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Interview with Meredith Boyter Newlove – Case study: How Creative Data Viz Conveys a Human Story of COVID-19 Community Spread

This is the third post in a 3-part series covering Meredith Boyter Newlove’s career and examples of her consequential work with the CDC.

Meredith Boyter Newlove is a health communicator specializing in creative data visualization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her “data viz” colleagues make up one of six specialized creative teams that support all CDC Centers and Emergency Responses including COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola. Meredith earned dual BFAs in Graphic Design and Scientific Illustration (2004) from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science (2008) from the Medical Illustration Graduate Program at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) now Augusta University. Driven by a love of color, design, nature, and people, Meredith considers her work in global public health—surrounded by top-notch creatives and experts in science and communications—her dream job and a true privilege.

Can you show us an example of your work that demonstrates how visual principles can turn data into meaningful messages with broad reach?

Sure. First, some background on the project: 

In April 2020, CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer Isaac Ghinai, MD and colleagues published an article titled, “Community Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at Two Family Gatherings — Chicago, Illinois, February–March 2020” in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The article details an outbreak in a Chicago community, the contact tracing investigation that ensued, its findings and their meaning. Inside the article’s pages, a simple investigation diagram (see below) would soon take on a new life.

Timeline of the Chicago cluster contact tracing investigation. The timeline depicts events and symptom onsets by investigation day. Individual patients (cases) are labeled by family cluster (A or B), then by their place in the assumed pathway of infection spread – transmission generations 1-4. The number after the dot in each label designates the patients’ sequence within each transmission generation (1–7). As we look across the diagram, the use of color and different line types creates the contrasts and details we magnified in our animation.

My colleague, Brad Myers, MPH, proposed that we develop an animation to turn the Chicago contact tracing investigation into a compelling story of community spread. In his own words:

At the time of the MMWR publication reviewing the investigation of the outbreak in Chicago, (April 2020) there was still limited awareness or detailed documentation regarding the spread of the COVID-19 Virus, especially among group gatherings. While the illustration within the MMWR report provided some visual context to the findings, I felt that  public understanding of the speed and scope of the spread from even one case, could be significantly enhanced if we developed an animation version of the MMWR visual. Thanks to support from MMWR leadership, the concept we developed was approved. My hope was that if executed wellwhich it was, thanks to Meredith, other artists within DCS and the participation of Dr. Ghinai—and distributed through social channels, the animation could enhance support for prevention measures such as social distancing, wearing of face coverings, and recommendations on avoiding gatherings.

Screenshot from the updated “How COVID-19 Spreads in a Community” video. New markers and color coding make transmission of the virus easier to follow through family clusters (letters) and generations (numbers). Color codes indicate whether a COVID-19 case was confirmed (red), probably (orange), resulted in hospitalization (teal), or resulted in death (black).

How COVID-19 Spreads in a Community” takes the viewer on a ‘street-level’ journey through groups and settings in which the virus spread in a matter of days and documents the hospitalizations and deaths that occurred along the path.

To create this video on a compressed timeline, I partnered with a talented producer and motion graphics specialist in our branch. We started with the story’s key players: the people, the places, and the consequences. I referenced the article’s original diagram to design a stylized, map-like landscape of symbols color coded by setting, infection, illness, hospitalization, and death. Following a script composed and voiced by the author, Dr. Ghinai, I created a storyboard and developed visual assets for use in the animation. We created an animated 3D world in which community members gather, then selectively develop illness, become hospitalized, and die. Key settings are marked with “pins” you might see on a familiar navigation app like Google Maps. At the end of the animation, you see a conceptual timeline of the investigation and are reminded to stay home and continue socially distancing to prevent getting sick and infecting the people around you.

Through simple visuals and voiceover, this detailed epidemiological process became a human story. The original upload was viewed over 412K  times on YouTube and a new upload can be shared on social media!

Learn 5 strategies for the visual communication of science in our S.P.A.R.K. online course!


Medical Illustrator Hillary Wilson on embracing human variation in scientific and medical art

We’re very pleased to publish the following post on Embracing Human Variation written by our guest blogger Hillary Wilson. Hillary is committed to creating diverse, affirming artwork that includes people of different shades, sizes, and backgrounds. She has a Masters degree in Medical Illustration from the Johns Hopkins Graduate Program for Medical and Biological Illustration. Inspired by the rich diversity and variation of humanity, she strives to capture that sentiment in her artistic approach to both medical and fine art subjects, and in her work as a diversity consultant to companies and organizations.

Hillary Wilson self portrait. Image source:

Why is accurate diversity important in medical art and the field of medicine in general?  

Education and exposure  

Many people, including medical, students, professionals, and patients, aren’t exposed to enough accurate visuals of non-white body parts. This perpetuates gaps in knowledge that can lead to worse outcomes in people of color and can also lead to shame, misinformation, and people stigmatizing normal attributes.

Accurate and relevant information  

Diversity is also important in medical art and the field of medicine because it creates opportunities to recognize how medical conditions affect us differently. Since there is so much variation in humans as a species, it’s important to recognize these differences and provide relevant information that applies to different types of people. This variation encompasses more  than skin color alone. Differences in bodies can also lead to slight physiological differences and  trends in medicine that are important to keep in mind.  

For example, many people might not understand why razor bumps (see image below) are so prevalent in black men and so difficult to treat. Commonly shown hair follicle images depict straight hair, while hair follicles and hair shafts in hair that is very curly are actually C shaped. Such curved hair follicles and a predisposition for keloids—traits common in black men—can exacerbate an issue like razor bumps and make them difficult to avoid and treat.

Part of a series created to teach general audiences about black skincare, this illustration conveys important anatomical information about the C-shaped hair follicles that are typical of people with very curly hair. Anatomy books have historically depicted straight, linear hair follicles as standard. Such shortcomings in anatomical representation and understanding can lead to poor outcomes in medical care and treatment for non-white people. Image source:

Normalizing the reality of a diverse world  

Although a lot of communities can be fairly insular, in reality, the world is full of all kinds of people consuming media and using health resources. When there is more ambient diversity in these resources, they more accurately reflect the world we live in and the realities of the people in it. In short, diversity is important because it exists everywhere.

What are some of the barriers that may make it difficult for more medical illustrators and science communicators to include racial and ethnic diversity in their work?  

A fear of stereotyping, offending, or “doing it wrong”  

It’s a common fear that portraying different types of people will lead to stereotyping or offending people from these different groups, or that acknowledging the topic of race will  cause one to seem tone deaf, racist, or ignorant. Many may be open to depicting more diversity, but are afraid of what they don’t know, and worried they’ll seem racist. They may have an urge to disregard race and ethnicity entirely by creating blue, purple, or clear people, racially ambiguous people, or only portraying white people. Though well-meaning, this tactic can be harmful in counterintuitive ways. In attempting to account for everyone, it actually accounts for very few. A racially ambiguous person is still one person. A middle brown skin tone is still one skin tone. This approach also lumps features that don’t align with a Eurocentric framework into a general category of “stereotype.” Failing to acknowledge race and ethnicity can lead to media that fewer people find relatable, that lack important information, or that still unintentionally favor white people. 

There’s certainly a huge range of beneficial uses for glass bodies or didactic coloring, but it’s also beneficial to distinguish between making a conscious educational choice, and a choice rooted in avoidance. Many people aren’t racially ambiguous, and portraying a person who clearly represents a particular race or ethnicity isn’t necessarily stereotyping. It’s possible to notice and appreciate trends in features, while acknowledging that there’s always more variation you haven’t seen or considered. That’s perfectly okay. 

It’s also helpful to remember that many people can recognize and appreciate effort and thoughtfulness. Ask yourself “Am I doing my due diligence? Am I being thoughtful? Am I treating people with humanity?” Rather than, “Am I doing this right?”

Perceived difficulty  

It’s also common for people to think that increasing diversity in their body of work means they must create new work specifically to tackle it, that they have to replace a bunch of existing work, or that researching race and ethnicity is considerably more difficult than the typical research required in medical illustration and science communication.  

This implies that diversity is an accessory, or extra project, rather than something that can and should be woven into one’s work in general. It suggests that people who aren’t white must fit into certain subjects in order to be portrayed. 

It’s possible to make a conscious effort to understand that human variation is a constant reality  in our world, and that failing to acknowledge it can lead to media lacking a lot of significant information both visually and medically. Place diversity on the same level as other concepts that should be researched in order for information to be complete and reflective of reality.

These spheres show how to shade with a full range of light and dark using a variety of skin tones and pigmentations. Image courtesy of Hillary Wilson.

Not knowing when to include more diversity  

This goes hand in hand with a fear of stereotyping or offending, but with some subtle  distinctions. Many may hesitate to include more diversity in their work because they fear it’ll be  distracting, they think they need a reason for it, or they are worried they must get permission  first. 

This unfortunately suggests that white is the default and that other races and ethnicities must be there for a reason, or that they’re inherently distracting. 

When portraying people or body parts, you can make conscious decisions to portray diverse races and ethnicities when there is no specific reason. You don’t need to wait for an illustration depicting an ailment that is more common in people of color to depict them. Billions of people in the world aren’t white. It’s possible to celebrate the rich diversity of the world we live in just because it exists.

This patient information resource is a good example of how it’s possible to choose to depict a person of an underrepresented ethnicity without having a medically necessary reason to do so. Image source:

So, what is a more constructive approach to diversity?

Try to show distinct people who could be real and relatable. Acknowledge different examples, rather than showing an idealized or generalized version of a person that tries to account for everybody at once. It’s impossible to account for every single human, and that’s okay. There’s no universal skin tone or bone structure that will reflect everyone. Variation exists everywhere, and that’s an exciting prospect. There are so many different ways to be a human.

Enroll in the S.P.A.R.K. online course and learn strategies for the visual communication of science!


Interview with Meredith Boyter Newlove—Building a Science Communication Partnership

This is the second post in a 3-part series covering Meredith Boyter Newlove’s career and examples of her consequential work with the CDC.

Meredith Boyter Newlove is a health communicator specializing in creative data visualization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her “data viz” colleagues make up one of six specialized creative teams that support all CDC Centers and Emergency Responses including COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola. Meredith earned dual BFAs in Graphic Design and Scientific Illustration (2004) from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science (2008) from the Medical Illustration Graduate Program at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) now Augusta University. Driven by a love of color, design, nature, and people, Meredith considers her work in global public health—surrounded by top-notch creatives and experts in science and communications—her dream job and a true privilege.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your current role at the CDC?

These days, most creatives wear multiple hats… and my collection is growing. I think of my role as a sort of “creator-coordinator-communicator.” Starting in early March 2020, as the coronavirus took root in the US, I’ve had the opportunity to visualize data as part of the CDC’s COVID-19 Response. The good fortune to transition into—and learn—data visualization and other new roles during a pandemic is not lost on me. I am incredibly thankful that, by the start of 2021, our branch had built a small data visualization team! 

Our four-member team develops data-forward graphics. These include diagrams, infographics, journal figures, dashboard designs, interactive prototypes, and conceptual narratives. First, we do research to explore the concepts behind these graphics. Later, we iterate design ideas and drafts. When completed, our graphics take the form of static and animated web media that range in complexity.

As a teammate, I contribute skills in design, illustration, and art direction. I participate in cross-team multimedia campaigns, and develop branding and style standards for CDC programs and initiatives. Day-to-day, I design with data and/or public health messaging. But I also do a fair amount of consulting and presenting, motion graphics, and the occasional illustration. In contrast to previous, more production-centered roles, I have new opportunities for creative pathfinding with communicators, subject matter experts (SMEs), and leadership. For instance, I currently manage visual strategy for the CDC’s Public Health Data Modernization Initiative campaign. This involves equal parts SME engagement, communications consultation, and visual product development with a small, cross-branch team.

2. How do you build trust among your data-driven colleagues that visualization and creativity are essential to good communication?

You may know the adage, “Good design is invisible.” It’s true! In a visual, you don’t always consciously notice the information hierarchy as such, or the smaller details, typefaces, or grid, because you’re receiving the message. As we all know, in public health communications, the message is everything. At the start of the pandemic, a talented CDC SME remarked, “We are asking people to be epidemiologists along with us.” For me, this was a call to make principled design choices and avoid making assumptions about what people know and understand. At the pace of scientific discovery, working to inform an anxious and often skeptical public, keeping it “simple” can be hard. I’ll share a couple of examples: 

First example: From March to May 2020, CDC scientists conducted a large-scale geographic coronavirus seroprevalence survey in ten U.S. sites. Such surveys quantify the fraction of people in a given population with antibodies against the coronavirus. These surveys can give epidemiologists a rough idea of how many people in that population have been infected with the virus. This was the first and largest study of its kind, with results arriving in a staggered stream during the summer. 

