Combining visuals with narrative for effective science communication

Bill Dennison ·
14 March 2016
Science Communication | 

My collaboration with Randy Olson, the master of developing good narrative structure for communicating science, has led me to consider the parallels between developing effective visual graphics and good narrative.

Both narrative structure and visual processing are hard wired into the human brain. Brain scans of people watching a story unfold on videos show their brains are highly activated and they display the same activation as a group, compared to people watching videos devoid of a story (e.g., people walking through a public place). Brain scans of people viewing different color hues show a higher activation in some colors (e.g., red) than other colors (e.g., green). These observations show that our neurobiology makes us particularly attuned to stories and visual cues like color.

Neural basis for narratives (left) and distinct hues (right)
Neural basis for narratives (left) and distinct hues (right). Credit: Hasson in Olson 2015 (left) and Neural basis for unique hues, Stoughton and Conway 2008 [pdf] (right)
Narrative and visual art is an ancient form of communication that precedes newspapers, magazines, books and television. The earliest form of storytelling was likely around a fire as various events were shared in the form of stories. Before the written word, the best way to present facts was through story and the best way to remember facts was through story. There is a fascinating book "Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin in 1987 in which he describes an Australian aborigine using a song to remember the directions for a map. A nomadic culture like many of the Australian Aboriginal tribes doesn't have offer opportunities to produce and carry books around the Australian desert, so they used stories and songs to maintain their cultural heritage and pass on important information to the next generation. The earliest form of visual communication that is preserved are cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. Undoubtedly, sand drawings, mud maps and figures made from sticks were used in visual communication before cave drawings but these ephemeral art forms have not been preserved. Humans have constantly experimented with media to share stories and display visuals, with highlights in the evolution of combining narrative and visuals including the use of papyrus to record stories and draw figures, the invention of the printing press to mass produce books, the development of film to record movies, and the various phones, tablets and computers to stream videos.

Narrative & visual communication is ancient
Narrative & visual communication is ancient. Left: Albert Anker's Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte, 1884; Right: Bhimbetka rock painting showing man riding on horse. Images from Wikimedia Commons

The earliest form of narrative according to Randy Olson is the epic poem of Gilgamesh, dating back to 4,000 B.C. I have made the case that an early form of visual communication is the development of stained glass by Egyptians and Romans and used extensively during the Medieval Period. The technique of combining metal oxides with sand to make glass created an opportunity to produce different colored glass that could be arranged using lead frames to create diagrams. These early forms of narrative and visual communication began to converge in the hand-illustrated books laboriously reproduced by Medieval monks. Printing presses were developed to allow more rapid reproduction of narrative and visuals.

Early form of narratives and visual communications: Epic of Gilgamesh (left) and stained glass (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Early form of narratives and visual communications: Epic of Gilgamesh (left) and stained glass (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another reason that combining narrative and visuals is so ingrained in many people is through their first exposure to books through children's books. Every night in millions of beds, parents are reading richly illustrated children's books to their children. When I read my children some of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, I could recall my mother reading the same book to me. Reading books to my children was a wonderful way to reconnect with my parents. The stories and drawings were amazingly familiar decades after I had last read them. You cannot imagine a children's book with colorful drawings accompanying an interesting story.

Children’s books combine good stories integrated with good visuals
Children’s books combine good stories integrated with good visuals. Credit:

Film and television combines narrative and visuals in a powerful way. Movies are often more entertaining than simply reading words or viewing still photos. For example, the prospect of reading a tome is much more daunting than watching the movie version. As much as I love to read a good book, the abundance of good film and television is fairly compelling to watch.

Combining narrative and visuals is important for three reasons. 1) Narrative and visuals engage the audience. Stories are more interesting than a string of facts and good visuals are compelling to view. 2) Narrative and visuals are memorable. It is easier to remember a good story than disassociated vignettes and good visuals are easy to recall. 3) Narrative and visuals shorten reading time. Readers/viewers can follow a storyline more readily and visuals can be quickly scanned.

Film and television combines narrative and visuals
Film and television combines narrative and visuals. Image from the web.

Both narrative and visuals are not typically a big part of current science training or practice. Scientists are not taught how to form a narrative in their papers or presentations. Rather the focus is on data analysis and interpretation in context with the appropriate references. Figures are often an afterthought and are exported directly from data analysis tools like spreadsheets and statistical programs, complete with 'chart-junk' and often illegible fonts. Oral presentations relying on dot points and cluttered or illegible graphics are more typical than a compelling story illustrated with good graphics.

Randy Olson advocates for a 'narrative culture' using story circles to help one another hone our science stories. I advocate for a 'visual culture' using graphics circles to help one another to hone our science visualizations. We need to begin to form a combined 'narrative and visual culture' to integrate these approaches to form powerful science communication products.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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