Types of Visuals for Science Communication

When communicating scientific concepts, you want your audience to understand what you’re talking about. Your research is exciting, and your results help push back the barriers of ignorance and superstition. Because people are by nature visual creatures, I contend that a great visual, like a graph, illustration, or animation, can make the difference between a befuddled audience and an enlightened audience.

The most common types of visuals used by scientists are graphs, process or procedure diagrams, illustrations of phenomena, and portraits of the study subject. Let’s look at an example of each of these. While you read through this, note the different styles used in each of these visuals. There are a million different styles, and we’ll explore more on style in a future post.

 

Graphs

 Graph of energy level versus coffee intake. Made in Adobe Illustrator.

Graph of energy level versus coffee intake. Made in Adobe Illustrator.

I suspect the type of visual communication that you’ve used most often are graphs. Most peer–reviewed journals that you’ll publish in have very specific style guidelines. Certain standards are also expected when presenting data in scientific posters and talks. But there are certainly ways in which to liven up graphs. For instance, in the whimsical example graph, an alternative to the standard data point is used and equally silly notation is placed on the axes. These little illustrative touches make it even easier to understand what the graph is about without actually reading any of the text. This graph was made with in Adobe Illustrator (relatively expensive option but Affinity Designer is a good substitute) with a white background.

 

Procedure or Process Diagram

 Procedure diagram for making coffee with a French press. Made with colored pencil on blue paper.

Procedure diagram for making coffee with a French press. Made with colored pencil on blue paper.

A diagram showing the steps in a procedure helps your audience visualize how you conducted your experiment. A process diagram might show how your study subject changes over time. Again, I’ve chosen a reasonably whimsical example of how coffee is made in my house with a French press. This illustration was made with white colored pencil on a dark blue background. In contrast, a process diagram could show the development of a coffee bean from a coffee flower.

 

 

Study Subject Portrait

 Coffee plant. Made with watercolor and ink.

Coffee plant. Made with watercolor and ink.

Another great type of visual to include is an illustration of your study subject, whether that be a specific molecule, like caffeine, an organism, like the coffee plant, a structure in the human body, or a distant star. These types of visuals give your audience members an image to hold in their minds while you wax eloquent about your research. The caffeine molecule was made in a free 3D modeling program called Blender, and the coffee plant is a watercolor with a bit of pen and ink.

 Caffeine molecule. Made in Blender, an open source 3D modeling and animation app.

Caffeine molecule. Made in Blender, an open source 3D modeling and animation app.

Phenonena

 Competition between adenosine and caffeine for adenosine receptors in the brain. Made in Procreate on an iPad.

Competition between adenosine and caffeine for adenosine receptors in the brain. Made in Procreate on an iPad.

All sorts of phenomena are the subject of scientific studies. Visuals for phenomena often go beyond a simple illustration of an object. They may imply an interaction among objects such as the electromagnetic field around the earth, the effect of sunlight on photosynthesis, or the effect of caffeine on neurotransmitters. Again, you can often grasp something about the phenomenon with very little text. This illustration shows how caffeine competes with adenosine for the adenosine binding site on a neuron in the brain. This illustration was created in Procreate ($10 drawing app) with a black background and bright colors.


Some of these types of visual communication also lend themselves to animated visuals. While, you can’t use an animation in all situations, they’re great for talks, websites, and for sharing on social media. This is another huge topic I’ll go into more detail in a later post!

 

It’s pretty likely that you’ve got aspects of your research that lend themselves to each of these types of visual communication. Visual forms of communication can help your audience understand science concepts more quickly and also help them retain that information for longer.

 

Which of these forms of visual communication are you using now? Have you come up with another nifty way to use visuals to communicate your science?