The Epi Task Force and other Response staff planned and prepared communications for several audiences around this groundbreaking data. The cornerstone was an article, “Seroprevalence of Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in 10 Sites in the United States, March 23—May 12, 2020,” to be published in JAMA Internal Medicine a short time after all of the study results were available. 

We “embedded” a creative point of view (POV) in serology communications efforts from the start. I would take part in discussions, get my head around the imminent findings and their implications, and provide visual perspective. It was quite rare to include a creative POV in discussions this early on! In several brainstorming sessions—so fun!—a small group of science and communications SMEs and I planned strategy and dissected upcoming data viz challenges.

Now, it took me a minute to grasp the studies’ methods and findings and correlate them to my knowledge base (it had been a while since school). The SMEs and I had to figure out how to use visuals to help the general public understand seroprevalence concepts, what this data means, and why it matters. My instincts told me that simple, explanatory visuals could clarify some of the baseline concepts of serology that were new and unfamiliar. So, as much for my own as for others’ understanding, I did some research and sat down to explore in Adobe Illustrator. 

I drew an antibody, then a blood vial with detected antibodies (positive result) and one without. Then came matrices of little, selectively filled blood droplets to help clarify seroprevalence and its estimates in sample and actual populations. I added some labels, prepared the piece as an infographic, and shared it with the Epi Task Force team. They welcomed the resource and after a couple of rounds of clearance, “What COVID-19 Seroprevalence Surveys Can Tell Us” ended up on the CDC COVID-19 Serology site! Frequent consultations, open-ended explorations, and iterations across several visual products ultimately helped our SMEs and communicators identify clear and meaningful ways to present tough epidemiologic concepts.

Second example: During the pandemic, we know the public has faced obstacles to understanding, including unfamiliarity with the science, widespread misinformation, and fear. An early communications challenge was convincing the public that COVID-19 is not “just like the flu,” but much more deadly. 

In April 2020, communicators and epidemiologists on the Epi Task Force needed a visualization showing the combined mortality rate of pneumonia, influenza, and COVID-19 (PIC) that would emphasize COVID-19’s stunning contribution to this rate. The original static graph showed a mortality line peaking in the 2017, 2018, and 2019 flu seasons and spiking to an extreme height soon after the first COVID-19 death certificate occurred. But without color and more visual context, the message couldn’t transcend the format. The  primary epidemiologist, the lead health communications specialist, and I iterated until we’d rendered the visual takeaway unmissable. Next, we added labels and bright data points at the peaks. We animated the line along its path—adding interest and drama with motion—and ultimately, created something totally new. The visualization also earned impressive social media metrics!

It was during these collaborations that our small teams realized we had built an agile partnership that worked: A science-communications-creative core team. This model has helped us see challenges “in the round.” Each expert can focus on their own area of specialization—and contribute effectively to the process—more efficiently than a single individual or inexperienced group might be able to do. At the heart of this team is trust and energy to move outside typical visual comfort zones.

3. You mentioned that you’ve found yourself doing more writing lately as part of your job. How does that fit into your role as a visual communicator?

When sharing concept drafts or pitching, I find that the more thoughtful detail we provide about ideas, the better equipped clients feel to bring our ideas to their programs, and the more connected all stakeholders feel to the solution. As this audience knows, a grounding in visual communication principles guides creative decisions, and these principles often become part of the conversation. A great thing! For branding and campaign-related strategy, I will write style guidance or informal creative briefs (and might include inspiration or examples) to help keep thought processes transparent. 

A true highlight of my role is getting to work on strategy and messages directly with writer-editors and other communicators. This is particularly true in writing for our frequent team slide presentations, each one unique in its purpose and audience. It’s so satisfying to work with these pros and challenge my mind this way.

4. What’s the hardest thing about your job?

I’d say the hardest thing right now, during a pandemic, is collaborating remotely! There’s nothing like an in-person brainstorming session where ideas can connect and bloom. In general, though, the toughest thing about data visualization is identifying that key visual/conceptual “hook” that will draw a viewer in and make them stay long enough to feel an impact and—better yet—remember and use the information. It’s also the fun part!

5. What’s the best thing about your job?

It’s hard to pinpoint one “best” thing, so my answer is three-fold: 

  • It’s cultivating team energy. We’re like a creative lab, capable of so much more together! To borrow organizational expert Doug Merrill’s phrase, “All of us are smarter than any of us.”

  • It’s sensing that this work we’re doing helps real people with real lives see (and understand) real science, happening in real-time.
  • It’s channeling my drive and creative spirit into good work at a great agency with a mission greater than all of us.

In our next post we’ll cover some more examples of Meredith’s amazing work with the CDC!

Learn 5 strategies for the visual communication of science in our S.P.A.R.K. online course!


Interview with Meredith Boyter Newlove—A science communication career path

This is the first post in a 3-part series covering Meredith Boyter Newlove’s career and examples of her consequential work with the CDC.

Image featuring Meredith Boyter Newlove

Meredith Boyter Newlove is a health communicator specializing in creative data visualization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her “data viz” colleagues make up one of six specialized creative teams that support all CDC Centers and Emergency Responses including COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola. Meredith earned dual BFAs in Graphic Design and Scientific Illustration (2004) from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science (2008) from the Medical Illustration Graduate Program at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) now Augusta University. Driven by a love of color, design, nature, and people, Meredith considers her work in global public health—surrounded by top-notch creatives and experts in science and communications—her dream job and a true privilege.

An early focus on the intersection of art and science

Art and science have always coexisted in my life. My father, Charles Boyter, MS, is a Certified Medical Illustrator. My twin sister, Elizabeth, and I loved to explore the wonders in his basement studio. His cool art supplies and the X-rays, skeletons, models, cicada shells, bits of a wasp’s nest… were most interesting when we were supposed to be in bed. We would comb through his library of science and medical books, stopping on illustrations by Dr. Frank Netter. Awed by the way bodies are put together, and what can go wrong, we asked a lot of questions. Both Elizabeth and I “developed” almost every ailment in all the body systems in those books! (She has always kept her passion for medicine and is a talented Physician Assistant in Neurology in Atlanta.)

Netter demystified the human machine and gave it magic. His signature colors and textures had me thinking our insides were a rainbow. I wondered, “How did he DO that?” And our own dad was in this club! I watched him inking his bold linework, airbrushing rich colors, and cutting friskets—always so meticulously—then learning and mastering Adobe software with equal dedication. I just couldn’t fathom how he got there. I couldn’t imagine then that I would also visualize science… and in such different ways.

As I started really getting into art in middle school, my dad introduced me to nuances of light, shadow, and perspective, and pointed out the colors hiding in plain sight. It empowered me but also showed me just how much I had to learn. He gave me honest critique (even when I didn’t ask for it!) and taught me the value of hard work toward a goal. He has shown me that “anything worth doing is worth doing right.

My dad and I are part of a very small club of medical illustration legacies. When I was young, I took for granted my early exposure to his careful craftsmanship and the community of colleagues and clients who passed through our front door. But I see it now as the opportunity that breathed life into my current career path.

Skill building

My own career path began with design–my anchor. I’m inspired by nature’s flawless color combinations, wabi-sabi, the magic of bioluminescence, and the play of light and shadow. I’m drawn to boldness and dimension and the way things sit on a surface or screen. Commercial illustration, fashion, and advertising have always fascinated me, and I’ve long imagined myself in those industries too, even down to the copywriting. There’s always been this undercurrent of communication—reaching people—and a drive to create moments.

When I began my design career in ‘04, I worked on the UGA campus alongside the seasoned communicators at Georgia Magazine and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The next year, I joined Nucleus Medical Media in Kennesaw, GA to produce printed and digital pharmaceutical promotions and Nucleus health communication products. I worked with wonderful people that included medical illustrators, designers, and my first art director. The patient education products I worked on at Nucleus really lit a fire under me. I enjoyed merging illustrations and design methods into tools targeted for understanding. With kudos to Nucleus, I grew into a designer ready to expand my skills. I was sure I couldn’t possibly choose between illustration and design, but if I worked hard enough, maybe I could do both and reach people more widely with my work.

Graphic designer… and medical illustrator

I applied to the MCG Medical Illustration Graduate Program and, after a rigorous process, was accepted into the Class of ’08. MCG’s outstanding faculty, immersive academic curriculum, and specialized creative training unlocked my potential. As a trained medical illustrator, I gained the new range of capabilities and the depth of experience I needed to move forward. 

So, in ‘08, I returned to Nucleus, this time as both a graphic designer and medical illustrator. My first tasks were illustrations and exhibits for the Nucleus medical-legal division. Then, I teamed up with other talents at Nucleus and developed web and mobile app interface elements, motion graphics, and pharmaceutical campaign design products. In addition, as part of the Nucleus medical writing team, I composed action and voiceover scripts to support client products and content for the Nucleus Medical Art Library. In these roles, I learned so much about visual storytelling and the value of team and client relationships. Over time, art direction became my primary focus.

Transitioning to a role that impacts global public health

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Nucleus, I longed to work in a role with broader impact. I wanted to be able to make design decisions that affect people’s lives every day. Early public health posters are great examples of the bold decision-making I admire so much. In many cases, it’s simply a headline, a striking image (often a hand-tooled illustration), and a call to action. These posters have always drawn me like a magnet, especially the historic examples I saw while visiting the David J. Sencer CDC Museum years ago. I felt sure that one day I could adapt my work to reach global audiences… and have a direct positive impact on other people’s lives. 

My chance at CDC came in 2013! I joined the medical illustration and multimedia team, working with scientists and communicators to create broad-ranging visuals for screen, print, and motion graphics. Our illustrations communicated public health messaging from all corners of the CDC, including several Emergency Responses. Sometimes—as with patient education—we were looking for a gentle approach. Other times, we were after a more attention-grabbing impact. Ideally, we achieved our messaging goals with a thoughtful marriage of visualization and narrative. Through seven and a half years—and almost every imaginable creative challenge—my phenomenal CDC teammates and friends have taught me so much.

Now, I have the opportunity to work as a health communicator in creative data visualization at the CDC. With an extensive drawing background, experience in varied traditional and digital media, and a commitment to accuracy, I try to approach each communication challenge and visualization with both an illustrator’s and a designer’s eye. I’m grateful that my combined graphic design and medical illustration training have armed me with what I need to make the impact I’ve always dreamed of making on global public health. 

In our next post, we’ll dive into Meredith’s work at the CDC in more detail. Stay tuned!

Learn 5 strategies for the visual communication of science in our S.P.A.R.K. online course!


Best practices for text

Use of text can make or break a science picture. You can easily apply the Goldilocks Rule to text, just like you can with color: “Avoid extremes—except for a good reason!”

With text, the best way to avoid extremes is to always keep in mind that legibility matters most. Text has no purpose in a science communication if people can’t read it! If your text is extreme in some way—too small, too light, too bold—it impairs legibility. So, when making choices about your text, ask yourself, “Is it as legible as it could be?”

In this blog post, we’ll look at some features of text to see what legibility means in practical terms. We cover more aspects of text in the full SPARK course, so be sure to check it out!

Text size

The size of your text will have a big impact on legibility. Text size is measured in points and, as you can see, there are many options available:

The device you’re using to view this post right now is determining how big or small this text looks, so these represent relative sizes only.

So…what’s the best size to use? Well, this is actually a very tough question. Because the answer is: it all depends on how your audience will see your picture! 

If you’re creating a picture that will be printed, you should follow the instructions provided by the publisher, if available. You can check the legibility of your text by printing your picture at the final size your audience is likely to see it. 

For presentations, think big! A common mistake is to simply insert a picture that was created for publication into a slide. The text is likely to be much too small to be legible in your slide.

Your picture might end up being seen in a variety of different ways. If so, it’s best to make a different version of your picture for each different use. That way, you can choose the most legible text size for each version.


