PhD research

This page provides a summary of the research contained in Dr Gill Brown’s PhD thesis, Visual Elements and Visual Paradigms: Re-thinking scientific conceptual figures through graphic design, completed in September 2019. Some key references are listed at the bottom of the page. The final PhD thesis itself can be found on the British Library’s EThOS database and UAL’s Research Online database.

Links are included to other webpages that give more detail about Gill’s research and research methods.


The PhD research investigates visual communication within scientific peer groups, specifically the conceptual figures that scientists use to explain processes, ideas and theories. These figures are published in papers in scientific journals and used in printed posters and PowerPoint presentations at scientific conferences. They are constructed from visual elements that utilise a visual language specific to that field of science. This language requires a great deal of background knowledge, on the part of both the originator of the figure and their audience, to be used and understood. In the case of the earth and life sciences, these visual languages have developed over decades or, in some cases, centuries and are often rooted in a strong tradition of observational drawing.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn stated that scientific knowledge advances in a series of paradigms (Kuhn, 1996), and the longer a scientific paradigm persists, the more specialised its scientific language, both visual and verbal, becomes. It can be argued that each paradigm also has an associated image that represents that particular scientific concept. Kuhn uses Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric solar system as a prime example of a scientific paradigm. Copernicus also produced a diagram that perfectly encapsulated his theory, and this has been used ever since, in a wide variety of forms, as the visual representation of the heliocentric solar system; a visual paradigm.

In his 1935 book, The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (Fleck, 1979), Ludwik Fleck describes how a scientific theory emanates from a small ‘inner core’ of scientists, before disseminating through the broader scientific community, on to students and school children and, finally, to the general public. It can be argued that the visual representation of a theory, the visual paradigm, is created and disseminated in the same way. It is this ‘inner core’ of scientists that is the concern of this research project; those conceptual figures produced by scientists themselves, using highly specialised visual languages, to communicate with each other.

The aims of the research were three-fold:

  • To create a new methodological framework for the visual analysis of scientific conceptual figures.
  • To provide a solution to the issues faced by scientists during the production of conceptual figures.
  • To conduct a critical evaluation of the use of graphic design practice as a research method.
Historical Development

To understand the significance of the visual elements within a scientific conceptual figure it is necessary to understand the historical development of science as a discipline in Western Europe and the associated development and use of scientific visual languages*. Daston and Galison, in their book Objectivity (Daston, 2007), describe the historical development of the visualisation of science in three stages that follow on from, but do not necessarily replace, each other. The first stage is that of direct observation, as typified by anatomical and botanical drawings. The advent of photography raised the prospect of a more objective observer than the human eye, and marked the second stage of development, that of mechanical observation. However, scientists quickly realised the limitations of a medium that captured absolutely everything. Better to create a visual representation that highlighted what was important and, crucial for the acceptance of a scientific idea, made a convincing argument. This is the third stage in Daston and Galison’s development, where trained judgment is required to both produce and understand these visual representations.

Chronologically-ordered collections of figures that depict the same scientific concepts, such as the blood circulation system, demonstrate the birth of conventions for visual representation, and also confirm their longevity and persistence**. Visual motifs can be seen in 21st century conceptual figures that first appeared in the 18th or 19th centuries. To an informed viewer, these familiar representations, particularly those that can be regarded as visual paradigms, instantly establish context and meaning, without the need for additional explanation.

* Brown, G. (2016) The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific Graphic Design. HARTS & Minds, vol. 3.1, issue 8. [The journal website is no longer available, but the full text of the article can be downloaded from Gill’s ResearchGate account.]

** This webpage provides more detail on the L.A.T.C.H method in visual research and demonstrates the use of chronologically-ordered images to highlight the visual paradigm of blood circulation. 

Visual Analysis

Given the enormous amount of information that is contained within a scientific conceptual figure, and which is only apparent to an informed viewer, how would one perform a visual analysis of such a figure?

A conceptual figure can be analysed as a piece of visual communication, and described in terms of elements such as line, colour and text. Similarly, content analysis can be performed, but neither of these approaches would address either the science or the external influences that were applied during the figure’s creation. The art historian James Elkins has written extensively on what he terms ‘nonart’ images (Elkins 1999), stating that artists cannot analyse such images due to their lack of scientific knowledge. However, he also asserts that, equally, they cannot be analysed by scientists, who do not possess the necessary expertise.

