8 maart, 2023

More than the icing on the cake

The value of visual science communication in four phases

Science, communication and visualization. Why?

What’s the purpose of science and science communication?

The Dutch government said in the plan The Value of Science (2019): "Science seeks answers to current issues, but also ensures knowledge development so that we remain prepared for future challenges." [1]

And in the same document: "Science communication is a two-way street. A dialogue between science and society shows everyone how research contributes to social and economic progress.”[2] But John C. Besley and Anthony Dudo go a step further in their new book “Strategic Science Communication”. They focus on changing behaviors through dialogue. And specifically changes in behavior as the change in beliefs, feelings, and frames.[3]

Taking this as a starting point, Visual Science Communication is responsible for the visual aspect of changing behaviors.[4]

For example, these two illustrations are a part of a larger infographic. They can also be used as a standalone for example in social media posts about the research project. This research is about the care for elderly people with a migration background developing dementia.[5] By reading the sentence and seeing these images, do you think differently about caregivers with a migration background?

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Text and images each have their own unique advantages.

Advantages of text:

  • Words can be used to convey a wide range of information, from simple labels to complex ideas and narratives.
  • Nowadays, text is still better searchable than images, making it easier for users to find specific information within large bodies of content.
  • Text can be easily accessed and read by a wide range of devices, including screen readers for visually impaired users.
  • The quickest way to produce content is through writing and can therefore be cost-effective.

Advantages of images:

  • Images can be more attention-grabbing and impactful than text, making them effective for capturing the interest of users and communicating important information quickly, across language barriers. [6]
  • Visualization can help to clarify complex information, making it easier for users to understand and remember.[7] And communicate across language barriers.
  • To evoke emotions and create an emotional connection with the user, text can be useful and sometimes essential. Changing believes, feelings and frames can be more difficult to achieve with text alone. [8]
  • In animation and illustration everything is possible, from photorealistic to not-yet-existing situations, to utterly weird. All these styles have their own strengths and advantages.

I prefer the combination to use the best of both worlds. Pictures mostly need a context.

Image without text.
Text without drawing.

See the context of these images and about the research and visuals (website in Dutch).

Valuable visualization in four phases of scientific research

NB: this article is especially suitable for scientific research. For the sake of clarity, I fit different types of research into the same framework. The visual examples come from scientific and administrative research.

Using visual science communication has several advantages in each of these four phases:

  1. finding funding,
  2. conducting research,
  3. reporting on (partial) results and
  4. disseminating to society.

Especially when it’s important for science ‘giving back value’ to society and show the impact with reliable and profound scientific research.

I made different visuals together with scientific and applied researchers. Together we added animations, infographics, and illustrations to the process of research.

An example of visualization after phase 3: I worked together with Hannah Werner of the Catholic University Leuven and Kristof Jacobs of the Radboud University Nijmegen. They discovered populists (P) were better losers after a referendum, than non-populist citizens. Interesting, no? We made an animation in English about the investigation while waiting for the study to be published at Cambridge University Press.[9]

Image (still) from the animation about populism

1. Finding funding

Funding for research can be done in different ways[10]. Visualization can add value in asking for funding.

  • A decisionmaker may not be an expert in the specific field of research in question. Visualizations can help this person or team by making complex information easier and quicker to understand. And thus contribute to an easier decision-making process.
  • Using schemes and infographics can help show that the proposed research is well-planned, thorough, and based on sound methods. This may improve the credibility and feasibility of the proposal.
  • Visualization can be used to effectively communicate the significance and potential impact of the research on people in a clear and concise way. So, imitate or clarify visually a not-yet-existing situation.
  • People allocating money to scientific projects often receive many proposals. An adequate image can help a research proposal to stand out the crowd.

For example, as an artist I work together with public administrative research agency IdeeVersa. In concurrence with other agencies, we adopt images in the tender for governmental clients. This way, we show them how we combine customized and high-quality research with clarifying visuals.

Image from an offer about the process of the administrative research: explore, prioritize and elaborate.

For the Dutch municipality Zoetermeer we were asked to find out how certain aspects of their budget documents could be improved. The purpose of this image was to manage the expectations of the client. And grabbing their attention in a light and intriguing way. We got the assignment.

Then we continued in this style, as you can see underneath. This image is the reading guide meant for the reader, the municipal councilors of Zoetermeer, to understand the structure of the research. These parts in the image that we made vague, are no part of the research.

  • Resumé: By using visualizations, researchers can make a proposal stand out more, the text will be quicker understandable and be longer memorable. It's also a way of showing the research can be communicated effectively, which can play an important part of getting funding.

2. Conducting the research

During the research, researchers can understand their findings quicker and easier with images. Using visualization can lead to more accurate and meaningful results. Illustrations and infographics can have several advantages.

  • Researchers and research teams have heads full of information during conducting the research. Making visuals can help them focus and reflect. Insight through overview. For example during analyzing, deciding the next step, writing, or rewriting the report.
  • The first thing in helping the researcher, is explaining the information to a blank person. Especially when someone is interested, asking questions, and listening with a certain goal.
  • Then, seeing (parts of) the research as an image, gives a distance and fresh view. It will make the check on correctness simpler. In this way, visualization can make judging text easier and can give new insights, and thereby improving the accuracy and reliability of the research.
  • And then, when writing the text, the pictures provide guidance in writing the report.
  • Furthermore, visual communication can help increase the involvement of survey participants, other attendees, and team members. To communicate research developments and findings with involved parties, allows research teams to collaborate more efficiently and effectively.

Here you see, for example, a part of the development of a research project and the visual development. There are quite some differences between this sketch and the final version of the infographic.