Another choice you’ll need to make about your text that will affect its legibility is the font, sometimes called “typeface.” And there are many options! In fact, this is when it’s really important to remember the Goldilocks rule: avoid extremes. As with color, it’s tempting to choose something that seems exciting or creative. However, this would be a mistake. Instead, choose something that’s not extreme or distracting—choose a standard, legible font, such as Helvetica.

Helvetica is a good choice because it’s simple. It’s a style of font that’s considered to be the most legible for small amounts of text—like your labels, captions and titles. Here are several very common and legible fonts that are good choices for science pictures. Myriad Pro is the font we use throughout our SPARK online course.

Common, legible fonts that are good choices for science pictures.

Now, even within a single font such as Myriad Pro, there are still many choices: light, condensed, italic, bold, and more. Once again, avoid extremes. For most of your text, choose the standard version of your font. It’s often called “regular.”

If, in part of your picture, you have a small amount of text that you want to emphasize, simply use a bold version of the same font. In most cases, don’t use all capital letters. A bold version of your font will be easier to read than all caps.

Various styles of Myriad pro. We recommend using “regular” for most of your text and “bold” for anything you want to stand out.

Be concise and serve text in chunks

As you finish up your picture, it’s a good time to perform some final visual triage on your text. Are there any labels, captions, or words you can eliminate? Avoid using jargon and be concise. Less text will give you more legibility.

Being concise will also help you serve your text in bite-sized chunks. We recommend using chunks of text similar to that found in the example below. There are only about 8 words in each line and generous spacing between the lines.

Text lines that are long are difficult to read. They’re even more difficult to read when the spacing of the lines is close together. Avoid these choices (see example below).

Always keep accessibility in mind

More contrast is better for accessibility. You can check the contrast of your text using an online contrast checker. While these are primarily designed to check the contrast of website text because there are web guidelines for accessibility, they are useful tools for checking the contrast of any text.

ALL CAPS is generally discouraged unless there’s a good reason. For example, you might use all caps to emphasize a single word or two (but no more). Otherwise, all caps is an added challenge for people with visual or cognitive impairments, and it’s even hard to read for those of us without impairments. Never use all caps for blocks of text.

By following these best practices for text, you can greatly improve the legibility and effectiveness of your science pictures. For more guidelines about text, as well as other visual communication strategies, check out our SPARK online course!


Case study – Clinical informatics picture from Vimig Socrates

The Yale Science Diplomats at Yale University have been using our S.P.A.R.K. online course to help train their members for the “Flipped Science Fair.” At the Flipped Science Fair, Yale researchers present their work to middle schoolers who both learn from the experience and get to judge the researchers posters. In this blog post, Yale researcher Vimig Socrates shares his experiences with the S.P.A.R.K. course and shows how he’s already putting our 5 strategies for the visual communication of science into action for the Flipped Science Fair.

Using the S.P.A.R.K. strategies to create a picture focused on clinical informatics for middle school students

A few weeks ago, I facilitated and participated in a science communication course run by Picture as Portal LLC called S.P.A.R.K., 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. In my group, I had 3 other graduate students from various disciplines. We were all looking to develop a picture that would help us better explain our work to a broader audience, whether they are middle school students, legislators, or members of an adjacent scientific community. Personally, I wanted to explain my current research project at a high level to middle school students. 

I’m a PhD student in informatics, studying clinical informatics. This is engineer-speak for “I use data that is recorded on regular visits to the doctor to try and help healthcare workers do their jobs a little bit better and hopefully make us all a little healthier.” There is so much data in the clinical sphere that we can accomplish this goal in many different ways. The S.P.A.R.K. course instructors encourage you to pick a research project that you work on and to use a description of that project as the foundation for a picture you’ll create during the course.I picked a project wherein I created a mathematical representation of a patient’s full clinical record that we could use for a variety of tasks. These include finding similar patients for clinical trials and guiding treatment through predicted treatment outcomes. 

The first strategy covered in the course was “Serve a Sandwich,” the “S” in S.P.A.R.K.  Using this strategy, I attempted to condense my research project into three main components. While I have certainly done similar things to make my science more explainable, the course helped me break down my project with a unique exercise: the “visual menu” exercise. In this exercise, we wrote out descriptions of our research projects and underlined the “actors” and “actions” in the descriptions.  We then quickly drew images to represent these actors and actions. These images made up our “visual menus.” During the remainder of the course, we used these images to construct a picture describing our research.

Vimig’s visual menu

In the second strategy from the course, Plan a Path (the “P” in S.P.A.R.K.), we took the images from our visual menus and attempted to place them in some sort of logical flow. We predominantly used arrows to relate different “menu items”. 

I would say this was the most useful part of the S.P.A.R.K. framework. I’ve heard (since I don’t have an artistic bone in my body) that artists often deal with “Blank canvas syndrome”. That is, a completely blank canvas can be very imposing and it’s hard to get a creative project started from scratch. However, if you’ve got building blocks to start off with, it can be easier to get a creative project moving. In science communication, this problem is no less prevalent. I’m so used to writing long, technical scientific journal articles that when presented with a slightly artistic goal, I struggled quite a bit. Breaking down my science into the requisite components and connecting them together helped develop a very natural flow chart. This process led me to the following intermediate picture.

Path picture

The next three strategies involved refining this picture by taking into account the intended audience and distilling the information presented into its most important components.  Through a few more iterations, I came up with a modified and cleaned up version of the picture. 

Refined picture

It’s pretty clear to see that there were considerable changes between the first iteration and this version crafted after using the “Access Your Audience” (A) and “Refine Relationships” strategies in S.P.A.R.K. . 

In conversations during the workshop, I realized that my work is actually more circular than I initially thought. We extract information from the patient record, combine it using some mathematical concepts, and use a number of analytical techniques (represented by the graphs in the picture above)  to develop a mathematical representation of the patient (man in red). However, the key difference between my “path picture” and my “refined picture” is that, in the refined picture, the mathematical representation informs better clinical care and we repeat the whole data collection and modeling process.  This circular process continuously makes our mathematical representations and clinical care better.

Finally, the last strategy from the course is “Keep it Clear” (The “K” in S.P.A.R.K.). Following this strategy, we refined our use of color and text. My semi-final picture resulting from this strategy is found below. I have some final modifications to make, but I really like how things are advancing!

Semifinal picture

You can see that labels have been added, the points in the graphs have been made larger and clearer, and we changed one of our icons to signify that the mathematical representation is actually a framework we use to train machine learning models, not a real life person that is created. While these icons could be a bit neater and not hand-drawn, I’m relatively happy with the final outcome. You can clearly see the message has evolved and become clearer from my first Visual Menu to the final output. Overall, I enjoyed the S.P.A.R.K. methodology immensely. The S.P.A.R.K.  strategies make it easy to create a picture that is informative for a broad audience.

Read other “Case study” blog posts to see the S.P.A.R.K. strategies in action.


Case study – PROTAC picture from Michael Bond

The Yale Science Diplomats at Yale University have been using our S.P.A.R.K. online course to help train their members for the “Flipped Science Fair.” At the Flipped Science Fair, Yale researchers present their work to middle schoolers who both learn from the experience and get to judge the researchers’ posters.

In this blog post, Yale researcher Michael Bond shares his experiences working with our S.P.A.R.K. course and shows how he’s already putting our 5 strategies for the visual communication of science into action for the Flipped Science Fair.

The remainder of this post was written by Yale researcher Michael Bond

Creating a PROTAC picture

I set out to design a picture that would explain the mechanism of induced protein degradation by the PROteolysis Targeting Chimera (PROTAC) technology. PROTACs are two-headed (heterobifunctional) molecules that hijack a cell’s protein quality control (PQC) machinery to target disease proteins for degradation. Cellular PQC consists of two main parts:

  1. Ubiquitin (Ub)  a small protein that can be linked to other proteins and marks them for degradation
  2. E3 ligases – the proteins responsible for attaching Ub to diseased proteins. 

PROTACs function by simultaneously binding an E3 ligase and a protein of interest (POI) to be degraded. They form a ternary complex that allows the E3 ligase to tag the POI with Ub. Once Ub is added, the proteasome, a cellular trash can, can recognize and destroy the POI. My goal was to make a compelling figure that could explain ternary complex formation and PROTAC induced protein degradation to 8th graders during Yale’s Flipped Science Fair.

The first draft of Michael’s PROTAC picture.

In the first draft of my picture, I focused on highlighting the formation of the ternary complex and the ubiquitination of POIs by E3 ligases. I broke down each important step of PROTAC activity and used left to right orientation and a 3-step linear narrative of the POIs fate to convey the order of events. Underneath these events I put a schematic of a cell to show that the actions above occur within the cell, using the cell’s native PQC machinery. Using arrows, I show the progression of PROTAC treatment on proteins inside the cell and used a skull and crossbones to signify that, once the protein is destroyed, the cell dies. Although this picture conveys my message, it could be clearer, more aesthetically pleasing, and better emphasize the fact that the E3 ligase and POI are already inside cells, a common question asked by my 8th grade audience.

Refining the PROTAC picture with the S.P.A.R.K. strategies

The S.P.A.R.K. strategies presented in Picture as Portal’s course helped me hone my message and present it more effectively to my young audience. For me, the “A” section of S.P.A.R.K., Access your Audience, was the most helpful section of the course. In this section we learned about letting go of literalism by considering the use of symbols or metaphors in place of more literal representations of scientific content. 

After watching the relevant video from the course, I decided to add pictures below each of the important players in the PROTAC process. The pictures give students real world objects that they can relate each protein to. For example, I represented the PROTAC molecule with a magnet because it “attracts’ the E3 ligase and the POI. The proteasome destroys the protein, so I added a trash can below it, a common analogy used in my field.

Michael’s revised PROTAC picture.

Another SPARK strategy I relied on in editing my original draft was the “R” section – Refine Relationships. This strategy helped me make my figure clearer and more aesthetically pleasing.

After learning about the elements of visual language covered in this section, I decided to add a box around the ternary complex inside my cell. Then I used dotted lines to show that I was zooming in on this ternary complex. Additionally, I put the cell schematic above the degradation events and made the cells larger to emphasize that everything I discuss is happening inside the cell. This will help the students see that the E3 ligase and the protein of interest are already inside the cell. Next, I added additional numbers and arrows to the “zoomed in” portion of the picture. These help organize the various events that take place during PROTAC-mediated degradation of the protein of interest.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have taken the Picture as Portal course, not only because it helped me redesign my Flipped Science Fair picture, but also because the lessons learned will ensure that my future scientific pictures are clear and concise. I am currently working on drafting a review for a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I will be thinking about the S.P.A.R.K. strategies as I design my figures for this publication. I would highly recommend S.P.A.R.K. to anyone who regularly makes complex figures in any field, especially science.

Sign up for S.P.A.R.K.!


Interview with Christoph Kuehne PhD, Biomedical Animator

Image featuring Christoph Kuehne PhD. The image highlights the following quote from Christoph, "Naturally, a researcher is on top of the science, aware of uncertainties or missing data. The scientific illustrator can pour all of that into a product tailored to the target audience. It is a very beneficial symbiosis between scientific, technical, and communication skill sets."

In this post, we interview Christoph Kuehne PhD. Christoph is a Biomedical Animator with a research background in electron microscopy. Read the interview below to learn all about Christoph’s exciting career path and how he transitioned from research to animation.

What got you interested in science and structural biology in particular?

My interest in science and biology probably comes from my parents, who both worked in scientific fields. Random examples: As a child, I had a microscope, or my father used agar plates to show the effect of handwashing. I also enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked – not living things, just to be clear. All of this might be a kind of cliché, but served as a good starting point. Structural biology came into play during grad school. By chance I got involved with 3D reconstructions of proteins and cryo-electron microscopy. Basically, I like things with lots of doodads, and an electron microscope fits the bill.

In general, what has your career path been like?

I studied biology, focusing on immunology, zoology and developmental genetics. Going into a PhD program without really thinking it through was a major mistake. By the end, I was utterly frustrated and went in a totally different direction to take up professional photography. Making pictures, moving or still, was another fascination of mine from early on.

What prompted you to make the transition from researcher to animator?

Painfully obvious after my PhD, the way my creative drive works is just not suitable for a researcher. I am very lucky that the scientific illustration/animation field exists, where I get to combine pretty much everything that I enjoy doing.

What tools and resources have you used to build your scientific animation/illustration skills?

