Science communication in a visual world

When you need to explain something too complicated for words, or too tiny for the naked eye to see, pictures have real power. And that's why, from the age old art of medical illustration to the garish graphics in your old physics textbooks, pictures have always played an important role in science communication.

So, it's little surprise that, in this digital age, with ever-growing possibilities for visual communication opening up all the time, the science community remains at the vanguard of visual communication and storytelling. After all, having the ability to communicate research with clarity is part of the job for scientists, and often a prerequisite for funding.

You might have seen some of our animations or rich pictures for science organisations, but not be sure how visual storytelling could benefit your work. Here are a few ideas to get you started.


Drawing as dissection

When George Butler, one of Scriberia’s favourite reportage illustrators, visited a Nepalese hospital back in March, he was struck by the crossovers between drawing and the doctor’s meticulous skills.

Watching surgeon Donald Sammut at work, he recalls how Sammut spent several minutes drawing his patient’s hand in intricate detail before operating.

Sammut explains, ‘Those few minutes of examining and drawing the hand are invaluable. While drawing, one is obliged to examine every millimetre, the texture and suppleness of the tissues one is about to rearrange. And it also gives one a few moments to plan the surgery, running it through one’s head like choreography steps.’

‘The drawing is the beginning of a relationship built on trust, and a life-changing procedure,’ comments Butler.

Sammut isn’t alone in using visual thinking to better understand his patient's body. Throughout history some of the leading names in anatomy, from Leonardo da Vinci to Henry Tonks, have used drawing as a tool for comprehending the human body.

One of the greatest (and most gruesome) books in the Scriberia studio, The Sick Rose, published by the Wellcome Collection, documents some truly gut-wrenching illustrations of disease-ridden patients before the days of colour photography. Without their sketchbooks, we might not know what we know now.

But drawing to improve understanding is by no means restricted to the medical arena. According to Amanda Montañez, assistant graphic editor at Scientific American, written research all too often allows scientists across all fields to be vague or woolly in their explanation, while drawing requires scientists to have an in-depth, thorough understanding of the topic at hand.

'It's harder to cut corners when communicating something visually. I can explain a scientific process in words without thoroughly grasping it, but to draw it takes a higher level of understanding,' she says.

It’s harder to cut corners when communicating something visually. I can explain a scientific process in words without thoroughly grasping it, but to draw it takes a higher level of understanding.
— Amanda Montañez, assistant graphic editor at Scientific American

This is something we experienced first-hand when producing a set of interactive visuals for the team at Adaptation Scotland that visualised the key climate change impacts for Scotland in six settings. The researchers had to have a truly rigorous understanding of each of the settings to ensure the final visual stories were coherent and fluent in their communication to the general public.

Like Butler, Montañez sees this fastidious attention to detail as building a relationship of trust with her audience. ‘Seeing a concept visualised gives it a certain amount of objective weight,’ she says.

If you're struggling to get a grasp on a tricky topic, or are concerned your communication isn't clear enough, drawing out your work is a brilliant way to ensure you've got a scrupulous understanding of your research.


reach a wider audience

Science writer, Lawrence M. Krauss, wants ground-breaking discoveries to be celebrated more by the general public. ‘Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony […]

‘Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science – its cultural contribution, its humanity – that is perhaps its most important feature,’ he says.

Researchers Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik believe the key to re-engaging the public is to use storytelling and narrative to connect on an emotional level.

'The background and experience of a theoretical physicist allows him or her to feel profoundly moved by fundamental discoveries about the fabric of the universe. The rest of us, who don't have the tools or speak the language, need a translator,' they say.

Visual storytelling provides an impactful and humanising way to translate your research to a wide audience of scientists and non-scientists.

Take our Stephen Hawking's Big Ideas Made Simple animation for the Guardian's MadeSimple series, for example. Tasked with the ultimate visual communication challenge, our animators had to simplify and visualise some of Hawking's most mind-boggling discoveries, from general relativity to quantum gravity, for an audience that weren't necessarily well-versed in physics. Their hard work saw the piece win the Science Communication Award from the Institute of Physics in 2014, and has been featured on Fast Company and BrainPickings.

Alok Ha, science correspondent for ITV News, wrote and narrated the script for the animation. He says, 'the animations were integral to the storytelling. By bringing Hawking's ideas to life, the animations gave viewers something concrete to hold on to while listening to descriptions of some extremely tough, abstract physics concepts. The animations did a lot of descriptive legwork in the video, allowing the script to remain short, punchy and simple in its attempt to deliver some truly mind-bending ideas to the public.'

Speaking with Fast Company, Paul Boyd, a multimedia editor at the Guardian, says that the video 'appeals to the emotional side of the brain, not just the rational. Learning is easier when you’re laughing.' It's his belief that all of the animations in our made simple series would make people 'more inclined to tackle the subject matter presented in a bigger format.'

As well as humanising research, visual formats also allow for versatility across a variety of platforms, helping researchers to spread their message further afield. Michaela Livingstone-Banks, Public Engagement Facilitator at Oxford Sparks, the digital communication platform for all science research at Oxford University, sees this as a huge benefit of the science animations we've produced for them, which cover everything from machine learning to circadian rhythms.

Having these animations has given us something really engaging that we can use in so many different places; websites, social media and at events - some of them are part of exhibitions as well. We also use them as primers to develop teaching resources for teachers to use as well - they’re a hugely versatile way of inspiring people and hopefully encouraging them to explore further. It feels like you’re really offering people something.
— Michaela Livingstone-Banks, Public Engagement Facilitator, Oxford Sparks

'Having these animations has given us something really engaging that we can use in so many different places; websites, social media and at events - some of them are part of exhibitions as well. We also use them as primers to develop teaching resources for teachers to use as well - they're a hugely versatile way of inspiring people and hopefully encouraging them to explore further. It feels like you're really offering people something', she says.

And, so, if you want to make people really understand (and become fascinated by) your research, visual storytelling can help you wow even the most science-phobic of crowds.


Expand your vocabulary

A number of American universities have introduced art programmes for their medical students, to help expand their vocabulary and prepare them for real-life scenarios away from their labs and lecture theatres.

Dr Michael Flanagan from Penn State College of Medicine asks one student to hold a postcard with an Impressionist painting on it, while another student who cannot see the card asks their partner questions and attempts to replicate the painting on the card.

Dr Flanagan explains, 'The painter becomes like the physician who's taking a history and trying to get information about the patient. They experience first-hand how much easier it is to gain information when you ask open-ended questions, when you stop and let that patient tell their story.'

By stepping out of their lab coats and into a more creative environment, the medical students are able to find more effective ways of communicating with their patients.

Assistant Professor of Medicine and Chief Creative Officer at Columbia's Department of Surgery (and contributing cartoonist to The New Yorker), Dr Benjamin Schwartz, asks his students to make their very own comics.

He says, 'When you become a doctor, you train really hard to learn another vocabulary and it really is almost like its own language. You become so well-versed in it that you can forget that you're speaking it and words that are common to you might be confusing jargon to the person you're speaking with.' Experimenting with a visual vocabulary, Schwartz believes, helps the students to widen their verbal communication, too.

We ran a similar exercise during a workshop with the Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, devising a number of realistic case studies about dementia diagnosis, and then illustrating them in the form of comic strips. Intended to be used at the point of diagnosis, the mini visual stories provide a visual vocabulary that both doctor and patient can understand.


If you'd like to find out more about how our services - from animation to rich pictures to scribing - could benefit your efforts to communicate science, get in touch with a member of the team here.

You can find our full library of science communication animations over on our YouTube channel.