by Diana Ribeiro, MPharm – Freelance Medical Writing Consultant
As we move on to different forms of engaging with each other, either in the professional setting with virtual and hybrid conferences or in a more casual way, with the rise of different social media platforms, it will be increasingly important to know how to use different types of visuals for different audiences and channels.
As an example, this will require going beyond graphical abstracts in a scientific article to having short videos, audio content, and easily shareable images to improve the chances of your message to rise above the noise. This is part of what is becoming known as enhanced content in scientific publications, or simply enhanced publications.
However, visual communications in science are still a budding field, so do not be discouraged by the idea that you must have all these different forms of content: a graphical abstract or infographic is a great way to start your visual communications journey.
History has taught us that humans started to communicate first with images than with written words. There are records of cave paintings dating as far back as 40,000 years, while the earliest written records date back a little more than 5,000 years. Today, verbal communication (speaking and writing) is the most prominent way of delivering information, but non-verbal and visual communication are regaining their importance.
Although images are quick to read and easy to understand, their capacity to deliver large quantities of information is limited. In addition, images can be understood in multiple ways (not all of them accurate), which is a good characteristic for art but not so much for science. Since accurate recordkeeping of an abundance of data is paramount to scientists, they have always tended to use more words than images. These were confined to figures and graphs, to portray a specific element that is too complex to describe only using words or to explain in more detail a particular set of data points.
Scientists have always understood the power of visual communications, but only relatively recently have they started to actively pursue ways to use them to communicate their research.
Why Are Visuals Easier to Understand?
The invention of the written word allowed the creation of lengthy text, where many ideas, feelings, and descriptions can be accurately conveyed. But reading requires learning and deciphering a code of letters, which have different meanings according to the way they are placed together. The trade-off for having writing, a communication system that can hold scores of accurate data, is that our brains take longer to decipher it.
In contrast, visual representations can be deciphered much faster than text because it relies on a different cognitive system, called the iconic memory.
Iconic memory allows us to glean information from a visual stimulus, retaining the most pertinent messages for a very short time before being discarded or passed on to the short-term memory.
To understand why humans have developed this type of memory, we have to go back to the pre-historic era, where the ability to quickly comprehend if the differences in our environment meant danger or not was an essential trait for survival. In the past, iconic memory helped us escape predators; today, it can be leveraged to create effective visuals.
Iconic memory is relevant for those creating visual communications because it relies on pre-attentive attributes, which are visual properties that our brain processes without using conscious effort. These attributes direct our subconscious attention, allowing us to discern dissonant patterns without us even realising that we are doing it.
Figure 1. Examples of pre-attentive attributes. In Knaflic, 2015.
When used moderately, these attributes can be incredibly powerful to quickly grab your audience’s attention and create a visual hierarchy of information. By using attributes like colour, size, and position in a deliberate way, you can guide readers through the most important parts of your visual communication, directing their attention in a way that will help you to effectively convey your intended message.
Reasons That Prevent Scientists from Using More Visual Communications
As mentioned previously, scientists communicate primarily, but not exclusively with words. In fact, visual objects such as data plots, diagrams, and illustrations have always found their way into scientific articles, posters, and presentations. However, these visuals are often relegated to the background, a task that must be fulfilled but without as much consideration as the collection and interpretation of data itself.
This may be a consequence of how curricula are built all over the world, where design and visualisation essentials are rarely — if ever! — included in scientific courses, from undergraduate to advanced degrees. As retired biology professor Luc Desnoyers puts it, “most scientists were scarcely exposed to formal training in the use of visuals and it is our experience that students resort to learning by doing and imitating what they read and see, for better or for worse.”
While scientists’ limited proficiency in visual communications has not been considered a limitation until now, the increasingly complex research topics being studied, along with the need to improve the communication and accessibility of research results are resulting in a growing awareness about the importance of visual communications.
The Future of Visual Communications in Science
In our modern world of information overload, the success of science communication will require a well-rounded set of skills, including the ability to communicate effectively with visual elements.
However, this does not mean that scientists have to create engaging visuals all by themselves: in a recent research article, Colin K. Khoury and colleagues described how collaborations between researchers and visual communications specialists had the potential to increase the impact of the research being done, as well as improving its public outreach. Both expert and non-expert audiences benefitted from these collaborations, which resulted in better communication of scientific findings.
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