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.

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 pictureasportal@gmail.com. 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 (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!

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

Iteration to create a more perfect picture

At some point we’ve all rushed to complete a project. Maybe you pulled an all nighter to write an essay. Maybe you threw together a handful of slides at the last minute to complete a presentation. We’ve all been there. Yet, we all know that this isn’t the best way to get work done. Sure, pressure might increase our immediate productivity, but dedicated rounds of editing and iteration are key to perfecting communication in any form. Things that make sense when we’re first creating content often seem much less clear after a bit of time. Editing and iteration help us identify and fix problem areas. Iterating with collaborators is even more effective!

The same is true when creating and perfecting pictures. Although you might think that skilled artists and designers sit down and pump out gorgeous piece after gorgeous piece, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Like written work and presentations, graphics are improved over rounds of iteration. When creating a graphic, you’ll almost always start with something that’s far from perfect. Iteration will help you refine your product. Through iteration you’ll get to a highly functional product – even it it’s not the next Mona Lisa!

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

Iteration example: the S.P.A.R.K. infographic

Final version of the SPARK infographic

You can see how iteration improves graphics in this example from Picture as Portal Science Communications Director, Tyler Ford. Tyler is not a graphic designer (although he does doodle a lot). Nonetheless, Tyler worked hard with Picture as Portal cofounders Betsy Palay and Tami Tolpa to refine the infographic. Through rounds of iterative editing, we got the infographic to the wonderfully useful form on the right.

We initially discussed the main points we wanted to get across in the infographic and set Tyler loose. Essentially, we wanted to:

  • Quickly say what the S.P.A.R.K. course is
  • Display it’s benefits for different kinds of researchers
  • Provide evidence for the quality of the course
Version 1 of the SPARK infographic

Tyler came up with the first version of the infographic shown on the right. While this initial attempt is certainly imaginative, it’s a bit too colorful and cluttered. After Tyler sent along this mock-up, we gave him a more in-depth description of the infographic we envisioned. We also gave Tyler some ideas on how to stream-line things.

The next few versions of the infographic incorporate all of the same essential elements. Indeed, having all of the essential elements thoroughly sped up the iteration process. Tyler was able to create individual vectors graphics for each element. Then he could try out different layouts and positions in all the versions shown below.

3 version of the SPARK infographic improved by iterative editing

Ultimately, we really liked the version furthest to the right. Not only does this version have very little clutter, it also incorporates a path. The viewer is pulled down by the linear progression from small circles to the larger circle.

As the iterative process continued, the Picture as Portal team further refined colors and removed clutter. They also used the principle of enclosure to distinctly separate out each of the conceptual sections of the infographic.

  • What is S.P.A.R.K.? (top)
  • S.P.A.R.K.’s benefits (middle)
  • Evidence of quality (bottom)

Each of these is enclosed by a particular color and border lines in the final graphic. Enclosure helps viewers take in each conceptual piece of information without overwhelming them.

Collaboration and iteration for success

As you can see, the final version of the infographic is a far cry from the original. Yet, it retains some of the core ideas of the original. Betsy, Tami, and Tyler improved it through iterative editing and application of the principles from the S.P.A.R.K. course. The result is a much improved and very useful infographic!

SPARK infographic version one and final side-by-side
First version of the S.P.A.R.K. infographic (left) and the much-improved final version (right).
Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started