Intended for healthcare professionals

Student BMJ Student

Illustrating your research: design basics for junior clinicians and scientists

BMJ 2020; 370 doi: (Published 16 July 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;370:m2254
  1. Sarah Nersesian, PhD candidate, senior scientific illustrator12,
  2. Natasha Vitkin, senior scientific communicator23,
  3. Stephanie Grantham, BSc candidate, junior scientific communicator1,
  4. Sheryl Bourgaize, PhD candidate, junior scientific communicator4
  1. 1Department of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
  2. 2Designs that Cell, Kingston, ON, Canada
  3. 3Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada
  4. 4Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, Canada
  5. Correspondence to: S Nersesian

Communication in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has historically been dominated by text based mediums. Scientific articles, textbooks, reviews, conference proceedings, and posters rely heavily on text to communicate scientific findings. Our current method of communication is framed primarily for those who conduct research, and we generally make little use of visual aids, which are arguably more effective.1 However, scientists and clinicians may struggle to translate scientific data into clear and informative graphics. As a group of biomedical postsecondary students and scientific illustrators interested in graphic design, we have consolidated and summarised the eight steps we use for creating eye-catching illustrations. These steps are intended as a practical resource for junior clinicians and scientists to use when creating scientific graphics, including manuscript figures, scientific poster presentations, and slides for oral presentations.

Why use visual communication?

Most people interested in finding information now use online resources. The internet is full of relevant search results, so being able to capture an audience’s attention is crucial for knowledge translation. Some high impact journals, including Cell, now feature and request graphical abstracts, creating a prime opportunity to incorporate visual communication into scientific data presentation.2 Data suggest that clinicians and medical trainees respond more favourably to visual communication methods such as infographics rather than to traditional text based information. For trainees and junior clinicians, designing effective and clear visuals improves communication, knowledge dissemination, and application to real-life scenarios. Visual illustrations are more memorable than words, as stated in the “picture superiority effect.” Several hypotheses have been developed as to why visuals are more memorable.3

Catching readers’ attention is especially crucial when sharing scientific pieces on social media platforms, a key part of knowledge dissemination in today’s society. Scientific illustrations on social media are more accessible than text-heavy articles; a thorough illustration enables …

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