I mainly use online courses and books. On the science communication side, I found a course like S.P.A.R.K to be extremely valuable. I remember the first scientific conference I ever attended, where a speaker used a simple 3D animation. He actually kept apologizing for it, saying “it’s pure Hollywood”. The paradigm at the time seemed to be: It can’t be good science if it’s presented well. Since then, I feel that mindset has changed, and a growing number of researchers are recognizing the benefits of effective science communication. During my time in academia, there were no dedicated courses such as S.P.A.R.K. available, which led to a blind spot in that area.

What do you see as the main benefits of researchers working with scientific illustrators?

Naturally, a researcher is on top of the science, aware of uncertainties or missing data. The scientific illustrator can pour all of that into a product tailored to the target audience. It is a very beneficial symbiosis between scientific, technical and communication skill sets.

What have been some of your favorite projects?

My first project was an animation about Hemocyanin, an oxygen carrier that uses copper instead of iron – totally by chance also the subject of my PhD-thesis. More recently, I took part in David Goodsell’s inspiring CellSpace workshop. I contributed an illustration showcasing the SARS-CoV-2 membrane fusion mechanism.

Christoph’s Hemocyanin animation

What advice do you have for anyone who’d like to make a career in scientific illustration/animation?

I would highly recommend building a network. There are a lot of lovely and talented artists working in the field.


Interview with Gloria Fuentes PhD, Scientific Illustrator

In this post, we interview Gloria Fuentes, PhD. Gloria is a Scientific Illustrator/Animator and founder of The Visual Thinker LLP. Prior to her career in scientific illustration, Gloria participated in a variety of biology research projects across the globe. Read the interview below to learn all about Gloria’s exciting career path and find resources to give yourself a jumpstart in scientific illustration.

What got you interested in science and biology in particular? Did you always want to be involved in science and research?

Since very early in life I was thrilled with learning about the subtle nuances that dictate how nature works. Yet, I found that much of what I learned about nature was based on observation. I wanted to get deeper insights into the logical inner workings of the world around me. Thus, I was driven to pursue in-depth studies in the sciences. Back then in Spain there were not as many options for University degrees as there are today. Chemistry and Physics were my favourite subjects.

However the year before entering University, I started having some doubts. I love meeting people and talking in different languages, and I was excited to see that I could get a degree in “Translation and Interpretation”. To get accepted into this degree program, I needed to study latin and ancient greek, two subjects that I dropped in favor of maths, physics, and chemistry. I was ready to spend my summer with a tutor to get up to speed on these subjects, but then I had a little accident and broke my arm. As a result, I completed my university exams while writing with my left hand. This was excruciating. Once finished, I just felt too tired and decided to join the Chemistry school and thus began my career in the sciences.

What has your career path been like?

After my initial doubts, I took a conventional but dynamic path to become a researcher. 

In my last year at University, I started working on a research project in one of the departments with a grant from the government and I loved it! This initial research experience gave me the opportunity to get a grant and pursue my PhD in one of the research institutes in Madrid (Spain). There, I managed to secure extra funding to collaborate on a project with a lab in the UK. I ended up completing my thesis on 2 different scientific topics and in between 2 countries.

Later on, I moved to the Netherlands with a postdoc position awarded by the Marie Curie association. This was followed with different positions in the Cancer Institute in Spain, the Bioinformatic Institute in Singapore, and RIKEN in Japan. As I said, a very dynamic research career!

What prompted you to make the transition from researcher to scientific illustrator?

I left my job during my pregnancy. It was the first time in years that I paused and had time to think. I am married to another crazy scientist, and had some doubts on how to raise a family with the two of us working long hours and changing jobs and countries too frequently. 

One day, I went to a workshop on Scientific Illustration, and everything suddenly made sense. I could do creative work within science!!! I have always been interested in including visual content in my projects. I still have the drawings that I did with my mum on acetate transparency sheets for a talk I gave about cancer. 

Acetate transparencies focused on cancer. Gloria and her mother worked together on these transparencies when Gloria needed to give a talk about cancer.

Thankfully, I already had some graphic design skills – I knew how to use Illustrator and was very comfortable in Photoshop because I am an avid traveling photographer. Nonetheless, I knew I needed to boost my knowledge a bit if I wanted to take on scientific illustration as a career. So I started watching every tutorial I could find on YouTube about the topic. And since then I have been in love with the field.

What tools and resources have you used to build your scientific illustration skills?

I am still working on building them, but I watch a lot of tutorials on YouTube, and enroll in courses on several platforms, like Udemy, Domestika.  Two of my favorite courses have been:

On my scientist salary, I was always a bit financially limited in my course options. One year near Christmas, I came across S.P.A.R.K., so I gave myself a present. It was fantastic! The content in S.P.A.R.K. is perfectly organized and structured. The clear learning path throughout the course makes it easy to follow and stay on task. Keeping focus and building a curriculum are among the most difficult things about self-learning and S.P.A.R.K. made both of these things very easy. 

Finally, the Association of Medical Illustrators has been a highly influential source of skills and knowledge. Members of the association are very engaged and the amount of information there is impressive. This year many AMI conferences have moved online. This has given me the opportunity to meet with members through Zoom. It has been fantastic! I have also volunteered to help with their social media content. This has put me in contact with super cool illustrators who are always willing to help.

What do you see as the main benefits of researchers working with scientific illustrators?

I have been deeply involved in the scientific community for more than 20 years. Our biggest complaint has always been that there are insufficient funds invested in research. I truly believe every country should increase their budget for science. However, in general, there is a lack of communication between researchers and society. Perhaps if we communicate better with society, this will lead to more interest and investment in research.

One of the greatest barriers to communication between society at large and scientists is that we communicate using language, verbal as well as visual, that is unfamiliar to non-scientists. We get trapped in difficult jargon and complicated graphs that only a very select group of people can understand. 

Scientific illustrators work very hard to break this communication barrier. They can create beautiful visuals that translate scientific concepts for the general public. Indeed, we have seen a lot of this during the pandemic (see this infographic from the CDC for example). People want to know how to stay safe, but they need to get information about the virus in a way that is easy to understand. We can’t expect people to go to scientific papers as their primary source of information. 

It has been a boost to my confidence that this field is strong and is going to survive through these times, even though funds may be compromised after the health crisis. 

Beyond communicating with the general public, science is no longer a field for one team with particular expertise. It has become very multidisciplinary, and it is common to work in big consortiums. Illustrators are not only needed to wrap up a project with beautiful assets, but they can be key players in bringing experts from different disciplines together at early phases of a project. They make it easier for people from different scientific disciplines to understand one another and work together from the start of a project through to completion.

What have been some of your favorite illustration projects?

I particularly enjoy creating infographics. While working on them I can research a particular topic in the scientific literature before engaging my creative mind. This is a  very similar process to writing a scientific review. 

I am also very proud of a cover I created for the Genome Institute of Singapore. They needed an asset representing the 3 ethnic groups in the country for a sequencing project. I got a good idea on what to do but I had initial doubts because it was more artistic than technical. Ultimately, the picture came out great and was featured on the cover of Cell! This project showed me that I’m a bit more artistic than I thought!

Gloria’s Cell Cover ©2020 by The Visual Thinker, LLP.

Some other examples of my work include:

What advice do you have for anyone who’d like to make a career in scientific illustration?

If you like science and have artistic inclinations, this is your field. Depending on where you are in your life and career and if money is not an issue, I’d recommend joining an accredited masters program. 

If you cannot, do not give up. It only means you need to work harder. Build your own curriculum and keep learning everyday. There are beautiful resources out there and I’d definitely recommend S.P.A.R.K.!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Keep working on your dream. No one can tell you where the limit is but you!


SPARK visual communication strategies in action: Interview with Patricia Galipeau, Genomics Research Manager at Fred Hutch

Card with a quote from Patricia Galipeau, Genomics Research Manager at Fred Hutch. The quote reads "This course should be required training for anyone in science, in my opinion, because the whole goal of scientific endeavors is to be able to communicate something new and these concepts often can't be translated effectively into words. I see a gap between those who are generating data and those who are communicating these results."

In this special post, we interview Patricia Galipeau. Patricia is a Genomics Research Manager in the Reid Laboratory at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Reid Lab focuses on Barrett’s Esophagus, a condition in which special kinds of cells line the esophagus and can develop into esophageal adenocarcinoma. Prior to working in the Reid Lab, Patricia worked as a research technician at the University of Washington where she also received her Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology.

Patricia learned about our S.P.A.R.K. online course when she was searching for a Scientific Illustrator to work with on a communication project. In this interview, Patricia describes how the visual communication strategies she learned from S.P.A.R.K. have had a positive impact on her ability to communicate with her fellow researchers and diverse audiences interested in the Reid lab.

Can you tell us a little about your work at Fred Hutch?

I am an integral member of a team of clinicians, informaticians, and scientists working to help patients with a condition called Barrett’s Esophagus. 

People with Barrett’s have special kinds of cells lining their esophagus. They suffer from chronic acid reflux, and these special cells function to prevent its damaging effects. 

These special cells don’t cause problems in most patients with Barrett’s and the condition can be managed with acid reflux blocking medicine. However, in a small subset of people with Barrett’s, their cells undergo changes and they develop a dangerous type of cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma. This cancer is difficult to treat and has a low chance of survival. 

Our work at Fred Hutch focuses on studying the evolution of genetic changes in the cells in Barrett’s esophagus over time. Our goal is to understand the key changes specific to the Barrett’s patients who are most likely to progress to esophageal adenocarcinoma.  In doing so, we can better monitor and treat these at-risk patients, while keeping those at low or no risk from enduring unnecessary treatments.  

How are you involved in science communication and what has been your experience in making pictures?

My roles on the team have been very diverse. They include:

  • conducting wet-lab experiments 
  • study design 
  • data generation 
  • data analysis 
  • creating figures for scientific presentations and publications 
  • grant writing 
  • and authoring manuscripts

Thus, I understand the goals of  our studies, how data is generated, and what we are hoping to communicate in our talks and publications. 

My depth and breadth of knowledge in these areas sometimes make it difficult for me to create simple pictures to communicate complex ideas. I have been responsible for making pictures that communicate such things as: 

  • Genetic changes over time and over physical space in the esophagus 
  • Complex genetic variation differences between individuals and groups of individuals
  • Conveying changes in risk of getting cancer

Our audience can be highly variable. It ranges from patients with little scientific or technical knowledge but with a vested and personal interest in our work, to cancer researchers and epidemiologists who might know little about Barrett’s esophagus but who have a keen interest in our genetic evolution research.

What was the most helpful thing you learned from the S.P.A.R.K. course?

For a variety of topics, it was extremely helpful when a concept was introduced, main elements of the concept were explained, and then examples were given. This approach helped me understand the “why” behind each lesson and showed me how the concept worked in practice. For example, the idea that shape, size, and color all come into play to influence our perception of relatedness, but that they don’t have equal weight in their ability to show similarity was a key concept for me. 

I especially liked how the videos explained how we recognize patterns by looking for similarities and direction. When we don’t find these, we get lost or frustrated and tune out and miss the opportunity for clear understanding. S.P.A.R.K. not only teaches the mechanics of effective communication through pictures, but also explains why people react in certain ways to our pictures. The course effectively shows how missteps in visual communication can negatively impact our ability to communicate with a given audience.

Indeed, the audience sweet spot concept was very helpful in determining the level of complexity required for my pictures. It’s helped me make my pictures more effective for my specific audiences.

I also liked how S.P.A.R.K. stressed the following ideas in every lesson: 

  • Putting concepts in context and leaving the audience with a message 
  • Having a path in your picture that people can follow 
  • Making the picture appropriate to your audience 
  • Using elements of visual language to refine relationships among components of pictures
  • Keeping things clear by using white space and alignment 

Overall, the most helpful thing for me was learning the elements of visual language. Particularly how to use certain elements for more or less emphasis in my pictures.

What was the most surprising thing you learned?

I think the most surprising thing was learning how the brain functions when processing pictures. My design ideas changed dramatically when I realized how the brain quickly scans for patterns and relationships and can become closed to processing ideas if it doesn’t easily find these relationships. 

Is there anything you’ve already put into practice?

Absolutely. I immediately adopted many of the concepts conveyed in the S.P.A.R.K. course for generating figures for a manuscript currently in preparation. It actually motivated me to completely redo some of the figures and they are much improved. 

