The benefits of good visual communication in graphical abstracts

When I (Tyler Ford, Science Communications Director at Picture as Portal) used to work at the lab bench, I was most excited by the process of analyzing and presenting data. In the early days of my research, I would spend hours putting together what I thought were perfect figures. Upon presenting them to my supportive lab mates, they’d often stare blankly. Glancing over their faces in horror, I’d think, “Is my work really that boring?!?” Yet, being a member of a supportive lab, I was unafraid to ask my lab mates point blank how they really felt. Often, I’d come to realize that they just didn’t get what I was trying to communicate. My visuals were not nearly as effective as I thought they were.

After years of practice in that supportive environment, I got much better at refining my figures. I learned to focus on key points, remove clutter, and keep things simple. I was lucky though. I (a) had a supportive lab and (b) was willing to put work into my visuals because I legitimately enjoyed creating them.
 
Many other people don’t have the time or the desire to spend so much energy developing their visual communication skills. And that’s okay! Not everyone needs or wants to go into science communication. However, if you’d like to avoid people staring blankly at your slides or your research papers, you should spend SOME time developing your visual communication skills. This is particularly true now that so many journals are using graphical or visual abstracts. In this article we discuss how good visual abstracts and visual communication can benefit your research.

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication

Visual communication gets your work noticed

You’ve probably seen that many academic publishers are adopting graphical abstracts – pictures that concisely communicate the main messages of academic papers. As their proponents argue, they don’t replace written abstracts and certainly don’t replace reading full articles. Yet, they can help people understand the contents of an article at a glance. Indeed, you can find visual abstracts in:

Seeing this proliferation of graphical abstracts, you might think, “Do these do anything or are they just a waste of my time?” 

The Journal of Surgery has at least a partial answer for you. The Journal of Surgery began using graphical abstracts in 2016. Upon adopting them, the journal wanted to figure out if the abstracts improved research paper dissemination on Twitter. To do so, the journal tweeted out titles of 44 articles either with or without visual abstracts. The result? Tweets with visual abstracts were shared much more than those without. So, if you want to get your work noticed on Twitter, a good way to do it is through graphical abstracts.

This particular research only covered dissemination on Twitter, but as many marketing bloggers will tell you, good visuals do well on all forms of social media. Heck, you won’t get anywhere on Instagram without good visuals. So, if you want to promote your research, it’s a good idea to have useful visuals.

Good visual communication improves perceptions of you and your work at a glance

Now that’s all well and good, but you might be wondering, “Does the visual representation of my work need to be good or can I do a mediocre job and still get noticed?”

One answer to this question comes from research in the “Information Design Journal.” In this work, researchers redesigned graphical abstracts following basic design principles. Then they presented study participants with table of contents screenshots containing either the original or the redesigned graphical abstracts. Researchers then polled the participants on what they thought about the papers listed in the table of contents. 

Participants (who were also scientists) had better perceptions of the papers with redesigned graphical abstracts. For instance, study participants were more likely to say “The authors seem intelligent” when presented with redesigned graphical abstracts. They were also more likely to say “The paper seems interesting.”

The takeaway – better visuals lead to better perceptions of you and your work.

Resources to help you create better pictures

These are just some of the many benefits of creating good pictures. We’ll cover additional benefits in future blog posts and we’ll also provide a run down of some popular resources you can use to create better pictures. If you’re not a visual thinker from the get go, these resources won’t be hugely beneficial to you, but we’re here to help! We’ve designed our S.P.A.R.K. visual communication of science course to help you think more visually. Check it out to find strategies that will give your images and your research a boost!

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