Public engagement for UCL Department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering

MetaboLight is a Wellcome Trust funded public engagement project. It was created to communicate new research by UCL’s Department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering, about engineering light to measure brain health in babies.


The project was granted funding on the basis of a partnership between UCL and Design Science.


“We’ve loved the creative experience of working with Design Science on our new public engagement project MetaboLight and have got some fantastic results!”

Dr Gemma Bale, Physicist, UCL

What we did


Starting with a logo and flexible ‘brand’ identity, we designed and built a range of communication outputs including a website, film, T-shirts, display banners, a portable interactive exhibit and printed publications.


Our first challenge was to think up a name. The team agreed to abandon the acronym route typically favoured by scientists, in favour of an invented word that communicated what the project was about. This facilitated our job of establishing a strong and versatile visual identity to work across a growing range of digital and physical outputs.


Visually led website


Although not part of Wellcome’s funding package, we agreed that a public facing website was imperative. We developed the concept and structure, creating content throughout the main sections through copy writing, illustration, animation and photography commissions. The site is built in WordPress, enabling the team easy editing access for keeping the news and resources sections up to date.


We ensured the site was visually led to maintain attention and ensure fast communication (mindful that the average time spent on a website is around 1 minute).



Animation as explanation


Animation as a medium has massive potential for communicating abstract scientific concepts. We created clips to use within the website and as part of our video, enabling us to communicate technical parts of the research quickly and effectively.


Our 4-minute video is aimed primarily at enticing A-Level students to follow careers in medical physical or bioengineering. We’d like to produce a second film for the medical context, aimed at informing and raise awareness amongst new and potential parents.

‘I showed the film at a lecture I did yesterday for a youth science forum and it went down really well!’


– Dr Gemma Bale

Engineering IKEA! 


The interactive exhibit is being displayed at a series of science festivals between 2017–2019. It includes an integrated demonstration space with interchangeable elements for information and animations, area to display interactive equipment, and a tall, internally lit beacon situated above the display to draw attention.


Our cost effective solution for the portable exhibit involved customising £5 Ikea Lack side tables. It was featured on Ikea Hackers.


‘The footfall for the 9 days in the Forum was approximately 75,000 The MetaboLight stand looked fantastic and was very engaging!’


– Norwich Science Festival organiser, Natalie Bailey

Editorial / visual blending


We’ve produced the first of our three small publications, which are aimed – like the film – primarily at school leavers, while going into the research in more depth. Our biggest challenge here was in translating original, lengthy academic content into short, accessible ‘lay’ language. The trick to this? Specialist editorial skills, seamless integration between visual and verbal design, and a good many hours of really hard brain work!


Alongside the academic explanations, we included ‘Day in the life’ sections to remind  audiences that ‘normal’ humans are behind this research, and quiz sections to encourage a sense of fun and learning through interaction.



How it went


The MetaboLight project has been one of our most rewarding projects to date. Through it we’ve gained huge insight, both about UCL’s research, and about how to succeed in science public engagement. The project has rapidly gained momentum since its launch, with establishments now requesting ‘MetaboLight visits’ having heard of its success.


An undoubted reason for MetaboLight’s popularity as been the energy and enthusiasm invested by the UCL team, and the strong working relationship we’ve established with them. By sharing the design process with the team and with potential audiences at every stage, we’ve been able to address a range of feedback that ensured our outputs were thoroughly tried and tested before being implemented.