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.
https://www.cshan-visuals.com/ ©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: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/facts-about-novel-coronavirus-and-how-to-prevent-covid-19/. 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: https://hellocells.tumblr.com/.

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 BetsyPalay.com.

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.<www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170608145602.htm>. 

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.

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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 pictureasportal@gmail.com. Enjoy!

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Circular RNAs by Gloria Fuentes

Illustration of circular RNAs from Gloria Fuentes

Gloria Fuentes, a researcher turned scientific illustrator at The Visual Thinker LLP (thevisualthinker.xyz), 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!

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