In our S.P.A.R.K. course, we teach principles and techniques that will help you think more visually. One of the key benefits of the course is that it’s software agnostic. Indeed, we encourage enrollees to start the course by drawing on paper. We advocate sketching your ideas for future graphics on paper as well.
Nonetheless, we know that it can be difficult to go from those paper sketches to final digital files. In this post we share some ways to facilitate the process.
1. Work with a trained professional
Perhaps this is the most obvious option, but once you’ve got some concrete ideas and layouts on paper, it will be much easier for you to work with a trained graphic designer or medical/scientific illustrator. The benefits of pulling in a skilled professional are many. An expert will make your pictures look very professional. They’ll save you time (and probably money) because you won’t have to learn the ins and outs of specialized software. And—one of the biggest benefits—they can provide a gut check on how approachable and understandable your pictures are.
Check out these resources for tips on working with trained professionals:
- 8 Best Tips for Working With Graphic Designers (Huffpost)
- Client Guide to Working with a Medical Illustrator (AMI)
2. Try out inkscape
Inkscape is open-source graphics software. It has a bit of a learning curve, but you can use it to design stunning graphics. You’ll just have to set aside time for trial and error as well as some googling. Thankfully, Inkscape users are very helpful and there are extensive forums where community members can answer any questions you might have. Tyler (our Science Communications Director) uses Inkscape constantly.
3. Use Canva
Canva is another useful software. There are free and paid versions. It’s more user-friendly than Inkscape, but also a bit limited. It’s great for quickly designing sleek fliers and similar materials. It’s not the best if you want to start designing a picture from scratch. We should note that we’ve only used the free version.
4. Do a creative commons search, a google image search filtered by license, or look for images in the public domain
An important word of caution: You cannot legally copy images from the internet and use them in your work! Most images on the internet are owned and governed under international copyright law. Photographers, graphic designers, illustrators, and artists of all kinds make a living through the images they create and own. So using a copyrighted image without permission is both illegal and unethical.
Nonetheless, some people do provide their pictures for use under special licenses (e.g. creative commons licenses). These have specific rules that you must adhere to if you’d like to use them in your work. For example, they often require you to credit the original creator, provide a link to their work, and note if any changes have been made.
Another option is to search for images that are in the public domain. These images are free to use. Most images that appear on .gov websites are in the public domain. Some places you can find useful public domain images include:
- The U.S. National Library of Medicine Digital Collections
- The NASA Image Gallery
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Image Search
If you follow these simple rules, you can use many great graphics as components of beautiful pictures. Just remember to give credit where credit is due and honor copyrights!
That’s it for now. Do you use specific tools go from paper to digital? Let us know about them on Twitter @PictureasPortal. And, as always, check out our S.P.A.R.K. course to fire up your visual thinking!