Graphical depiction of bacteria engineered to produce biofuels
Standard representation of author’s doctoralThesis – Engineering bacteria to produce fuel-like compounds (biofuels) from sugar (specifically glucose).

This post was written by Picture as Portal Science Communications Director, Tyler J. Ford PhD.

Think back to your science textbooks and classes. You’ll probably recall that a lot of information was presented in expository format. That is, you were presented dry descriptions of scientific facts. Unfortunately, it is not particularly easy to learn from exposition.

As a prototypical example, I remember a molecular biology class from undergrad. In this class, the professor simply wrote lists of molecular biology facts on the chalkboard and told us to memorize them.

The professor was well-meaning – I think he figured this was the most efficient way to provide us with large amounts of information. Unfortunately, I’m betting few of us remember anything we “learned.” We all have stories about classes like this.

In contrast to the ineffectiveness of exposition, studies have shown that both narratives (stories) and visuals improve information retention. More than a simple relaying of facts, narratives and visuals help us relate to, conceptualize, and contextualize information.

Interestingly, comics are, in many ways, the epitome of combining visuals and storytelling. Below we describe why researchers are beginning to investigate how well comics convey scientific information.

Why narratives?

Studies have shown that information presented in a narrative format is easier to retain. Indeed, in one study, narratives were more important for retention across multiple time scales than outlines or familiarity with the subject. People also read and identify problems more quickly in narrative than expository texts.

One could give many possible reasons for the effectiveness of stories. They provide people with cause and effect structures. They make topics more relatable through characters and humanization. They also make it easier to understand relationships between information and concepts. 

Regardless of the reason, the simple truth is that narratives work. Very similar things can be said of visuals as we discuss in our post on the “Visual Revolution.”

Why comics?

Comics combine graphics with storytelling by portraying the action of a story in a sequence of graphic panels. So, it stands to reason that comics should be a particularly effective medium for conveying information. There have not been many large-scale, well-controlled studies on the effectiveness of comics for conveying information. However, initial work is promising.

I was particularly intrigued by one recent study conducted in Portugal. In this study, a mixed population of Portuguese citizens were given a range of educational materials on stem cells. One of these was an illustrated comic book. When asked which of these materials was the most effective at teaching them about stem cells, the plurality of participants pointed to the comics. A plurality of study participants also said the comics were the best at making the topic engaging.

Similar work and the broad benefits of comics are discussed in comic scholar Matteo Farinella’s article, “The potential of comics in science communication.” His review makes a great case for more focused study on comics in science communication. Matteo also maintains a fantastic list of comics and animations about science on his website.

While more work certainly needs to be done, I’m excited to see if future studies confirm the effectiveness of comics in science communication. Comics incorporate many of the visual communication strategies we teach in our SPARK course – use of narratives and metaphors, providing context, and humanizing complex topics, to name a few. We’re optimistic about the use of comics in science communication.

Comic depiction of bacteria engineered to produce biofuels
Author’s representation of his graduate work in comic form. Do you find this more engaging than the original graphical depiction above?

Picture as Portal Co-Founder Tami Tolpa has dabbled a bit in the world of Science Comics herself. You can check out her excellent work here: https://hellocells.tumblr.com/.

Have you effectively used comics to portray complex ideas? We’d love to hear about it! Tweet us your comics and we’ll be happy to help promote them on Twitter and Instagram.

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