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This post was contributed by Picture as Portal® cofounder, Tami Tolpa. Tami has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Medical Illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

I was trained as a medical illustrator, but I‘m often called upon to perform a role that’s less about illustrating cells and tissues, and more about the design of information. In this case, the Journal of Biological Psychiatry called me to take an author’s concept sketch and turn it into a professional figure. Below, I outline a few of the strategies that I used when creating this figure. You can learn more about these strategies in our online course: S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science.


PowerPoint slide-based concept-sketch for an infographic walking through the process of Adolescent Neurodevelopment
Used with permission from Ryan John Herringa, MD, PhD, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health.

The authors created a PowerPoint slide as their draft figure. First, I’d like to point out some things they did well.

  1. They created a defined path for the viewer to follow. This is a combination of several of the path patterns we teach in S.P.A.R.K. There’s a linear path at the beginning, a divergent path in the middle, and then two partial circular paths at the end.
  2. They separated the content into discrete parts⁠—a process we call “chunking.”There are discrete columns and two of these columns have headings that provide a description of their content.
  3. Finally, they used color to further organize the “chunked” content.


Refined infographic walking through the process of Adolescent Neurodevelopment

I saw it as my job to maintain the overall organization of their information, but give it a treatment that made the content more accessible to their audience of medical colleagues. Employing  principles from S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science in order to improve the picture, I chose to be symbolic, maintain visual consistency, and make use of various elements of visual language. Let’s walk through these techniques one-by-one.

Be symbolic

In S.P.A.R.K., we teach that when content is too complex, one technique to make it more accessible is to be symbolic. Since most of the content in the circles is conceptual, I made the decision to develop a set of icons to accompany the text. These icons provide quick visual cues to elicit a general understanding of the content contained within each chunk of circled text. 

I also included some silhouettes of adolescents on the far left. These function as icons of a sort too, and add some context to the picture. They signal that all of this occurs in humans of a certain age.

Visual consistency

There are a lot of arrows. In the before picture, there are 4 different kinds of arrows: thin, straight black arrows, thicker straight black arrows, thick curved black arrows with fatter arrowheads, and a thick orange arrow. It’s hard to tell if these different kinds of arrows are supposed to represent different things. And the mis-match of shapes and sizes can make the image a little jarring.

In the after picture, I applied some rules to make the arrows more consistent. All arrowheads are the same size and shape, all arrows have lines with the same thickness, and the lines are either straight or bent at 90 or 45 degree angles. I removed the orange arrow at the bottom and instead treated that content with a simple bracket and a text label.

The icons also exhibit visual consistency; they’re all line drawings, in white, on circles of a darker shade of the same colors used in the picture.

Elements of visual language

In S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science, we teach how to speak using the elements of visual language: points, lines, size, shape, color, texture, value, and direction.

Shapes are effective elements of visual language, and I liked the authors’ use of circles. So I kept the circles because they allowed me to maintain the author’s original chunking and color-coding. Then, I used other elements of visual language to create strong visual connections between the circles. By adding lines among the circles, I created conceptual connections among their content. By including arrows at the ends of some of the lines, I showed direct and sequential connections.

The biggest communication challenge was how to handle the ambiguity of the black bracket that’s positioned between the “Biological mediators and moderators” and the “Functional domains.” The authors wanted to communicate that any of the content in the yellow circles could lead to any of the content in the orange circles. However, they were hesitant to make the figure too cluttered with all of these possibilities. Because the audience for this journal is the authors’ peers and not the public, I didn’t want to remove that level of complexity. Instead, I decided to treat it in a way that makes the complexity obvious. Any of the blue circles could lead to any of the green circles, and it would be conceivable to have multiple connections originating from one of the blue circles.

All of this is to say that this part of the science is complex, if not unpredictable or variable. The lines connecting these circles are thinner and dashed so that they don’t overwhelm the picture, but still have indicators that there’s something different about them.

A quick note about text

One note that I want to add. I’m a staunch believer that text longer than 2 lines is best when it’s left aligned (not centered). Center-justified text can be hard to read. But you can see that I broke that rule here. There are five circles that have center justified text longer than 2 lines. The amount of text and natural breaks between the words here worked in my favor, making center justified text look good in these circles. If the word lengths didn’t work out, I definitely would have changed my strategy for the text in the circles. All this is to say that it’s ok to break a rule, as long as there’s a good reason, or if the aesthetics work in your favor! 

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that the authors did a fantastic job of laying the groundwork for this figure. By applying some strategies from our S.P.A.R.K. course, I was able to build on the structure they already had in place and thereby make the figure more accessible. For more on these strategies and how you can use them in your own work, please check out our S.P.A.R.K. online course!

For more great tips from Tami, check out her series of posts on Data Visualization!


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