Last week, I gave a presentation describing my use of graphic design practice as a research method to the MA Data Visualisation course at London College of Communication. Following the presentation, the students were given several activities to perform that enabled them to apply some of these research methods.

For the first activity, they were presented with a group of 80 images of elements that are used in the visual communication of neuroscience, as shown below:


These images had been generated as part of my PhD research, prompted by my collaboration with the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences. The 80 images shown here had been selected at random from over 250 images currently on the neurographical instagram feed and each image belonged to one of these eight categories.

  1. Human brainstem
  2. Olfactory epithelium
  3. Neuron
  4. Rat brain
  5. Human brain
  6. Hypothalamus and pituitary gland
  7. Blood-brain barrier
  8. Dopamine synthesis

Based only on their visual appearance, as the students had no neuroscientific knowledge, they had to create a typology of the images, sorting them into eight groups that could then be assigned to above categories. The correct groupings are shown below:


Having become so familiar with these elements myself, it was certainly instructive to see how those without any prior knowledge went about grouping the images. Those elements with very distinctive shapes, such as the brains, pituitary glands and neurons, proved to be the most straightforward to group. Those images showing dopamine synthesis were also successfully identified by most of the students, as they share some definitive characteristics and I had shown similar images during my presentation.

The images that proved most difficult to categorise were either:

  • Those visual elements that varied in their appearance from anatomical to diagrammatic, such as the olfactory epitheliums.
  • Those visual elements that can be shown in more than one orientation, such as the blood-brain barrier (shown either in transverse or longitudinal section) and the human brainstems (shown either in side view or from the front).

A neuroscientist would be taught to recognise all variations on the visual element.

Previously, I have always created separate typologies for each category, as described in an earlier blog post. However, the creation of a single typology, containing all of the grouped elements, produces interesting juxtapositions of images that are similar in visual style but represent very different aspects of neuroscience.

All of which raises the question of how a person without the necessary knowledge would attempt to make sense of and categorise these images. For example, all of the black / white images could be grouped, or those images that use colour-coding imposed on a greyscale image (as shown below).




If figures were being produced for a general audience, as opposed to scientific peers, would consistency of visual style, particularly in the use of colour, become much more important? Also, would the orientation of the image have to be chosen as as to be more recognisable – the side-on view of a brainstem is much easier for a layperson to make sense of then a front-on view, for example. These are issues that will be more pertinent as the collaboration with the neuroscientists continues and the possible audience for their figures is expanded.

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