Visual communication and the role of illustrators in science

…or Why you should start writing illustration money into your grants

Author: Meghan Rock

When I say I’m a “scientific illustrator” people smile and nod and for the most part have absolutely no idea what I do day in and day out. I get questions like, “Can you actually make a living doing that?” (family and some rather inquisitive strangers), “So do you want to work at a textbook company?” (just about everyone), and “So what do you draw?” (lots of people).

I like these questions for the most part, but even researchers and graduate students in the sciences don’t understand what I can do for them.

One of my professors once said his most cited papers all had one good illustration. That illustration that explained the experiment well, or helped people properly (and quickly) interpret his results. Sometimes manuscripts are 25 pages and even if you’re in the same field as the authors, studying the same subject, performing the same kind of experiments, the paper is still seemingly composed of gobbledygook. I take these same concepts and distill them down to images from which even someone with little to no experience can glean understanding.

This is what I do:

So I get something like this…
…and I turn it into this.

For many people, most of the major information processing occurs visually, and when we can accompany words with images that illustrate those ideas, concepts, methods, results, and research? It can make a good manuscript great. Words allow for a lot of complex communication, but a clear and concise figure is worth a thousand captions. And in your presentations? Having a clear figure to refer back to can give your audience a reference point for your entire story.

I like my job. I like working directly with students and researchers to make their work more digestible. I like not having to pick one subject to study (I’ve drawn fish, lizards, non-human primates, octopuses, byssal threads, and lots more). I like hearing from the person I’m working with, “This is exactly what I wanted!”

All in all, I actually really, really like my job, but researchers often don’t realize what I can do for them.

So why hire an illustrator to help with your research?

1. I do nothing but this all day, every day. Though many people are handier now creating their own images in the digital age, for most things an illustrator can do the work more quickly and has experience making the final image look professional as well as accurate.

2. Clear figures and illustrations are worth their page space in gold. At their finest, they explain things simply, concisely, and are accessible to a broad range of people–even those that might not be fluent in the manuscript’s language.

3. They make you look good. In many cases, you’ve put your time and energy (often a LOT of it) into this work. Not only in the experiment phase, but also in the writing stage. Why would you put some slap-dash figures next to it? Paying an illustrator to help with your figures and illustrations allows the images to reflect all the effort you’ve put into the research and writing.

So that’s my spiel. Visual communication is important, and an illustrator is a great way to improve your visual communication in papers and in presentations.

If you want more information on science illustration or are looking for an illustrator near you or with experience in your field a great place to start is the Guild of Natural Science Illustration.

Meghan’s portfolio website:

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