Semiotician Francois Bastide acknowledges the limitation of semiotic analysis without scientific knowledge, when applied to conceptual scientific figures (Lynch, 1990). Linguist Elizabeth Rowley-Jolivet has written extensively on the role of images in scientific presentations (Rowley-Jolivet, 2000), particularly the importance of a knowledgeable viewer, but she does not attempt to analyse the conceptual figures that form a key part of those presentations.  Regarding the figures as multi-modal ensembles, as defined by Frank Serafini (2013) seems the most appropriate way to acknowledge their complexity but, again, that does not directly address their scientific content.

Given that none of the visual analysis methods discussed above have been designed to specifically address the scientific meaning of conceptual figures, the first aim of the research was to create a new methodological framework for the visual analysis of such figures. The use of graphic design practice, in both the analysis phase and in communicating the results of the analysis, is a key aspect of this framework, which can be summarised in seven steps:

  1. Re-draw the conceptual figure and break it down into its visual elements.
  2. In conjunction with the scientist who created or used the figure, identify those elements with scientific meaning and highlight any visual paradigms.
  3. For each of the scientific visual elements, trace its origin and visual development. For visual paradigms, describe the fact, concept or process they represent.
  4. Create typologies of the scientific visual elements, to demonstrate variations and highlight key features*.
  5. Perform a summary analysis of the figure, using some aspects of semiotic analysis where appropriate and taking the scientific meaning into account.

For all of the figures included in the same journal article:

6. Demonstrate how the figures relate to each other visually and how their method of production has influenced their visual appearance.

7. Demonstrate the influence of external factors, such as publisher’s guidelines, on the figures.

By following the steps of this analysis, a graphic designer can gain sufficient knowledge and insight into the scientific visual language being employed that they should be able to be involved in the creation of these figures. The second aim of the research project, therefore, is to apply what has been learnt so far in a professional setting.

* See this webpage for more details of how the creation of typologies was a key research method.

Professional Application

The Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences at King’s College London proposed a collaboration*, as they were looking for an easier way of producing conceptual figures, with a consistent visual style that could be associated with the CNS. The conceptual figures for three upcoming journal papers were put forward as case studies. By following the framework for visual analysis outlined above, it was possible to build up a good understanding of the visual language being employed and deduce which visual elements, and visual paradigms, are required for the figures.

By concentrating on the individual visual elements, rather than on a completed figure, it is possible to create a digital library of such elements that can then be used to construct conceptual figures. Each visual element is created in Adobe Illustrator software and, by making use of the ‘Layer’ functionality within the software, the elements are made to be easily edited and adapted for use in different figures or in different media. The success of this approach is dependent on the scientists themselves, given appropriate instruction, being able to use and edit the visual elements and combine them into a complete conceptual figure.

* This collaboration is described on the Working with neuroscientists webpage, with further links to the dedicated collaboration website.

The use of graphic design practice

The third aim of the research project was to place graphic design practice at the centre of the thesis, both as a research tool and to create an output based on graphic design, and to document this process. What perhaps was not anticipated was how pivotal graphic design practice would be, allowing insights to be made and knowledge gained that could not otherwise have been achieved.

It is difficult to see how the importance of the visual elements, and particularly the visual paradigms, could have been appreciated without the practical steps of re-drawing conceptual figures and noting the repetition and variation of graphic forms. The building blocks of the visual language of neuroscience can be seen to be relatively simple, in graphic terms, when they are stripped down to their essentials. Armed with these building blocks it is then possible to use them to construct conceptual figures, and also to enable the neuroscientists to do this for themselves. The fact that the process of building up the figures from the visual elements gave the neuroscientists additional insight into their scientific practice was an added bonus and suggests an area for further research.

Gill presented her completed research at the London College of Communication PhD Student Show in March 2020 – see this page for more details.

Key references
  • Daston, L. & Galison, P. (2007) Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
  • Elkins, J. (1999) The Domain of Images. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Translated from the German by Fred Bradley & Thaddeus J. Trenn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kuhn, T.S. (1996) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lynch, M. & Woolgar, S. eds. (1990) Representations in Scientific Practice. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  • Rowley-Jolivet, E. (2000) Image as Text. Aspects of the shared visual language of scientific conference participants. Groupe d’Étude et de Recherche en Anglais de Spécialité. vol. 27-30, pp 133-154. [Internet]. Available from: <; [Accessed 24 May 2014]
  • Serafini, F. (2013) Reading the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.