The “Context sandwich” worksheet from our S.P.A.R.K. online course (© 2020 by Picture as Portal® LLC). Patricia regularly uses this worksheet to help plan figures for publication.

Additionally, I recently worked with a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, clinicians and bioinformaticians to submit a large grant application to the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Institute of Health. The concepts taught in S.P.A.R.K. were immediately applicable for working with the graphics team while collaborating to generate figures. We needed to create images that could communicate our approach and our offer to people who had very different backgrounds and levels of expertise.

Did the course make it easier to work with other scientists or designers?

One of the things our team has adopted since I took the S.P.A.R.K. course is to draw a quick map on paper before trying to create any figure on the computer. Oftentimes we already know what things we want to group together and what main elements we want to show. Using iterative rounds of creating this “map” on paper has been very helpful in designing figures that convey what we want to say. 

One of the most surprising benefits of the S.P.A.R.K. course was an improvement in my ability to communicate with informaticians who were writing code to produce complex images summarizing multi-omics datasets. S.P.A.R.K. gave me some language to convey what I wanted to achieve and reasons why the elements I was looking for were important. Additionally, I have changed the way I think about the use of color and white space. Importantly, I have a new awareness of the elements of visual language that shape the requests I make of informaticians who are generating figures for our projects.

Share your story with us!

We’re incredibly glad that Patricia has found the S.P.A.R.K. course so useful and very grateful that she took time to participate in this interview! Have you been able to put the S.P.A.R.K. strategies to use in your own work. Let us know on Twitter or shoot us an email at

Enroll in SPARK today!


Case study – Immunogenicity infographic from Beatriz Inglessis

A few weeks ago, we offered to give feedback to S.P.A.R.K. enrollees who put our 5 strategies for the visual communication of science into action when making their own pictures. Enrollees sent over many wonderful examples of their work. In this post, we’ll walk through some of the feedback we gave to enrollee Beatriz Inglessis. 
Beatriz is a Graphic Designer/Scientific Illustrator at the California Science Center. She was tasked with creating the picture below for a scientific PowerPoint presentation. It focuses on the study of immunogenicity in cell therapy.

Infographic created by Graphic Designer Beatriz Inglessis. The infographic depicts the process of developing cell therapies going from studies in mice to studies in humans.
“Immunogenicity” infographic created by Beatriz Inglessis.

Strengths of the picture

Beatriz did many things well in this picture. Although we cannot share the original mock-up it’s based on, Beatriz was very successful at making the schematic more visually appealing than the original. She also used the narrative path as a strong visual element in the form of the color-coded arrows.

Another strong point is that Beatriz was very consistent throughout the picture. She stuck to a single font style and size. She color coded individual sections of the narrative path while avoiding extremes, and she maintained many best practices for color and text throughout the picture.

Finally, Beatriz made excellent use of enclosures around text. These provide consistency and chunk information in a way that reinforces the different sections of the narrative path.

Opportunities for improvement

This is a thoughtfully made picture, but as with all pictures, there are some things that could make it even more effective. Let’s consider  context. Beatriz created this picture for a PowerPoint presentation, and it’s possible that the necessary context came from the surrounding slides. However, context within this picture would be greatly improved by a stronger visual entry point. “EV’s” could have been spelled out and perhaps depicted visually to make the subject matter clearer. That would also provide anchoring context for a more complete context sandwich: EV’s to experimental process to patient.

In terms of the narrative path, a straight, horizontal linear path would have been a better choice than a curved one. For a slide–and for general legibility (standard left to right reading)–a horizontal orientation is usually better than a vertical one. Also, a straight horizontal linear path would make – it easier to align the text boxes for each section. It would also provide an opportunity for some larger-font headings above the smaller text  boxes in each section for even more overall context.

Some changes to the depictions of the mouse and the human would make the picture more consistent and inclusive. Beatriz was generally consistent throughout the picture, but the human is a pure silhouette, while the mouse has some internal detail and a drop shadow around it. The depiction of the human would be more inclusive by looking less specifically male and more schematic or symbolic as a generic human.

One final small tweak is that the text would be more legible if it were un-bolded. This might also allow for a larger text size– particularly important for an audience trying to quickly read the text on a slide.

Keep up the good work and keep sharing!

We enjoy the opportunity to provide feedback to enrollees, and can’t thank Beatriz enough for letting us share her work in this case study. We’ll be posting a few more similar case studies in the weeks to come.

By enrolling in our course, you can learn more about all the concepts that appear in bold face throughout this post.

If you’ve taken our course, please feel free to share your work with us. We’d love to see it!


Misconceptions in the visual communication of science III: More color is better

*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: More color is better

Color can be a powerful tool for visual communication. It can highlight important parts of a picture. It can differentiate between things that might otherwise look the same. And color can effectively signal that separate things are related to each other. However, as you’ll learn in the two “S.P.A.R.K. Snippets” below, too much color can overwhelm your content and, if used incorrectly, can lead to mixed messages.

We cover many best practices for the use of color in our full S.P.A.R.K. course, so be sure to check it out!


Misconceptions in the visual communication of science II: I need to know how to draw in order to make an effective picture

*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.


Misconceptions in the visual communication of science

As a team of scientists and scientific illustrators, we’ve worked alongside many researchers who try their very hardest to communicate through visuals. Yet, despite best intentions, we often see common misconceptions that undermine the effectiveness of the visuals we encounter. We cover 3 common misconceptions here, and we’ll cover more in future posts.

We work through strategies to overcome these misconceptions and make more effective visuals in our S.P.A.R.K. online course so be sure to check it out!

Misconception 1: The more complex my visuals are, the smarter I’ll look

Researchers often want their audiences to know that the topic they’re studying is extremely complex. The desire to get this point across can lead to the creation of complex pictures, pieces of writing, and verbal explanations. This approach hampers clear communication and can easily lose audiences.

Indeed, the audience can lose the entire point of a presentation thanks to the complexity of its visuals. There might be too much information to process at once and the audience will be overwhelmed. The audience will come away from such a presentation knowing nothing more than that the topic is complex.

This does not make the presenter look smart. Instead it suggests that the presenter may be no better at making sense of the complexity of the topic than the audience is.

So what makes a presenter look smart? Plotting a clear path through the complexity. By focusing only on the salient points, a presenter will make it far more obvious that they are on top of their game. Simple, focused visuals make it obvious that a presenter is capable of distilling complexity into clarity.

Learn how choosing the proper path pattern can improve a technical visual

Misconception 2: You can use the same visuals for all audiences

Different audiences come to your topic with different levels of understanding and context. So, once you’ve decided on your message, you must make sure that your visual is tailored to your target audience.

For scientific audiences, you’ll be able to retain some complexity and use some standard technical representations. But for broader audiences, you may need to come up with more creative ways to communicate. Remember, non-scientific audiences probably don’t have the required context and background to understand a technical image. It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding your message. You just need to present it in a familiar way.

For example, let’s say you’re presenting data from your latest research paper on plant genetics. In your work, you’ve discovered that putting 3 different genes into a certain type of plant alters the number of leaves it grows. You’ll be giving live presentations of this data to 2 very different audiences:

  1. A group of other plant researchers
  2. Sixth graders who you’re trying to get interested in science

In your paper, the figure showing your data may look something like this:

Sketch of a graph that might be included in a scientific paper about the effects of individual genes on the number of leaves produced by a plant. The x-axis contains the names of the genes manipulated in the experiment while the y-axis shows the number of leaves produced by each plant at 31 days post germination. This figure is very information dense and might be difficult to interpret quickly.
Picture credit: Tyler J. Ford

Now, this might be appropriate for a published research paper where your audience can carefully walk through the graph and reference the text to better understand the details. But your fellow researchers won’t have the ability to do this during a live presentation. So, even for the audience of other plant researchers, you might want to limit your field-specific terminology, and highlight your main point. Here we’ve removed the specific gene names, simplified the axes, and highlighted the most exciting result.

Sketch of a graph that might be included in a research talk about the effects of individual genes on the number of leaves produced by a plant. The x-axis contains the simplified names of genes manipulated in the experiment while the y-axis shows the number of leaves produced by each plant. A red box highlights the most important result - that manipulating "gene 1" results in the greatest number of leaves.
Picture credit: Tyler J. Ford

For your sixth grade audience, it might be a good idea to throw out the graph altogether. Instead you can simply show your outcome–the effect on the plants of different genes. You might only show what the most effective gene does. Your goal is to get the sixth graders excited, so you might as well keep their eyes on the most exciting result!

Sketch of 2 plants side-by-side. The plant on the left only has 2 leaves while the plant on the right has 9 leaves.
Picture credit: Tyler J. Ford

This is an extreme example, but the point remains true for all of your pictures—you must tailor your pictures and their levels of complexity to your target audience. We talk about this a little more in misconception 3.

Learn how to use best practices in Data Visualization to make comparisons easier

Misconception 3 – Simplifying is “dumbing down” the science

This is perhaps the most pervasive and problematic of the 3 misconceptions we cover in this post. When you have limited time to provide detail and an audience with little background on your topic, you must always focus on a “simpler” message. This does not mean that you say things that are untrue, but that you relay the “big picture” message as opposed to all the tiny details.

Of course, detail is the heart of science, but when you’re introducing new content to an audience that is unfamiliar with it, they will be prone to distraction. While an audience of experts might be able to tuck the details into their back pocket and continue following your story, you will always need to pull back on the details for a less expert audience. With non-experts, you’re helping them find the forest through the trees as opposed to doing a deep dive on any individual tree.

This means that you’ll have to take some time to think about who your audience is and what they already know. This will enable you to pinpoint the level of detail, the “sweet spot” (as we say in S.P.A.R.K.) that is appropriate for them.

For example, you don’t have to make your pictures literal in order to communicate important concepts to your audience. Instead, you can be symbolic.

Let’s say you’re talking about the specificity of molecular binding. The picture below on the left might be appropriate for an audience familiar with biochemical representations and concepts. But the picture on the right—a purely symbolic one—might be much more appropriate and successful getting the point across to an audience unfamiliar with biochemical representations and concepts. 

Picture showing the difference between portraying a scientific concept literally vs symbolically. On the left side of the picture, there is a molecular representation of an enzyme with its substrate. The image uses an arrow to show that the substrate will fit into the enzyme, but it is not obvious how well it will fit given the complex molecular depictions of the enzyme and the substrate. The same concept of a substrate exquisitely fitting into an enzyme is portrayed symbolically on the right side of the picture. Here we see a key (the substrate) fitting into a lock (the enzyme). This image makes the concept clear even if it doesn't have the molecular detail of the image on the left.
Picture Credit: Picture as Portal®

Remember, all pictures are “representations” of something, not the real thing itself. So it’s always a matter of choosing the best representation for a particular audience that will be most meaningful for them.

Learning to move beyond these 3 misconceptions about visuals will dramatically improve your communications. It will make the difference between conveying only the idea that “this thing is complex” and conveying “this thing is complex but we know a little about it and can do something with that knowledge.” Simplifying enables your audience to learn SOMETHING from you. In the end, that’s what you want.

We provide much more advice on tailoring your content to your audience in our S.P.A.R.K. online course so be sure to check it out!


The iterative design process behind the makeover of a picture

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!


Path pattern make over – contact tracing

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.

Greetings from Seattle, Washington! By now, we’ve all seen many pictures of the novel coronavirus, and that includes visual communications about how to protect ourselves from infection. The slide below was used in a May 12th press conference by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, as he launched his statewide contact tracing initiative. I took a snapshot of the slide with my phone because I knew I’d want to return to it as a case study in visual communication.

The original slide

The designer of this slide did several things well. I immediately understood that the intent was to show the virus being contained. I like this “Box in the Virus” message. The numbering and the use of icons are effective. But there was something about this picture that bothered me. I thought about it on and off for weeks, between working on projects and continuing to adjust to life during a pandemic.

In S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science, we teach the importance of building your picture around a clear narrative path. In fact, the P in S.P.A.R.K. stands for “Plan a Path.” We provide a chart of familiar, easily recognized patterns—such as linear, circular, and divergent—that can frame just about any scientific or technical picture.

