Do you have an image that means geological macroscope?…by Thomas Galley

Presentation slide at the Cheshire Energy Research Field Site technical briefing
I’ve been afforded the space and time to develop my interest in visual communications during my career in communications and marketing. Also, I love a challenge. So you can see why I jumped at the chance to respond to an interesting request from Mike Stephenson, our Director of Science and Technology at BGS. He contacted me just ahead of the UK Geoenergy Observatories technical briefing. This project will establish new centres of world-leading research into the subsurface environment and the knowledge they generate will contribute to the responsible development of new energy technologies both here in the UK and internationally. The request went something along the lines of:

“Do you have any images of compressed air energy storage?”

I hadn’t.

Mike was preparing his presentation for the event which was to be held at Jodrell Bank and attended by scientists from across the UK and representatives of businesses and industry in Cheshire.

As it was a Friday afternoon, any excuse to drag myself away from my desk was very welcome so I walked over to go and find out exactly what was required. I spied an opportunity to create some really useful visual assets for use in UK Geoenergy Observatories communications. I thought that maybe they could be packaged up for use elsewhere too.

The images that Mike had at his disposal just didn’t seem suitable for the presentation. We had a mix of googled images, BGS graphics and images, and diagrams from various other sources. When we looked at some of the icons that already existed on the internet, it was clear that many of them had been designed to convey concepts through the lens of environmental issues, or the energy industry. There weren’t many icons covering geology or themes from a geological perspective. This meant it was hard to design with consistency, and it was frustratingly hard to achieve a professional looking and sufficiently simple set of slides. The effect was a kind of visual clutter that could act as a distraction from the key messages that Mike wanted to convey.

Simple is hard to do.

We quickly sketched out a few ideas. It was decided that I would work with Debbie Rayner, one of our Graphic Designers at BGS, to produce a set of icons. These would be used as a kind of visual shorthand for some of the concepts that Mike wanted to convey, and we would use them in the slideshow that accompanied his presentation. We didn’t have much time.

It was time to write a design brief and get designing.

Tea break challenge

Why don’t you have a go?

You have ten minutes to complete both challenge one and challenge two.

Materials required:
Small square post-it notes (other brands of sticky adhesive notepads are available) to draw on.

Part one:
Design (draw) a way of conveying in each icon a common visual shorthand for the subsurface. Once you have refined your idea draw it on several of your post-it notes so you are ready for part two.

Part two:
Choose a few geological concepts from the following list and draw each one in to the design of one of your icons.
  • A geological macroscope
  • Seismicity
  • Hydrocarbons
  • Compressed air energy storage
  • Geothermal
  • Geological data
  • Groundwater
  • Carbon Capture and Storage
  • Geology of the UK
For the purpose of this exercise, an icon:
  • Has the minimum number of visual components required to convey the concept.
  • Has an aspect ratio of 1:1.
  • Is drawn in only one colour. For example you could use black on a white background or blue on a yellow background.
  • Does not contain any words. It should work in any language.
Now share them with your colleagues. Ask them if they can tell you what each of the icons you’ve designed means.

The delegation at the Cheshire Energy Research Field Site technical briefing.

The designs

So, now you’ve had some experience of the design process and getting feedback, this seems like a good time to see how we did.
Here’s a selection of the icons that Debbie designed:

We used a simple line: curved to denote the earth, and a non-descript building and tree as visual shorthand for the surface. This leaves plenty of space to convey each concept in the area below. The top section of each icon represents our attempt to depict an area of land that could be anywhere.

The bottom section differs each time.

Hopefully the icons convey that the compressed air, the groundwater or the hydrocarbons are underground. This is enough. The context in which the icon is placed will do the rest.

A geological macroscope

I’m particularly pleased with this icon.

It felt impossible to the concept of a geological macroscope inside an icon: The concept is defined by distributed sensors working as one instrument, positioned in arrays to optimise the collection of data. The positioning is not random, but does not adhere to an easily recognisable pattern either.

This finished design has dots to symbolise sensors. There are many of them and their situation in the design has order, but begs the question: What kind of order? This indicates a degree of complexity that is unique to the macroscope concept. It describes to some extent the design of the macroscope planned for the Cheshire Energy research Field Site, yet is non-specific enough that it could represent a future geological macroscope elsewhere.

Design decisions were made that prioritise simplicity. For example it was decided that a sensor drawn as a dot works as well as a drawing of a sensor. We also used white space to depict both the subsurface and that which is above ground: highlighting the concept being conveyed rather than burying it in the dark.

You can see for yourself how Mike used the icons in his presentation at the technical briefing here.

Download all of the icons

You can find all the icons here in the downloads section of the BGS web site.

Feel free to use these icons in your presentations or reports. We hope that they will be a useful resource for people working across the BGS, and people working with and learning about geological concepts elsewhere too.


Please consider these icons a work in progress. We know they are not perfect and we would be more than happy to hear your feedback, and any suggestions you may have for geological concepts that we haven’t covered for a future release.

Thomas Galley is the Communications and Engagement Officer for the UK Geoenergy Observatories. Please contact Thomas if you’re interested in the Observatories, or communicating ideas visually.