Harnessing the Power of Visual Science Communication

Harnessing the Power of Visual Science Communication

By Sarah Nersesian, M.Sc., and Michelle Sholzberg, M.D.C.M., M.Sc., RPTH Associate Editor for Illustrated Materials

Visual science communication is more engaging, accessible, memorable, and shareable compared with classical text-based communication. Combining simple, impact-focused text in infographics, graphical abstracts or illustrated reviews is an extremely powerful tool for knowledge translation and exchange. At Research and Practice in Thrombosis and Haemostasis (RPTH), we have been expanding the use of illustrated materials to increase the impact of scientific communication, and we’re pleased to share some tips. How can you harness this power to tell your story?

Tip 1: Build the story – Engaging, Memorable

  • Think about who (audience), what (rooted in scientific rigor), how (artistic representation) and why (communication goal)
  • Storytelling most effectively engages an audience because humans experience stories through emotion and memory – our brains are wired that way
  • Presentations are concise versions of manuscripts, use this same decision-making to create effective visual communication tools

Tip 2: Prepare your visual – Accessible, Engaging

  • Consider where you are going to publish/present it and who will be engaging with it
  • Journal graphical abstracts are usually more technical and directed to a narrower audience (i.e., people working in the same or similar field as you)
  • Visuals for wider distribution on social media or for press releases should be aimed at a more general audience, and therefore should consider more context



 Tip 3: Make it artistically interesting - Engaging, Memorable

  • Use color and style
  • Start with identifying a main color through considering your content – if you are focused on something physiologic use the color that is usually associated with that biological item
  • Use complementary colors (colors on the opposite side of the color wheel) or shades to help with contrast and consistency, respectively
  • Develop an artistic theme or characters to facilitate storytelling and to highlight key points that you would like the audience to take away along the journey


Tip 4: Layout your content – Engaging, Shareable

  • Use graphic design principles to organize content: alignment, balance, contrast and consistency
  • Visuals should have a logical flow: where will the reader start, go next, and finish? Typically, this path follows the way in which we read: for many Western countries, that path begins at the top left and concludes at the bottom right
  • To help guide the reader along with your visual, make sure you use directional graphical aids, such as headers, numbers, connectors, arrows, boxes or color gradients
  • Keep your formatting and style consistent

Tip 5: Keep it accessible – Accessible, Memorable

  • We recommend using sans serif fonts (Arial, Avenir, Calibri or Helvetica) as they are more typographically efficient: they have higher legibility (ease at which a word is recognized) as well as readability (ease at which text is understood)
  • Sans serif fonts are also more easily read by people with dyslexia
  • The one exception where serif fonts (Cambria, Times New Roman) should be used is in the case of small text
  • Ensure the font is clear and large enough for your audience
  • Check the grade reading level of your included text using an assessment tool such as the simple measure of gobbledygook (SMOG index)
  • Not all engagers see all colors or see them in the same way, so think about incorporating textures or different shapes for objects that might overlap with similar colors and ensure contrast is visible
  • Combine simple text and graphics for maximum accessibility
  • If you are using characters, remember that your characters should be inclusive to avoid inadvertent harm to certain groups of people

Tip 6: Ensure it’s shareable - Accessible, Memorable

  • Imagine your work and capsules of information on social media – does it convey the message you are intending to share? Try to make individual capsules make sense as stand-alone items. 
  • Social media is the way of the present and the future. Consider sharing your work on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Tag your co-authors, tag potentially interested stakeholders, and use hashtags to maximize impact and organization.
  • The more your work is shared, commented on, tagged, downloaded etc. - the higher the Altmetric score which correlates with impact factor!

For more resources and information see:

1. Nersesian S., Sholzberg, M., Cushman, M., Wolberg, A. The Journey to a Successful Illustrated Review. Res Pract Thromb Haemost. 2022;6(4):e12721.

2. Wolberg AS, Cushman M. Illustrated review article: A new format for disseminating scientific progress. Res Pract Thromb Haemost. 2018;2(3):405-6.

3. Nersesian S, Vitkin N, Grantham S, Bourgaize S. Illustrating your research: design basics for junior clinicians and scientists. BMJ. 2020;370:m2254.

4. Muller T, Hesse FW, Meyerhoff HS. Two people, one graph: the effect of rotated viewpoints on accessibility of data visualizations. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2021;6(1):31.

5. Bobek E, Tversky B. Creating visual explanations improves learning. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2016;1(1):27.

6. Ibrahim AM. Seeing is Believing: Using Visual Abstracts to Disseminate Scientific Research. Am J Gastroenterol. 2018;113(4):459-61.

7. Gloviczki P, Lawrence PF. Visual abstracts bring key message of scientific research. J Vasc Surg. 2018;67(5):1319-20.

8. Ettinger JO, F.E.L.; Schipper, E.L.F. Storytelling can be a powerful tool for science. Nature. 2021;589(352).

9. Martinez-Conde S, Macknik SL. Opinion: Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017;114(31):8127-9.

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