Scientific Illustration as a communication tool

In the recent years, there’s been an explosion of scientific research. More papers are published today than ever before, and scientists are making new discoveries every day. Using scientific illustration effectively to share new findings and discoveries is key to spread the knowledge quickly.

Information is power, but it is only usable as it is understandable. There are many types of scientific communication happening all around today.

Scientist-Scientist Communication

There are complex scientific topics that are discussed among researchers:

Scientific diagram of instrument design of a quadrupole ion trapDon’t worry if you don’t understand this; this is for analytical chemists!

Educator-Student Communication

There are educational material being taught to students:

scientific illustration of a frog dissectionThis is a Dissection of a frog. I hope you had the chance to dissect a frog before so this should look somewhat familiar.

Scientist-General Public Communication

There are scientific topics taught by researchers to the general public:

scientific illustration of a summer flounderHow a flounder goes through changes as it develops.  This is something really neat that the scientist discovered that he wanted to share with the public.

Illustration can draw attention and promote interest. Many scientists and educators know that using scientific illustration is a communication tool that saves time and energy by all parties involved. Illustrations can show concepts in a logical manner so we don’t confuse the audience with too little information or overload the audience with too much information.

  • Scientists and educators save time writing descriptive matter
  • Scientists and educators save time reading loads of journal articles that come out every other week
  • Students and readers save time by looking and studying a concise illustration rather than reading pages of text
  • Decrease the chance of miscommunication

It’s impossible to just use words to describe the natural world. Imagine a field guide without images!

5-5 1/2 in. long. Yellow-green and streaked above; yellow and streaked below; cheek patch dark rusty; patch behind ear yelow. Female similar but duller; always has yellow patch behind year. Habitat: Spruce forests. Food: Insects and spiders; also punctures fruit and drinks juice.

Cape May Warbler Female illustration

Would you be able to pick this bird out from the description? Did you imagine something different? No matter how well the size, color, shape, and behavior are described, one illustration is more powerful than all that. Unlike words that conjure your imagination, illustrations give your mind a mental image to hold.

A very common question then arises: Why not just take photos?

That’s a really good question! A photo is usually much cheaper and easier than creating an illustration. But when it comes to flexibility and ability to communicate and teach, illustrations far out pass the photographs. We’ll save that for next time!

Join the discussion and let me know how scientific illustration has helped you understand something or found it useful when teaching others.  Share a lesson learned from scientific communications below, and please share this post if you know others who have benefited from scientific illustration.

See more scientific illustration pieces

**update** I wrote up a short article about photos vs illustrations. Check it out and let me know what you think.

About Ikumi Kayama

Studio Kayama’s Founder, Ikumi Kayama is an award-winning medical & scientific illustrator who helps scientists and doctors how to be heard and understood and how to express the value of what they do through accurate and useful illustrations. Ikumi's mission is to make science relevant and accessible to everyone using accurate visuals. She also gives PowerPoint Design Tip seminars for the scientists and various illustration technique courses for the artists. Come say hello and follow Ikumi on facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, and Google+ .