The S.P.A.R.K. path pattern chart

When I first looked at the original slide from Governor Inslee’s office, I interpreted the 5 arrows arranged in a circular narrative path as a cycle—a process that repeats over and over for someone who’s sick. However, upon closer inspection, I saw that this wasn’t the message they wanted to send. This slide provides an example of the importance of choosing a path pattern that matches your message! I realized that what they were describing was really not a cycle at all, but a linear process. I sat down to sketch out a way of conveying the message more accurately, while still retaining the “Box in the Virus” theme. 

Some early ideas
My makeover of the slide

I decided to tackle this project by rethinking the path pattern while keeping the icons and colors from the original image.

As you can see, I’ve explicitly laid out the tracing process in a linear path. Yet, I’ve retained the idea of “boxing in the virus” by creating a house shape around the virus. The sides of the house are the same colors as the steps in the path. The house reinforces the “stay at home” message and is clearly associated with the testing process through color, but the confusing, circular path has been removed.

My makeover slide is quite different from the original in several ways:

  • My path is linear, not circular, and does not use arrows. Therefore it does not imply a repeating cycle
  • The lines of my path are much thinner and less dominant than the original arrows
  • The lines that make up my house’s walls have no gaps between them—unlike the arrows—so the virus is better contained.
  • My color-coding includes not just the icons, but also the numbers and lines associated with each step.
  • The virus color is changed to neutral gray to keep the emphasis on the steps.
  • My typography is more streamlined.

These may seem like small adjustments, but they’re intentional decisions that were made, based on core principles of visual perception. And as you can see, they can significantly enhance the message for the audience. 

For more information about path patterns, check out our online course about the visual communication of science. We’ve got discounted pricing right now, to support those of us staying home and looking for alternative professional development resources.

Stay tuned for another blog post featuring this image, where I’ll talk about the iterative process in the creative development of visual communication.


Case study- Infographic for the Journal of Biological Psychiatry – Before and After

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!


COVID-19 comic case study: Using comics to access your audience

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. ©2020 Christine Shan


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:


Case study – Infographic: Discoveries from metagenomics

Our Science Communications Director, Tyler Ford, also creates written, visual, and social media  content for biotech companies and researchers. As you might imagine, Tyler often makes use of the visual communication strategies he’s learned from our S.P.A.R.K. online course.

Below, we walk through a few of the strategies Tyler applied to the creation of this infographic for Mammoth Biosciences:

The goal of this infographic is to quickly introduce viewers to the research field called “metagenomics.” Researchers in this field isolate DNA sequences from all over the world. Then, they use their computational expertise to determine the kinds of organisms these sequences come from, how they are related, and what cellular parts they encode. All without actually growing the source organisms in a lab!

This field is particularly exciting because many of the DNA sequences discovered encode cellular parts with useful functions. These can advance biological research and its applications in new and exciting ways.

So what are some of the strategies Tyler put to work in this infographic?

S – Serve a sandwich

In our S.P.A.R.K. course, “S” stands for “serve a sandwich.” This means that you can best serve your science content to your audience if it’s sandwiched in context. Like the bread of an edible sandwich, context makes your content easier to grasp, to share, and to carry away. In the graphic above, Tyler serves both a visual and a verbal context sandwich.

First, the main content—the three colored panels of discoveries—are visually sandwiched between images of the globe/DNA and the Mammoth Biosciences logo. The viewer can quickly tell that the discoveries come from DNA isolated from all over the world, and that the work is being done at Mammoth.

In addition, the introductory block of text also serves up a context sandwich by explaining:

  • Context – we have access to DNA sequences from all over the world but don’t know what they do. 
  • Content – Metagenomics allows us to discover the functions of these DNA sequences. 
  • Context – These functions can later be put to use in biotech (e.g. at Mammoth).

A – Access your audience

Whenever you design new science communication content, it’s extremely important to access your audience—the “A” in S.P.A.R.K.. That is, you must approach your audience with their baseline understanding of your topic in mind. Then, you must tailor your content to that level of understanding.

The primary audience for this particular infographic is people who know at least college-level biology. In the first of three panels, Tyler starts off with a common visual metaphor by depicting new CRISPR proteins as tools in a toolbox. This makes the infographic accessible on a basic level to a broad audience. Even if some viewers don’t completely grasp the more technical discoveries in the later panels, they’ll understand the fundamental message of this infographic.

But in the second and third panels, Tyler uses images that may be familiar only to the target audience—a cellular production pathway in the blue panel and a “phage” in the green panel. These depictions are acceptable to use here because they’re compatible with the audience’s baseline understanding of the topic. So it’s OK to use imagery that’s only accessible to those with some in-depth biology training. 

Similarly, Tyler uses some technical jargon (e.g. CRISPR, phage) in the text. It’s reasonable to expect this jargon to be familiar to the target audience. Indeed, this particular audience might even be a little annoyed if he didn’t use such terminology. However, the same language would be inappropriate if the target audience was a broader, less scientifically-educated one.

K – Keep it clear

To avoid confusing viewers, it’s very important to simplify your pictures and remove clutter. That is, you must keep them clear (the “K” in S.P.A.R.K.).

Tyler keeps this infographic clear in a few ways. First, he minimizes his use of color by limiting it to tones of green, orange and blue. An over-abundance of color can overwhelm the viewer, while a limited palette like this one is more than enough to convey the content successfully. Not coincidentally, these are Mammoth’s brand colors, ensuring that this graphic will align well with other images and graphics on the Mammoth website.

Second, Tyler avoids cluttering up the infographic. He keeps the text to a minimum and avoids long sentences. He also uses simple depictions of biological parts and processes. For example, he doesn’t use a biologically accurate depiction of a phage. Instead, he uses a simplified line drawing that gets the concept across without too much detail. Finally, he doesn’t crowd the graphic, leaving plenty of space between the various parts.

Room for improvement – Plan a path

While we think Tyler’s picture is great, as in all things, there is room for improvement. One thing Tyler could do to improve this infographic is to provide more consistency in planning his visual path (The “P” in S.P.A.R.K.).

The majority of the infographic reads from left to right. However, the viewer is initially drawn to the large globe at the top right of the picture. This sets the viewer up to follow a path from right to left.

To avoid this issue, Tyler could simply place the large, attention-grabbing graphic on the left side of the infographic so it’s consistent with the panels below. Indeed, Tyler plans on doing this in the future when he creates infographics with a similar design.

More strategies for successful visual communication in S.P.A.R.K.

We urge you to check out the full S.P.A.R.K. course for many more examples of our visual communication strategies in action.

Finally, Tyler would like to thank Graphics and User Interface Designer, Wu Li, for his help in creating some of the components in the metagenomics infographic. Tyler stresses that, by working with experienced designers like Wu, it’s possible to make better pictures than you could on your own. And, following the S.P.A.R.K. strategies when creating initial mock-ups, makes it much easier to work with designers on the final product.


SPARK strategies in action: COVID-19 Infographic from Graphics Editor Emily Eng

This article discusses design strategies used in the infographic accompanying this article in The Seattle Times: Many thanks to Graphics Editor Emily Eng for allowing us to discuss her work!

Science researchers and communicators are stepping up to the plate in this time of need. We see many examples of great scicomm surrounding COVID-19 on our news and social media feeds. In this post, we highlight one of our favorites. Below, we breakdown some of the strategies that have made this graphic effective. We hope that you can put similar strategies to use in your own work. Not so coincidentally, we teach similar strategies in our S.P.A.R.K. online course and hope you’ll check it out :D.

Spreading the word about COVID-19

This graphic was created by Graphics Editor Emily M Eng, and was published in The Seattle Times. It provides basic, useful facts about the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19. These facts include:

  • How the virus spreads
  • How the disease affects the body
  • How you can protect yourself

Chunking—breaking the graphic into easily digestible parts

As you can see, there’s a lot to cover. But Emily makes great use of chunking—breaking the graphic into easily digestible parts. She does this by clearly delineating the separate sections of the graphic using boldface text, divider lines, and colored boxes (enclosures).

Chunking is incredibly useful because it enables viewers to take in individual pieces of information one at a time. Viewers don’t get a cognitive overload from a ton of info at once. Chunking also helps viewers focus on discrete parts of the graphic without being overwhelmed visually. 

Chunking is particularly useful in this case because it enables various parts of the graphic to be dispersed throughout the accompanying news article. The distinct chunks are easily placed next to the appropriate sections in the text. Also, chunking makes it easier to share small parts of a complex graphic on social media platforms, like twitter, that tend to serve up bite-sized bits of information.

Consistency for a coherent whole

While the graphic is chunked into parts, it still forms a coherent whole. Nothing seems out of place. This is because Emily uses consistent text, colors, and representations of objects throughout the graphic.

In terms of text, Emily doesn’t change the style and keeps similar sizing throughout. She uses boldface to divide up separate sections, and only increases text size to emphasize very important points (such as the percentage of patients who die from COVID-19).

The use of color is particularly notable for its consistency and simplicity. The only colors used are black and orange, along with varying shades of each. The limited color keeps the graphic clear and coherent, while still providing plenty of contrast for emphasis and guidance to the viewer. Indeed, throughout the graphic, the color orange is associated with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and anything related to it. These splashes of orange direct the viewer’s attention to various important points in the graphic.

Finally, Emily consistently uses the same imagery to represent specific objects in the graphic. This is most obvious in the representation of the virus itself. While the virus may grow or shrink, it is always orange and circular. Lungs and cells are also portrayed consistently throughout the graphic.

Actionability in the infographic

One final thing we like about this graphic is that it’s highly “actionable.” That is, rather than simply providing viewers with a series of facts, Emily gives them a way to respond to what they’ve learned. They know how to wash their hands, buy supplies, and take action if they show signs of illness.

Of course many other things go into making a great graphic like this one. We discuss many more strategies in our S.P.A.R.K. course and hope you’ll check it out. If you have a favorite science graphic, please share it with us on Twitter!


Cross Post: Science Talk 2019 Illustrated

At Picture as Portal we love to collaborate with and promote fellow science communicators. Science Talk is “a non-profit organization that seeks to empower and inspire the science communication community to expand their communication potential and affect the world.” In addition to hosting many SciComm resources on their website and providing SciComm training, they host an annual conference for science communicators.

In this cross post from the Science Talk blog, you’ll find a deep, visual dive into the events of the 2019 Science Talk Conference. If you like what you see, you can register for the 2020 Science Talk Conference here!

Big takeaways from the annual  science communication conference for scientists, journalists, multimedia creators and more — in pictures.

Written by Bruce Kirchoff,  Department of Biology, UNCG. Illustrations by Jon Wagner, East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Portland, OR. Edited by Simon Bakke.

Science Talk (#SciTalk19) is an annual, two-day conference that brings together scientists and science communication professionals to improve scientific communication. I was there to talk about the work the University of North Carolina at Greensboro University Speaking Center is doing to improve scientific communication, and to promote this type of work at other universities. In the afternoon of the second day, I met Jon Wagner, who was documenting the conference with drawings and agreed to co-author this review, as the illustrator.

Science Talk began with Joe Palca, a science correspondent for NPR who introduced an important theme for the conference: building relationships. “We have to build relationships so that when we talk to people, they will listen to us.”

As science writer and biologist Maryam Zaringhalam explained, scientists often operate from what the science communication field calls the “knowledge deficit model.” For instance, scientists often assume that people who do not believe in global warming just don’t have enough information, but surveys of climate change skeptics tell us otherwise. Climate change deniers often have just as much factual knowledge as those who accept the human origins of global warming. The difference only appears when you ask them if they accept human-caused climate change. Their position is based on their identity, not their knowledge. It is as if you asked them “Are you a good conservative?” Denying climate change has become a part of their conservative identity.

This is why Joe Palca, and many others, emphasize relationships, not facts, as the force necessary to change opinions. Competence and warmth are the two most important factors in science communication.

After breakout sessions and a networking lunch, there were a series of short presentations. Susanna Harris from UNC-Chapel Hill told us about her work forming a depression support group for Ph.D. students. Susanna is the founder of PhD Balance on Twitter and Instagram, and she described what it takes to form an online community:

  1. Have a clear purpose you want to address.
  2. Find an online vehicle that is suited to your purpose.
  3. Expand to other vehicles slowly.
  4. Create community guidelines to make sure the members feel safe.
  5. Be sure that you want to be a long-term member of the community as you will be spending a lot of time there.

Later, Sarah Myhre spoke passionately about her experience as a female climate scientist and the need to speak out in the face of the forces that seek to silence our voices.

