Using visual abstracts for science communication

Infohackit participant and PhD Student at UCL Hazard Centre, Danielle Charlton (@hazardgirl09 ) shares her experiences creating a graphical abstract for her thesis.

Whilst staring my thesis abstract, which is 300 words summarising four years’ worth of research, I began to think there must be a better way to show this information. Text is very important and is how the majority of us still consume information online. However, images can help compliment text and explain ideas in a way our brain can digest very quickly. I decided I wanted to create an infographic of my work.

During an investigation of how to create graphical abstracts, I found Andrew M. Ibrahim, who is championing simple, one page graphic summaries for use by journals and at conferences for the medical sciences. This looked great, useful, and very applicable to the natural sciences.

Getting started

Fig 1 – Pencil Mockups

One wet cold weekend in January, I unearthed my pencils and started designing how I would communicate my thesis with a mixture of words and images contained within an A4 sized rectangle (Fig.1). Something I had not seen much of in my current field of earth sciences. I have always enjoyed designing my own figures, and this was a great opportunity to combine my two backgrounds of graphic design and science. It was also a welcome break from months of writing and draft revisions.

I started off with too much text and coming up with a design was harder than I thought. However, once I began mocking the abstract in a graphic software, it became clearer how many words were needed to explain my work. The audience in my case were the examiners. I had to tell them the aim, method, and the results, to summarise work spanning over 300 pages.

Final abstract

Fig 2 – Final PhD Abstract

I divided my abstract up into three colour coded sections, each containing the relevant text and graphics (Fig. 2). I decided to keep the graphics black, which provided contrast against the coloured background. I liked this idea so much, that I replicated the format and created smaller visual abstracts for each chapter (Fig. 3). I have summarised the stages of development below:

  1. Audience and format. Deciding the size and shape of your abstract, and what level are you aiming for are both important. For example, will it be shared on social media? In a thesis or a journal? Each will require different formats and language.
  2. The message. What is the abstract trying to say? Is it explaining a single project, or a combination of topics? I aimed to write down briefly in less than 100 words, short simple sentences explaining my work. Similar to how you would approach any abstract.
  3. Layout and colours. Once the text is pasted into design software, structure and colour can be added. You can divide the abstract into coloured blocks, or patterns. Colorbrewer is also a useful tool for choosing colour schemes. Simple rectangles behind the text can add structure.
  4. Graphics and text. This is the fun bit. Graphics can now be added, but only if they are useful for explaining your message. Vector images are best, photos can be used but may be too distracting and complicated. There are many free sources available.
Fig 3 – Smaller chapter abstracts in my thesis

Once you have something you are happy with, double check for errors and then share away. You could include them in talks, lectures and on your social media. I found that my work reached a lot of people, and by using graphics you are able tell people your story in a fun creative way. Share your abstracts with the #VisualAbstracts on twitter and happy designing!

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