In our S.P.A.R.K. online course, one of the most important visual communication strategies we teach is Access your Audience (the A in S.P.A.R.K.). This means that you should tailor your content and design to your target audience in order to connect with them most effectively. This post explores how some of the inherent qualities of comics can help make complex science subject matter more accessible to a wide range of audiences.

We’ll look at how the comic below successfully communicates a very serious subject—COVID-19. The comic was created by Christine (Si Ting) Shan, Master of Science student in the Biomedical Communications program at the University of Toronto.

Science comic showing how the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) infects human cells.
https://www.cshan-visuals.com/ ©2020 Christine Shan

Humanization

Christine uses a common technique of comics called humanization. Non-human objects—like the COVID-19 virus itself and the furin enzyme—become characters in the science story by having human attributes, such as a face, emotions, and the ability to speak through speech balloons. The emotions expressed by the characters reinforce the science. Actions that enable viral infection make the virus happy. Actions that thwart infection make the virus sad. Informal, humorous comments by the characters draw the viewer in and soften the more technical aspects of the message.

Another way to humanize science graphics is to include an image of a human figure. Christine does this in the final panel of the comic, where she is making an appeal to all viewers for action—hand-washing and social distancing. She uses a very simplified comic style for the human figure, rather than a realistic one. It has the advantage of being universal and all inclusive. If she had used a more realistic depiction of a human figure, it  might limit the audience’s identification with it by gender, age, ethnicity, size or shape.

Final panel of Christine Shan's COVID-19 comic showing how hand washing can kill the COVID-19 virus and how social distancing can keep the virus from reaching new hosts.
Notice how Christine humanizes the COVID-19 virus with expressive features and speech. She also she puts the viewer directly into the comic through the use a human figure. ©2020 Christine Shan.

Comics facilitate “chunking”

Comics, by their nature, are sequential. They communicate through a series of story-driven panels. So they make it easy to break down complex science processes and concepts into discrete parts that ease learning. We call this “chunking.”

In the comic above, Christine uses separate panels to sequentially introduce the virus, the ACE-2 receptor, the furin enzyme, the spike protein anatomy, and the mitigation tips. The viewer can build up knowledge gradually without feeling overwhelmed by complexity.

The take-home message: comics make it easy to access your audience

The simplified and friendly style of comics offers an alternative approach to traditional science communication. Hand-drawn images and handwritten text encourage viewers to get involved. When used appropriately, comics can make complex science far more accessible to your audience than a deluge of abstract facts, technical images, and unfamiliar jargon.

As always, you can learn much more about S.P.A.R.K. strategies for the visual communication of science in our online course. And for additional information about the use of comics in science communication, please check out this blog post by our Science Communication Director, Tyler Ford.

See more of Christine’s work here:

https://www.cshan-visuals.com/

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