The poster session at the end of the day provided an opportunity to promote the work we do at the University Speaking Center in teaching good science communication. For the past two years Speaking Center faculty and I have offered scientific communication training in a variety of formats. At Science Talk, I advocated for a model of collaborative work between graduate schools, communication centers, and science faculty in order to train the next generation of scientists.

The second day began with break-out workshops. I met Jon, who was illustrating the conference with these fantastic drawings, at the workshop run by Compass. Compass is an organization that helps scientists learn to communicate to the public and decision makers. Their workshop led us through an exercise to articulate our goals as leaders in science communication.

I took this opportunity to formalize my goal of improving scientific communication by graduate students so that they will pass these skills on to their own students in the future. I also identified a number of potential champions of this approach, and formulated three immediate goals, which I am currently carrying out.

A series of short talks followed the coffee break: great science books, storytelling for science in Puerto Rico, Space in your Face, improving communication between doctors and patients, and the excellent work of the National Center for Science Education. Throughout the presentations, we heard again and again that the best way to communicate science is to be yourself and relate honestly to your audience. Data does not convince, but personal connections can.

The conference ended with a keynote presentation by YouTube’s Physics Girl, Dianna Cowern. Dianna gave an engaging, enthusiastic presentation punctuated by clips from some of her videos. Her message was that to create interest in science you need curiosity, novelty and excitement. Although her platform is YouTube, these principles apply to any type of science communication.

​It encouraged me to know that one of her two most important influences was her high school science teacher, who was at Science Talk to see her presentation. Her other influence was our own Kiki Sanford, who has produced and hosted the podcast This Week in Science since 1999. We should never underestimate the difference we can make in peoples’ lives.

I will end with some goals for the future, as outlined by Jennifer Cutraro of the Kavli Foundation: As science communicators we need to focus on the needs of the communities we serve, not just ourselves; we need to help scientists see the value of scientific communication; and we need to work to make the Sci Comm community as diverse and inclusive as possible. The Science Talk community is taking important steps in all of these areas.

The dates for Science Talk 2020 have been set for March 26 – 27 in Portland, OR. Maybe I will see you there!


Comics in science communication

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:

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.


Make comparisons easier by following best practices in data visualization

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.

In this, the last of my three blog posts about data viz, we walk through another data visualization I developed for Cultivate Learning at the University of Washington. Founded by Dr. Gail Joseph, Cultivate Learning aims to elevate the field of early childhood education by establishing itself as a bridge between research and practice.

The visualization in this post supports a report on teacher coaching practices and outcomes. It was developed with Cultivate Learning’s Research and Evaluation team. Below, you’ll see how I used strategies from S.P.A.R.K.| 5 strategies for the visual communication of science to go from words and numbers to a picture. We hope you’ll agree that it is far easier to understand the picture than the tables at a glance.

Table showing enrollment and drop outs in an education certificate program in Washington state
Map showing enrollments and drop outs in an education certificate program in Washington state.

Making comparisons easier following best practices in data visualization

The objective is to show enrollment in an early childhood education certificate program by region and to include some data about the enrolled students. We specifically wanted to include which certificate program the students were in (EC vs. ELO) and whether they dropped out. 

The regional origin of the data is relevant, so it’s helpful to display it on a map rather than in a table. The map shows Washington State, divided up into 6 regions consisting of several counties each. Another advantage of the map over the table is that both cohorts are combined into one visual. This makes comparisons between cohorts easier to see and understand.

The audience for this data visualization is the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (the source of funding for the research project). This audience already understands the overall goals of the project. So, this visualization highlights the important results throughout the state without going into a lot of detail about the different regions or the types of students depicted.

You’ll notice that the 6 regions are important, but not specific counties. So the counties are not labeled. Nonetheless, the lines that separate the counties are still included here; these boundaries are familiar to the audience, and including them provides context. In S.P.A.R.K., we teach that providing familiarity and context can help your audience connect with your data and your message.

Shapes are symbolic of the students enrolled in the programs. Solid and open circles represent EC and ELO certificate students, respectively. I varied the size of the circles to show whether the students dropped from the program or stayed in. 

I used color to show both similarity and contrast. Color unifies all the counties in a region and links each region’s labels and data with its location on the map (similarity). Color also differentiates each region, labels, and data from others in the map (contrast).

Finally, I used lines to connect the map to the labels and data for each cohort. Through these lines, the viewer can quickly relate the regions to their labels with little mental effort. 

For more information and instruction about how to use the principle of similarity; how to provide context and use symbols; how to understand and master using shape, size, and line; and best practices for color, check out our course S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science.


Data visualization makeover from word slide to data viz: humanizing and using color, value, and shape

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.

In this, the second of my three blog posts about data viz, we walk through a slide that I created for the EarlyEdU Alliance. Founded by Dr. Gail Joseph of the University of Washington, the mission of EarlyEdU is to improve access to affordable, relevant bachelor’s degrees for the early childhood workforce.

The slide was created for an online course titled “Infant Mental Health.” The audience is early childhood education teachers. Below you can see the original slide and the “makeover” slide I created using several of the principles we teach in S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. I’ll show you how these principles make it much easier for a viewer to quickly grasp and relate to the data in the slide.



As you can see, the BEFORE is a standard text slide with bullets. For initial triage, I cut a lot of the text. Dr. John Medina from the University of Washington says in his book Brain Rules “We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”  Knowing that visuals help viewers learn and retain information, I transformed the bullet points into images. In this process, I made use of color, value, shape, while always being mindful of the topic’s sensitive nature. 

The process involved the following conceptual steps: 

1. I humanized the data

Humanizing is a key principle we teach in S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. It’s the process of making data come alive by showing its relationship to people. So my first step was to visually represent the 14 children mentioned in the slide with realistic silhouettes. These suggest a group of children with diverse ages, genders, shapes, and sizes. Humanizing appeals to the emotions of the viewer and generates empathy—relevant to this audience of adults in close contact with children.

2. I used color and value to emphasize the most important data.

The most important data here is that 1 out of every 14 children (7%) has a parent in prison. Value is a term that means lightness or darkness. To make use of color and value, I made one of the 14 silhouettes dark purple. The 7% is emphasized by placing it in a dark purple circle, visually aligning it with the dark purple silhouette. The other 13 silhouettes are light blue. In this way, the most important information—1 in 14 (7%)—is differentiated by both color (purple versus blue) and value (dark versus light).

3. I further emphasized the most important data through shape.

The silhouette representing the 1 child in 14 has the most irregular outline. She’s the only one with her arms out. In S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science, you’ll learn how to use shapeto emphasize particular components of your pictures.

Best practices for accessibility tell us that we should not use color as the only indicator of something. “Always use color plus another visual indicator…to communicate important information.” I used color, value, and shape to differentiate the 1 child in 14.

This is a simple slide. But informed choices about visual communication strategies give it impact and make it easy to understand. For more instruction on humanizing your work and using best practices for color, value and shape, check out our course S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. And stay tuned for the next (and final) post in our data visualization series.


Useful resources to help you go from paper to digital

Image showing an infographic sketched out on paper and it's conversion to a sleeker, digital format

In our S.P.A.R.K. course, we teach principles and techniques that will help you think more visually. One of the key benefits of the course is that it’s software agnostic. Indeed, we encourage enrollees to start the course by drawing on paper. We advocate sketching your ideas for future graphics on paper as well.

Nonetheless, we know that it can be difficult to go from those paper sketches to final digital files. In this post we share some ways to facilitate the process.

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication

1. Work with a trained professional

Perhaps this is the most obvious option, but once you’ve got some concrete ideas and layouts on paper, it will be much easier for you to work with a trained graphic designer or medical/scientific illustrator. The benefits of pulling in a skilled professional are many. An expert will make your pictures look very professional. They’ll save you time (and probably money) because you won’t have to learn the ins and outs of specialized software. And—one of the biggest benefits—they can provide a gut check on how approachable and understandable your pictures are.

Check out these resources for tips on working with trained professionals:

2. Try out inkscape

Inkscape is open-source graphics software. It has a bit of a learning curve, but you can use it to design stunning graphics. You’ll just have to set aside time for trial and error as well as some googling. Thankfully, Inkscape users are very helpful and there are extensive forums where community members can answer any questions you might have. Tyler (our Science Communications Director) uses Inkscape constantly.

3. Use Canva

Canva is another useful software. There are free and paid versions. It’s more user-friendly than Inkscape, but also a bit limited. It’s great for quickly designing sleek fliers and similar materials. It’s not the best if you want to start designing a picture from scratch. We should note that we’ve only used the free version.

4. Do a creative commons search, a google image search filtered by license, or look for images in the public domain

An important word of caution: You cannot legally copy images from the internet and use them in your work! Most images on the internet are owned and governed under international copyright law. Photographers, graphic designers, illustrators, and artists of all kinds make a living through the images they create and own. So using a copyrighted image without permission is both illegal and unethical.

Nonetheless, some people do provide their pictures for use under special licenses (e.g. creative commons licenses). These have specific rules that you must adhere to if you’d like to use them in your work. For example, they often require you to credit the original creator, provide a link to their work, and note if any changes have been made.

Another option is to search for images that are in the public domain. These images are free to use. Most images that appear on .gov websites are in the public domain. Some places you can find useful public domain images include:

If you follow these simple rules, you can use many great graphics as components of beautiful pictures. Just remember to give credit where credit is due and honor copyrights!

That’s it for now. Do you use specific tools go from paper to digital? Let us know about them on Twitter @PictureasPortal. And, as always, check out our S.P.A.R.K. course to fire up your visual thinking!


Using S.P.A.R.K. principles to improve your data visualization

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.

Data visualization (data viz) is not new. It’s a tried and true means of portraying large amounts of information, and it has been around for a long time. Need proof? Check out the awesome picture below.

Florence Nightingale's "Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the east"

This diagram was created in the 1850’s by English social reformer, statistician, and founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. It shows the causes of mortality in the British army during the Crimean War, and the stark reality that far more soldiers were dying from infectious diseases in the hospitals (gray wedges) than from war wounds on the battlefield (pink wedges).

I love data visualization because it enhances our understanding of data by transforming numbers into meaningful pictures. And because it’s been around for so long, we have a good understanding of what does and what doesn’t work in data viz. In our S.P.A.R.K. online course, we teach visual communication principles that are incredibly useful when creating effective and impactful data visualizations. In this first of three posts on data viz, I’ll show you how I’ve applied some of the S.P.A.R.K. principles in my own data viz work. Let’s get started!

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication

Making the data visualizations

Below is a typical set of data visualizations created in Microsoft Excel. While there are many packages that people use to make data visualizations—Excel, Tableau, R, LaTex, MatLab, Adobe Illustrator, etc.—the principles of visual communication are fundamental no matter what you use. The same goes for creating infographics. That’s why we don’t teach software in S.P.A.R.K. We teach core principles of visual perception and visual communication that apply broadly to illustrations, infographics, data visualizations, etc.

In this visualization, we’re looking at the number of dogs observed in 2 different parks over 6 hours. The intent is for the audience to compare the data from Park A with the data from Park B. As a designer, my task is to make the work of comparing the 2 sets of data as easy as possible. I did this by using several of the principles we teach in S.P.A.R.K.


Two charts showing dogs observed in parks


Single chart showing dogs observed in both parks

Refining the data visualizations using S.P.A.R.K. principles

First, I changed the bar graphs to line graphs. The goal of this data visualization is to show how the number of dogs observed changes over time. Line graphs are better than bar graphs for showing a pattern of change across a variable—in this case, time.

Second, I placed the 2 line graphs on one set of axes to increase their proximity. This not only makes the work of comparing the data set easier, it also helps us perceive them as related. In addition, I placed the labels next to their lines rather than in the title or in a legend off to the side. Here again, proximity helps us associate the line with its meaning. 

Finally, I kept this visualization clear by using best practices for color and text. I chose blue for both lines in the graph. This makes use of the principle of similarity. The lines don’t represent different things; they’re the same thing under different conditions. Making the lines similar colors once again makes it obvious that they’re related. I chose a dark and light shade of the same blue with adequate contrast for readers with color vision deficiencies.

I also changed the orientation of the text on the Y-axis from vertical to horizontal. Reading text at odd angles is difficult. The reader already has to use cognitive effort to interpret the data, so it’s good to make basic tasks like reading labels as easy as possible. Placing Y-axis labels vertically has gone unquestioned, but a best practice of keeping them horizontal is emerging.

