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Things: Explained

Student submitted exhibit WTRG Science Writing


Written and designed by the students of Danny Long’s science-writing course, Radical Science Writing, the posters in this exhibit took their inspiration from Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer, in which Munroe explains “complicated stuff in simple words” (to quote his subtitle), with the help of illustrations. Like Munroe, the students limited themselves to the 1,000 most common words in the English language. This is why aluminum cans are “use again cans,” why gravity is “the pulling force,” and why DNA is “the information center that makes you different.”

Student Submissions Fall 2020

Student Submissions Summer 2020

The Information Center That Makes You Different

For my Things: Explained poster, I wanted to focus on a topic that was related to my field of study: molecular biology. The first thing that popped in my mind was DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the most important element in the cell. It is in charge of making who you are.  Any errors to it, major problems like cancer could occur. In my field of study, there are many classes you have to take to learn the basics about DNA. The topic is complex; however, it was possible to translate into simple terms.

The graphic design elements that I incorporated into my poster was tension, civil palettes, white space, contrasting typefaces, and bold elements. The two elements that I find most important for this poster were tension and civil palettes. The graphic, the model of DNA, goes off the page in order to create tension. This allows your eye to be drawn to the other informational paragraphs at the bottom of the page. In addition, I picked the only four colors: blue, green, white and yellow. I made sure these colors had a shade of grey to them in order to not look overly saturated. By having four subtle colors, it is easy for your eye to look throughout the entire poster.

The most difficult concepts to translate into simple language were hydrogen bonds, RNA polymerase, and where the DNA was located. The hardest part was mainly creating new names for these concepts. For example, hydrogen bonds were renamed to center points. However, once a name fit the narrative of the concept, it was easy to put the definition into simple terms.

Lauren Cooper

My project is about a modern-day compass. After taking a physics class where we learned about magnetism, I was curious about how a compass actually worked. I never knew that a small magnet at the center of the compass aligned with the Earth’s magnetic poles. 

I wanted my poster to catch the eye of the viewer. To do so, I placed a picture of the ocean to serve as the backdrop for my poster. However, the backdrop is slightly transparent so that the viewer is able to clearly see the compass and its description. I also made use of “white space,” allowing the eye to follow a clear path through the descriptions. Finally, I used two different fonts that complement each other to add contrast and variation. 

I had a hard time figuring out what to call a compass using 1,000 of the most common words. At first, I settled on direction manager. But a compass doesn’t really manage directions, but rather points to the direction in which the user is headed. Therefore, I changed the name from direction manager to direction pointer. I also had a hard time translating magnet. How would you describe a rock that is attracted to other objects? I thought that “love-rock” would be sufficient; however, some people might get confused and think I am referring to diamonds. In the end, I removed all discussion about magnets and just focused on the history of the compass.

Bella Allen

My project is about Newton's discovery that a glass prism can split light into its different wavelengths. With this, he also discovered that white light contains all colors. I used appeal to ethos, logos, and pathos while designing my poster, focusing on making my graphic the biggest element on my poster to grab attention so that people lean in to read the text. Explaining waves was the hardest thing to translate to common words.

Destry Dewitt


My project is on The Last Supper, a mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci from the late 15th century. The painting depicts a scene from the Bible, in which Jesus announces that one of his Twelve Apostles would betray him the next day. The painting was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

Since the mural painting has so many colors on it, the colors around it had to be simple, so I only used blue, black, and white. The painting itself has a diagonal composition. I tried to evenly space the paragraphs around the painting so it didn’t look either too crowded or too empty.

It was difficult to describe tempera paint in a simple way. Tempera is a painting medium composed of colored pigments mixed with egg yolk. I ended up describing it as a “paint thing that’s made out of round-things-with-white-shells,” which hopefully got the point across.

Nicole Dong

This project highlights the engineering of the aluminum beverage can. It touches on the manufacturing process, what makes the can strong, and its infinite recyclability. I used the broken borders, civil palettes, and the clockwise cycle graphic-design tricks. I struggled to describe metal using simple language, but I was able to assemble a coherent project once I incorporated re-usability.

Jonathan Zimmer

“The First Window to the Stars” is about Galileo's brilliant invention of the telescope. I tried to incorporate a historical feel with some of the design characteristics. I chose a sublimated background to mimic a faded document. I also chose text colors that looked faded to reinforce the classic theme. The hardest part to translate for this poster was the section explaining new discoveries of the solar system. It was difficult to explain solar bodies in simple language.

Patrick Mcspadden

A spectroscope is a device used to study light and divide it into spectral lines to understand properties like the element composition, motion, etc. This project aims to describe this instrument using the 1,000 most-used words in the English language. To make this poster, I used a blank PowerPoint template and auto shapes. The hardest part was describing the characteristics of light that can be examined.

My project is about Galileo's telescope, which includes information on some of the objects he saw with the ‘scope. Some graphic-design tricks I used included keeping the typeface constant and not too busy. Additionally, I kept it cool with colors, avoided clutter, and lined things up to ensure they fit on the page nicely.  What was most difficult to translate into simple language was the idea of how the telescope was built and the parts.

My project is about the foundations of geometry, both Euclidean and the more modern Riemannian geometry. The aim was to explain some of the main features of geometry and to complete a basic geometric construction using a compass and an unmarked ruler. We first set out using the five basic axioms that Euclid used when writing his classical work The Elements. I then used the last assumption about parallel lines as a jumping-off point to reference a more modern study of geometry.

One of the graphic-design tricks I used was a great website called This website has some helpful tools for creating color palettes. I started by selecting the bright title green and used that color to generate the deep red and light blue, which I found to be particularly harmonious together.

