Good quality visuals help convey information in research papers. Contrary to what many scientists suppose, they have plenty to tap into, explains Fabricio Pamplona.
I’m asked frequently for an example of a good infographic by scientists, academics and researchers developing graphical abstracts for their papers. Designing an effective one can be challenging because researchers are expected to explain complex research and data, which can include sensitive topics, in a concise way.
It can be particularly difficult because, in my experience, scientists often say they haven’t really been exposed to quality design during their careers, until they are expected to illustrate their work. While they may be unfamiliar with designing their own infographic, in reality they have probably been exposed to a range of scientific infographics throughout their careers and personal lives.
Infographics are not a modern concept – people have used them throughout history to transmit information in a visual format, arguably dating back to ancient cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphs. They have also played a significant role in the history of science communications. Some of the oldest examples include a graphic on The Chain of Being in Ancient Greek history and, more recently, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man demonstrating human proportion.
One of the most influential historical data visualisations was the rose-shaped diagram authored by Florence Nightingale in the mid-19th century, outlining the poor sanitary conditions in Crimean War hospitals. While Nightingale also included statistical tables about the different causes of mortality in the army in her written findings, she was aware that not all readers could understand these tables. By translating the most important information into simple diagrams, she was able to demonstrate that the large majority of deaths were caused by disease and not directly related to the battlefield, thereby contributing to a revolution in hygiene and sanitation in hospital environments.
Science informs art
Visualising information is the key purpose of using infographics in science communication. Scientists want to present their information in the most engaging and interesting way and doing this successfully can mean that the visual becomes so appealing that we use it elsewhere. Musicians regularly use scientific visuals for striking album covers — whether it’s the dispersion of light from a prism on the cover of Dark Side of The Moon or the stacked plot of radio emissions given out by a rotating neutron star, also known as the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.
When we think about it, we’ve all been exposed to visually striking and memorable infographics at some point, so how can researchers translate this experience into creating examples for their own work?
The medium is the message
Before creating their design, authors should consider the purpose of an infographic – to effectively communicate findings in a concise format. Research by Bradford in 2004 and 2012  estimated that around two thirds of people are visual learners, so giving people visual aids when learning may help more readers retain information. However, infographic making is not as simple as turning statistics or findings into images and placing them on the design — good design requires careful consideration.
Firstly, researchers should think about what specific message they want to convey to the audience. Knowing the purpose of the design, as well as considering the intended audience, enables scientists to decide what data from their findings is most useful to include in the design.
Once they understand what data to include, they will find the most visually appealing way to present it. Layout is important to how the audience will read the infographic, so one should first consider structure. Should it be a list, sequence, side by side comparison, or maybe a timeline?
The next step is The next step is deciding how to best present the data so that the audience can quickly interpret the information. Looking at different options of graphs or charts, tables or pictographs enables the creator to choose the best option for the information.
Now that researchers know how to present the data accurately and effectively, they should look at how to make the design appealing. Including images is key and researchers can choose between icons or scientifically accurate drawings to convey their message. Colour scheme and font will also play a role in the readability of a design and how engaging it is for the reader.
Making all these design decisions can be difficult, particularly for scientists with little design experience. Instead of starting from scratch, they can use scientific infographic makers that host professionally designed infographic templates and a gallery of scientifically accurate illustrations.
Using such tools while considering the narrative of this data and finding the most visually appealing way to present information, researchers could be on the way to creating the next periodic table.
Pics: Periodic table, Source: 2005-2016 Keith Enevoldsen elements.wlonk.com Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License; Florence Nightingale rose diagram courtesy of Public Domain, Wiki Commons
Fabricio Pamplona is co-founder of scientific infographic maker, Mind the Graph
1 Bradford, William C., Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art (September 1, 2011). The Law Teacher Vol. 11, 2004, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=587201