Together with administrative researcher Elma van de Mortel, we made visuals for the council's office of the municipality Oss.[11] This visual is about the findability, accessibility and availability of youth care. During the investigation, the collecting of information could go on endlessly…

… so by getting the overview, Elma saw the ‘certified institutions’ being important in general, but not part of the research. We made it vague.

Infographic sketch

This sketch we made when not all the information was there yet. Like in the final version a judge was added.

Final version of the infographic

Final infographic, used in the final publication.

Different variations of the icon about the access made visual. The left icon is the ideal situation and used in the in the infographic. The second and third images are examples of more difficult situations, that happens in reality too. In the report these situations get explained.

  • In short, by using visualizations throughout the conducting process, researchers can be more effective in communicating, analyzing, and making sense of their findings. This will lead to more accurate and meaningful results and a better collaboration.

3. Reporting on (partial) results

Visualization can make a text more accessible for people using and reusing the publication.

  • Visual explanations can be used to effectively communicate research findings to a wider range of audiences. From dabblers to colleague experts.
  • Making text visual is a good way to highlight key findings, making them more prominent and memorable for the chosen audience.
  • Visualizations can be used to effectively communicate research findings to other researchers, making it easier for others to understand and build upon the research.
  • A more accessible report helps the editor in the peer-review process.
  • When a research abstract is made visual, for example with a short animation, the research is easier to share with a bigger and more diverse audience.

For example, I designed a research animation for the Radboud University in the reporting phase. The research, led by social researcher Nella Geurts, concerned the immigration paradox. The question was: why do highly educated Turkish migrants feel less at home in the Netherlands than lower educated Turkish migrants? We published the report online at Taylor and Francis Online, together with the science animation.

And we translated the animation in English, Dutch and Turkish too. This resulted in more views than with text and diagrams only. And it worked the same way in social media; it led to a higher engagement than other posts about research.

View the animation here:

  • In summary, visualizations allow the researcher to communicate the research outcomes more effectively to a wider audience. They also making the important outcomes more accessible and understandable, increasing the impact and reach of the research.

4. Disseminating with society

Visual communication is quite broad, from a simple picture to a whole corporate identity. I focus in this post on the advantages of images that explain applied and scientific research. These are clarifying illustrations, explainers and illustrative infographics.

  • Visualizations can make the information understand quicker and therefore, more memorable and more easily recallable. This will lead to better retention and understanding of the research.[12]
  • Complex information and concepts can be made more accessible and understandable with illustrations, infographics and explainers. In this way, the information is more accessible to a wide range of audiences, allowing the research to have a wider impact.
  • Images generally take up more space in news feeds than text-only posts, which leads to more attention online and offline. Unique and innovative visualizations can capture the attention of viewers even more, which could increase the engagement to the research.
  • Some concepts are better explained by an image than by text, like developments changing in time and situations where connections can be made between different factors.
  • Sometimes the target audience includes people with less knowledge of a language, because of migration, lower IQ or absence of chances to learn more. Images can help to reach people when language is more difficult. People learn in different ways and reading is just one of them.
  • Images make a long text more attractive to read because they interrupt the text in a good way.
  • Sometimes ‘show, don’t tell’ is a powerful way to change behaviors. Especially if you are able to add different layers in the visual story.

A good example of the phase of disseminating the research to the society, is the explainer I made together with the researchers Saloua Berdai Chaouni en Ann Claeys of the Erasmus Brussels University of Applied Sciences and Arts ( We added extra layers in the film, next to explaining what their book and research is about. So, after half a minute you will hear: “Often the suffering is invisible.”, you will read ‘discrimination’ and you will see discrimination in action in a light-hearted way.

View the animation here:

  • What possible behavior changes do you notice after seeing and reading this post? Did some feelings, beliefs or frames change?

5. Visualization in research

So, images can play a crucial role in all four of the phases of research. First showing the funders which potential the research project has with attractive and quickly clarifying visuals. Then, helping the research team and attendees to make sense of the information and next steps. After the research had finished, the report can be made more accessible to a wider public with visuals, including colleague experts to build upon this research. In the last phase, visualization help reaching a specific target groupmore effectively, making the impact of the research bigger. And being able to give back value to society.

What visuals will help you in your work?

[1] See the Dutch document on page 5

[2] In the same document on page 37: “… Science communication helps society to recognize facts and fables and offers people the opportunity to think along about scientific developments. Science also holds up a mirror to society by stimulating people with new perspectives. The dialogue is also valuable to scientists. It can lead to inspiration for new research questions and guides scientists with ethical issues.”

[3] See more about the Goals-Objectives-Tactics scheme on the site about the book

[4] Visual communication is quite broad, from a simple picture to whole corporate identities. I focus here on the advantages of images that explain science.

[5] See more about the research project and visualization in Dutch: the care for elderly people with a migration background developing dementia

[6] MIT neuroscientists find the brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

[7] According to John Medina, affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine: “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%.”

[8] A study led by Elinor Amit, research scientist and senior lecturer on different universities, shows that people create visual images to accompany their inner speech even when they are prompted to use verbal thinking, suggesting that visual thinking is deeply ingrained in the human brain while speech is a relatively recent evolutionary development.

[9] See more about the research project and visualization: Onderzoeksanimatie over populisme en referendums (website in Dutch)

[10] Funding streams: the universities. Local, national, and international governments and governmental organizations like NWO and the ERC. Further funding possibilities are via companies, NGOs and crowdfunding.

[11] See the more about the research project and visuals in Dutch: Bestuurlijk onderzoek toegang jeugdhulp

[12] See here for visual explanation with prove on the use of text versus images.

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