The hardest things to explain in simple language were the ideas of a circle and the idea of deforming a flat object like a rubber sheet. I found trying to explain a circle was particularly challenging as we were not allowed to use any word remotely analogous to a ring or loop, which lead me to call a circle a “flat ball.” This isn’t quite correct, since a flat ball implies that we include the center of the disc when in reality all we really cared about was the outermost edge of a circle.

This project is about the digestion of air into a jet engine, which powers everything from aircraft to compressors that drive fluids through pipes. A graphic design trick implemented is sans serif font with an opaque color palette to contrast with the black background. There are some words in the aerospace industry that are impossible to use in 1,000 of the most common words. These include words such as spinning, compress, condense, and expand.



My poster illustrates one of the simplest forms of AC generators. It consists of a loop of wire spun by some outside force positioned in between two natural magnets. This induces a current in the wire which goes through two rings at either end. These rings are brushed by conductive brushes attached to wires leaving the generator. This transfers the current out of the generator while ensuring no wires get tangled up in the spin.

I used several graphic-design concepts when working on this poster. I used a sublimated image of a lightning bolt in greyscale to provide an interesting but unobtrusive background. I used a central graphic to draw attention and tried to make the descriptions overlap with the graphic somewhat to pull everything together. Despite this, I still maintained a grid pattern for the text and left enough white space so the text didn’t overwhelm.

Most of the common words in the English language relate to people and social ideas. That made explaining a technological device with this language somewhat difficult. I couldn’t use even the most basic words like wire, brush, ring, and magnet, so I had to use multiple words to get the idea across. Wire became charge-mover-line. Luckily, some common words have double meaning, like field and current, so I was able to use that to my advantage.

This poster uses the 1,000 most common words in the English language to describe how a “Turning-Energy Heat Box” works. The Turning-Energy Heat Box is also known as a microwave and is used by most Americans and humans around the globe. The poster describes how a microwave works and also gives a brief history into the invention itself.

While designing this poster, I made sure to use only a handful of colors in order to keep a simple design that reflects the simplistic design of a microwave. The purple draws the viewer’s eyes to the most important part of the poster while also creating white space for the history and creation section of the poster to create a natural flow.

The trickiest concept to translate into simple language was how the microwave functioned and was operated. For example, an original sentence was: “The magnetron is connected to a capacitor and transformer to create a cavity…” which became the second bullet point in the “How does it work?” section. This concept was particularly hard to translate because there is not another name, or an easier way, to describe a magnetron.


My poster is about a trepan. It was used to drill holes in people’s skulls to relieve pressure on the brain. I used white space in this poster to keep it looking simple, as well as using weight and scale to contrast the images from the text. The hardest part to write in simple language was the history of how the trepan drill was used.

My project, titled “The World First Quick Camera,” details in the inner workings of the world first polaroid camera, known as the “Land Camera.” This camera was released in 1947 by Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid company. My poster details how each component of the camera, from the lens to the photosensitive film paper to the developing reagent, plays a vital role in creating instant images with this technology.

While creating this poster, I used many of Dave Underwood’s graphic design techniques. Of his techniques, I most strongly emphasized his design philosophies of using vivid and bold color palettes, as well as contrasting Serif and Sans Serif typefaces. My poster also exhibits universal border alignment, elimination of trapped space, and clockwise diagram flow, which all bring greater cohesiveness and ease of viewability to the poster.

Only writing this poster with the 1000 most common words in English proved to be a quite difficult task. Certain concepts, such as outlining the usage of positive and negative rolls of photosensitive film paper and explaining how developing reagent works required much thought and refinement when translating into simple language. I also needed to put a lot of effort into explaining the technical reasons for why traditionally printed images need time to develop.

My project is about the high-wheel bicycle called the penny-farthing. This bicycle design was used before gears were put on bicycles because the bigger the wheel, the faster you could go. Another perk of the big wheel up front was that it was more stable when crossing over bumps or potholes. The only limit to this type of bicycle was the length of legs on the rider.

When I was creating this poster there were a few key design concepts I wanted to incorporate. With the color scheme, I wanted to ensure I used lower saturated colors to please the eyes, but also have enough contrast between the background and the bicycle itself. I also had the text cross over onto different parts of the picture to lock everything together. I then angled the bicycle and designed it riding over a hill to ensure it doesn’t have a flat, bland look.

The hardest thing to translate into simple language for me was the word wheel. I originally chose this for my project because I thought it would be an easy translation due to the thought that wheel is a very common word. After realizing it wasn’t, though, I tried to think of another word to describe a wheel, only to realize that there weren’t a lot of options. After calling a few friends for help, I decided to switch up the main name and focus more on what it does than what it is.

My project is about black holes and gravitational waves in general. I’m majoring in astrophysics, so I knew that there would be a lot I could talk about here. I started with the very basics of gravity, and how it works in spacetime, and worked up to the specifics of how gravity creates and feeds black holes.

I really like looking at simple things. I’ve taken around 3 or 4 graphic design courses when I was in technology, arts, and media, so I’ve seen and made a lot of posters. The easiest for me to read and internalize are the clean and simple ones. I chose two fonts that go well together and made nice graphics. This both makes it easy to look at and less distracting as the language is harder to digest.

What gravity is and how it affects spacetime was the hardest to translate. Using jargon with people who are also well-versed in the topic, the concept of gravitational waves is weird. Translating “gravitational waves warp the shape of spacetime due to the way that they attract mass and light. This leads to warpage so intense no light nor anything else can escape, since no pathways any particle can take lead outwards” was a bit tricky.