*Note* This post is part of our ongoing series “Misconceptions in the visual communication of science.” You can find other posts in the series here.

As a team of scientists and scientific illustrators, we’ve worked alongside many researchers who try their very hardest to communicate through pictures. Yet, despite best intentions, we often see common misconceptions that undermine the effectiveness of the pictures we encounter. We cover one particularly powerful misconception in this post and will cover more in future posts.

Misconception: I need to know how to draw in order to make an effective picture

It’s true that great drawing skills can make it easier to create great science pictures. But making an informative picture does not necessarily require such skills. An effective picture doesn’t need to be a realistic one. In fact, as we discuss in our S.P.A.R.K. course, being too literal in your illustrations can lead to confusion. The many details in a beautiful drawing can easily distract from the message (see example below).

An example of how you don’t need to be able to make pretty pictures in order to create useful ones. On the left we see highly detailed representations of arteries in the abdomen from Gray’s Anatomy. These are beautiful but might not help a young med student or researcher quickly conceptualize all the arterial connections. On the right we have a much simpler depiction of these connections. This schematic approach gives us a better look at the pattern of connectivity. While simple in form and maybe not as pretty as the drawings on the left, this picture would be much easier for any student to grasp.

Instead, it’s best to learn how to define the core components of your message and arrange these components in a narrative path (or “path pattern”) that most effectively delivers your message. The components of your picture can be very schematic or symbolic representations of scientific concepts. Simplified representations will keep your viewers focused on the big picture–the core content of your message.

Simple path patterns are the basis for clear scientific and technical pictures. It’s your job to provide a clear narrative path that guides your audience through the content of your picture.  Experiment with different possible path patterns in order to see which one works best for your picture.

In S.P.A.R.K., we teach you how to define your message, its components, and how to choose appropriate path patterns. Regardless of your drawing skills, having these things in place will set you well on your way to creating effective pictures.

We also stress the idea that creating great pictures is an iterative process. Most great pictures go through an “ugly” phase that improves through iterative rounds of refinement. In fact, when you first start on a new picture, we’d recommend sketching out your ideas in a quick and rough way. This will boost your creativity and leave you with a lot of raw material to begin the refinement process.

You can find examples of our own iterative process in these blog posts:

The bottom line – you don’t need extensive drawing or graphic design skills to create informative and effective pictures. You’ll actually benefit from quick and dirty rounds of modifying and experimenting with your pictures. You can, of course, work with an illustrator to improve the visual aesthetics of your pictures later. However, if you’re being schematic and focusing on the core message for your audience, professional illustration skills are not always necessary.

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