This blog post was written collaboratively by the Picture as Portal team. Illustrations by Tami Tolpa.

In our S.P.A.R.K. online course we stress that creating a great scientific or technical figure is an iterative process. Like great writing, all great pictures go through an “ugly” phase. Only after rounds of modification and editing–ideally with the help of collaborators–do we arrive at truly effective pictures.

In this blog post, we walk through the various iterations of the picture featured in a recent post, “Path patten makeover – contact tracing”. It focused on a graphic describing the contact tracing process for COVID-19, using the tagline “box in the virus.” We hope to show you that even an experienced illustrator like S.P.A.R.K. co-creator, Tami Tolpa, goes through an iterative process when creating great pictures. And we hope that knowing this will help you make great pictures of your own!

Initial iterations – quick sketches on paper

Not everyone starts on paper, but we think you should! We often scratch out quick ideas on paper to get the creative process started. Sketching helps us access the non-verbal, conceptual, creative, and visual parts of our brains. Sometimes we use sticky notes. With sketches on sticky notes, we can experiment with the arrangement of the various components of our pictures in physical space. This is one of the foundational hands-on exercises in our S.P.A.R.K. course.

Below, you’ll see two of the iterations Tami experimented with before going digital.

Sketches from Picture as Portal LLC co-founder and scientific illustrator, Tami Tolpa, showing her initial ideas for a COVID-19 contact tracing infographic. One sketch uses a linear path to demonstrate the process, the other uses a linear path formed into a shape of a house.

Digital iterations – quick variations on a theme

After Tami got some quick ideas out on paper and identified the basic components she needed, she created digital versions of them. The basic components she created are:

  • Lines representing the contact tracing steps
  • Icons for each step
  • Text and numbers associated with each step
  • Colored circles for the numbers
  • The virus

Once she had these components in digital form, she could quickly position them in various ways on the page. Indeed, once you have the necessary digital components for your pictures, it’s easy to experiment with many different arrangements for your narrative path—which we call path patterns. You can see three of Tami’s path pattern experiments below.

Initial digital design for a contact tracing infographic showing the steps in the process formed into a house that "boxes in" the coronavirus.
A possible design for a contact tracing infographic with the steps in the contact tracing processes depicted linearly. The lines used to portray each step also draw a box around a coronavirus to remind the viewer that this process is intended to "box in the virus."
A possible design for a contact tracing infographic with the steps in the contact tracing processes depicted linearly and forming a house shape that "boxes in" a coronavirus.

Collaborative discussions for iteration to a final picture

Tami sent her favorite versions over to the rest of the Picture as Portal team and we shared the various things we liked and didn’t like about each one. Our collaboration took the form of comments in a google doc followed by a quick phone chat during a weekly meeting. Collaboration isn’t 100% essential (although it’s usually helpful!), but it’s always good to at least take a step back and look at your original drafts with fresh eyes before moving on to new iterations.

In particular, we all agreed that it was very important to stress the linear quality of the contact tracing process. The original picture that provoked this makeover suggested that the contact tracing process was a cycle or circular path. It did so by turning the narrative path itself into a house shape to “box in the virus.” Clever. But Tami found it confusing, misleading, and decided to improve upon it. 

So, Tami came up with a brilliant compromise. She separated the two concepts and positioned the house below the linear path. Then, she used color coding to construct the house with lines that are the same color as the steps in the linear path. The colors make it clear that the contact tracing path helps build the house and “box in the virus.”

Final iteration of a contact tracing infographic in which the steps of the contact tracing process are depicted linearly above a house constructed with sides that are the same color as the lines used to represent the contract tracing process. This infographic makes it very clear contact tracing is a linear process while also stressing the idea that the process is intended to "box in the virus."

Learn more with our S.P.A.R.K. online course and share your work

To learn strategies that will help you move through the iterative design process, be sure to check out our S.P.A.R.K. online course. We’ve got discounted pricing right now, to support those of us staying home and looking for alternative professional development resources. Please also share your work with us @pictureasportal – we’d love to see and promote it!

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