a single individual or inexperienced group might be able to do. At the heart of this team is trust and energy to move outside typical visual comfort zones.
3. You mentioned that you’ve found yourself doing more writing lately as part of your job. How does that fit into your role as a visual communicator?
When sharing concept drafts or pitching, I find that the more thoughtful detail we provide about ideas, the better equipped clients feel to bring our ideas to their programs, and the more connected all stakeholders feel to the solution. As this audience knows, a grounding in visual communication principles guides creative decisions, and these principles often become part of the conversation. A great thing! For branding and campaign-related strategy, I will write style guidance or informal creative briefs (and might include inspiration or examples) to help keep thought processes transparent.
A true highlight of my role is getting to work on strategy and messages directly with writer-editors and other communicators. This is particularly true in writing for our frequent team slide presentations, each one unique in its purpose and audience. It’s so satisfying to work with these pros and challenge my mind this way.
4. What’s the hardest thing about your job?
I’d say the hardest thing right now, during a pandemic, is collaborating remotely! There’s nothing like an in-person brainstorming session where ideas can connect and bloom. In general, though, the toughest thing about data visualization is identifying that key visual/conceptual “hook” that will draw a viewer in and make them stay long enough to feel an impact and—better yet—remember and use the information. It’s also the fun part!
5. What’s the best thing about your job?
It’s hard to pinpoint one “best” thing, so my answer is three-fold:
- It’s cultivating team energy. We’re like a creative lab, capable of so much more together! To borrow organizational expert Doug Merrill’s phrase, “All of us are smarter than any of us.”
- It’s sensing that this work we’re doing helps real people with real lives see (and understand) real science, happening in real-time.
- It’s channeling my drive and creative spirit into good work at a great agency with a mission greater than all of us.
In our next post we’ll cover some more examples of Meredith’s amazing work with the CDC!