I made all of these changes using Excel, the same software used to make the original bar graphs.

For more information and instruction about the principles of proximity and similarity; how to understand and master using contrast; and best practices for color and text, check out our course S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. Stay tuned for the next 2 posts about data visualization.


Thanks, Johannes Gutenberg, but we’re moving on: The case for visual communication

This post was contributed by Picture as Portal® cofounder, Betsy Palay. Betsy is a Certified Medical Illustrator and science communicator. She is a founder, former president, and previous creative director of Artemis Creative, Inc. She was president of the Association of Medical Illustrators from 2009 – 2010. Learn more about Betsy at

Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and changed the world. Words—and thus information and ideas—could now be easily duplicated and distributed by the thousands. Printing technology caused a literacy revolution around the globe. 

We’re now in the midst of another revolution—not of words, but of pictures. It’s been said that “the digital revolution is a visual revolution.”1 I agree. Ironically, digital technology is now making it possible for humans to return to our original—and in many cases our best—form of communication: the picture.

Check out this timeline. Humans communicated through pictures for about 70,000 years before somebody devised a way to put spoken words into a visible form through written language.

No question about it, written language is very useful. However, translating our thoughts into words that can be written and read is tedious and indirect. It requires two sequential steps: the translation of thoughts into words by the thinker, and then the translation of words into thoughts by the reader.

The advantages of visual communication 

Pictures, on the other hand, offer communication with no translation necessary. Pictures actually mirror physical, spatial qualities of the real world. Imagine looking at a map. In an instant, you immediately understand what’s far, what’s close, and what barriers stand between you and your destination.

Even more important, the way we organize objects in the physical world—into groups and subgroups for example—mimics the way we organize conceptual information in our brains. So we can instantly see concepts when we look at a picture —no translation necessary. Imagine a calendar or an organizational chart. You instantly know how far away your birthday is. Or which departments have the most influence in your organization. 

From the point of view of biology, this makes a lot of sense. The brains we use today evolved about two hundred thousand years ago—long before written words existed. At that point, what we needed were brains that could navigate a complex 3-dimensional world and make instantaneous decisions about what to run from and what to run toward. We needed brains that could very quickly process complex shapes, sizes, colors, edges, and other visual elements of our natural surroundings. And we got them! It’s estimated that in a quarter of a second, our human brains can analyze 30 different characteristics of visual input. To perform this feat, more than a third of our brains are devoted exclusively to the processing of visual input entering our eyes.

On the other hand, it’s pretty certain that written language is at most only several thousand years old. This means that in order for us to read, we’ve had to adapt the brains and neural systems we already have.3 The fact that we can read at all is a testament to the adaptability of our brains. But it’s still a Rube Goldberg construction. 

Visual communication has other advantages. Unlike words, pictures are non-linear. They’re great at showing us relationships between things—especially ideas and information—by enabling us to see all the content simultaneously. This is a huge advantage. In verbal language, by the time we read or hear the last word of a paragraph, the first word is long gone. In a picture—like in our maps—we can see the starting point and the ending point at the same time, and judge for ourselves the relationship between the two. We can see both detail and the big picture all at once—an obvious advantage in science, in data analysis, and in understanding and communicating many kinds of complex ideas.

For example, in a data graphic you can actually see the links between the data and the conclusion that the data supports—simultaneously. With words alone, the reader might forget some components of the data by the time they read the conclusion.

Last but not least, pictures are universal. Pictures can transcend the barriers of verbal and written language. This is obviously a critical advantage in helping us move forward with interdisciplinary, multicultural, and global communication and collaboration. 

The need for improved pictures in science and research

Pictures are powerful tools for communication that can connect people to knowledge in ways that words and numbers cannot. But currently, pictures are often poorly used and profoundly underutilized. Marketers have been taking advantage of the power of pictures for years now. They know that good visuals get their content and products noticed and purchased. But we can certainly employ pictures for loftier science communication goals!

Our challenge now is to ramp up the teaching of visual communication skills, move it out of the visual arts, into the mainstream, and into STEM and STEAM programs. Because pictures are worth a lot more than a thousand words. 

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication


1) Paul Sereno, PhD, Paleontologist, University of Chicago, in keynote address to the Association of Medical Illustrators, July 26, 2019 

2) Salk Institute. “How the brain recognizes what the eye sees.” ScienceDaily, 8 June 2017.<>. 

3) NPR Newscast, Alva Noe, Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read, June 3, 2011 


The benefits of good visual communication in graphical abstracts

When I (Tyler Ford, Science Communications Director at Picture as Portal) used to work at the lab bench, I was most excited by the process of analyzing and presenting data. In the early days of my research, I would spend hours putting together what I thought were perfect figures. Upon presenting them to my supportive lab mates, they’d often stare blankly. Glancing over their faces in horror, I’d think, “Is my work really that boring?!?” Yet, being a member of a supportive lab, I was unafraid to ask my lab mates point blank how they really felt. Often, I’d come to realize that they just didn’t get what I was trying to communicate. My visuals were not nearly as effective as I thought they were.

After years of practice in that supportive environment, I got much better at refining my figures. I learned to focus on key points, remove clutter, and keep things simple. I was lucky though. I (a) had a supportive lab and (b) was willing to put work into my visuals because I legitimately enjoyed creating them.
Many other people don’t have the time or the desire to spend so much energy developing their visual communication skills. And that’s okay! Not everyone needs or wants to go into science communication. However, if you’d like to avoid people staring blankly at your slides or your research papers, you should spend SOME time developing your visual communication skills. This is particularly true now that so many journals are using graphical or visual abstracts. In this article we discuss how good visual abstracts and visual communication can benefit your research.

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication

Visual communication gets your work noticed

You’ve probably seen that many academic publishers are adopting graphical abstracts – pictures that concisely communicate the main messages of academic papers. As their proponents argue, they don’t replace written abstracts and certainly don’t replace reading full articles. Yet, they can help people understand the contents of an article at a glance. Indeed, you can find visual abstracts in:

Seeing this proliferation of graphical abstracts, you might think, “Do these do anything or are they just a waste of my time?” 

The Journal of Surgery has at least a partial answer for you. The Journal of Surgery began using graphical abstracts in 2016. Upon adopting them, the journal wanted to figure out if the abstracts improved research paper dissemination on Twitter. To do so, the journal tweeted out titles of 44 articles either with or without visual abstracts. The result? Tweets with visual abstracts were shared much more than those without. So, if you want to get your work noticed on Twitter, a good way to do it is through graphical abstracts.

This particular research only covered dissemination on Twitter, but as many marketing bloggers will tell you, good visuals do well on all forms of social media. Heck, you won’t get anywhere on Instagram without good visuals. So, if you want to promote your research, it’s a good idea to have useful visuals.

Good visual communication improves perceptions of you and your work at a glance

Now that’s all well and good, but you might be wondering, “Does the visual representation of my work need to be good or can I do a mediocre job and still get noticed?”

One answer to this question comes from research in the “Information Design Journal.” In this work, researchers redesigned graphical abstracts following basic design principles. Then they presented study participants with table of contents screenshots containing either the original or the redesigned graphical abstracts. Researchers then polled the participants on what they thought about the papers listed in the table of contents. 

Participants (who were also scientists) had better perceptions of the papers with redesigned graphical abstracts. For instance, study participants were more likely to say “The authors seem intelligent” when presented with redesigned graphical abstracts. They were also more likely to say “The paper seems interesting.”

The takeaway – better visuals lead to better perceptions of you and your work.

Resources to help you create better pictures

These are just some of the many benefits of creating good pictures. We’ll cover additional benefits in future blog posts and we’ll also provide a run down of some popular resources you can use to create better pictures. If you’re not a visual thinker from the get go, these resources won’t be hugely beneficial to you, but we’re here to help! We’ve designed our S.P.A.R.K. visual communication of science course to help you think more visually. Check it out to find strategies that will give your images and your research a boost!


Case studies: 3 examples of S.P.A.R.K. visual communication of science strategies in action

Participants in the S.P.A.R.K. course do amazing work. They show that, no matter your level of artistic talent, you can apply the S.P.A.R.K. principles to create useful and informative visuals. 

In our “case studies” blog posts you’ll find examples of pictures created following the S.P.A.R.K. principles. These will come both from the course instructors and participants. If you’d like to have your work featured in a “case study” please reach out to Enjoy!

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication

Circular RNAs by Gloria Fuentes

Illustration of circular RNAs from Gloria Fuentes

Gloria Fuentes, a researcher turned scientific illustrator at The Visual Thinker LLP (, applied the S.P.A.R.K. principles in this picture depicting the cellular production and uses of “circular RNAs” (the red and green circles in the pictures). Gloria kindly provided us with these 3 versions of her picture to remind us that creating a useful picture is an iterative process. 

The earliest version of the picture (left) was created by the researcher who worked with Gloria on this project. This simple starting point helped give Gloria a general idea of the appropriate layout. Additional written notes filled out the actors and actions to be depicted in the final picture (the visual menu). 

Gloria then moved on to the second version portrayed in the center image, but decided that her representations of the circular RNAs were too complicated. Thus, Gloria moved on to the final version on the right. Here, Gloria removed some of the realistic but distracting complexity from her circular RNAs. Gloria also made extensive use of enclosure to group aspects of circular RNA biology together. Finally, she made effective use of alignment to keep everything organized and easy to follow. Great work Gloria!

Gloria’s work was the product of a collaboration between herself and researchers at the Genome Institute in Singapore.

Cancer Imaging by Michael McCarthy

Picture portraying the process of creating tumor slices from a biopsy

Michael McCarthy, a freelance medical writer in Seattle, applied S.P.A.R.K. principles in this illustration of a cancer imaging technique. In his picture, Michael adapted a more complicated illustration from a journal article for a press release. 

His illustration shows how researchers slice up tumor biopsies in order to study tumor cell behavior upon exposure to different drugs. He used the S.P.A.R.K. audience sweet spot locator to determine that, for a general audience, the illustration should be very easy to understand. Therefore, although tumors are complicated masses of cells, he kept his representations simple. He also made use of a linear path to demonstrate the biopsy preparation process. Thus it’s easy to see how, in this process, researchers take cores from biopsies and then cut them into thin slices. These slices are easy to image under the microscope. Great job Michael!

Michael’s work was featured in “Local Health Guide” a blog about health news for the Pacific Northwest.

Enzyme transport to the lysosome by Betsy Palay (S.P.A.R.K. course instructor)

Complex and simplified schematics of the lysosome

In this case study from S.P.A.R.K. instructor, Betsy Palay, we have a preliminary (left) and refined (right) picture portraying enzyme transport to the lysosome. The lysosome is a cellular compartment that degrades many biological compounds. Enzymes within this compartment carry out the hard work of degradation. After being synthesized, these enzymes must travel to the lysosome. These two pictures illustrate the various routes lysosomal enzymes can take.

While both pictures display essentially the same information, the left picture is more cluttered and complex. To make things easier to understand, the curvy, jumbled compartments featured in the left picture are aligned and given more consistent shapes in the right picture. The paths to the lysosome are also simplified in picture on the right. 

While an actual cell might take on more the chaotic appearance found in the picture on the left, it’s much easier to grasp the pattern of movement and activity in the picture on the right. The picture on the left was a great start and included all of the necessary components (the visual menu), but might be difficult for a non-expert to understand. Thus, the refined picture on the right is a more useful learning tool and helps viewers grasp the content at a glance.

You can find more examples of pictures created by the S.P.A.R.K. course instructors on the Picture as Portal Instagram account.


Welcome to the Picture as Portal Blog

Engage further with the visual communication of science

Back in 2017, the creators of Picture as Portal®, Betsy Palay and Tami Tolpa, came together to pool their extensive experience with scientific illustration and visual communication. The result was the S.P.A.R.K. course on 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. Many people have since taken the course and we’ve received great feedback from course participants. 

With this blog, we plan to engage with past and future students of the course. We’ll be using the blog as an outlet for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. We’ll also provide more resources on the visual communication of science.Thus we’ll empower more people to be effective visual communicators.

We hope you’ll check back here often to learn all about the great work coming from Picture as Portal®.

See you soon!

Take our S.P.A.R.K. course and quickly learn practical strategies for excellent visual communication