A significant part of researching, and understanding, scientific visual languages has involved collecting large numbers of visual elements that are used to represent the same scientific object or concept and creating typologies.

Scientific conceptual figures often appear visually complex, particularly to non-scientists. It is important to take time to dismantle a figure, identify the various elements that make up the figure and further identify which of those elements have scientific meaning. This is a point where graphic design practice proves extremely useful as part of the research process. Re-drawing the elements allows them to be easily grouped and compared / contrasted, as well as giving insights into how the original figures were produced, even down to the software package that was probably used.

On the Portfolio page of this website there is a gallery of re-drawn visual elements, including the collection of rat brains shown below.

Looking at the elements as a group, we can start to identify those features that make these images recognisable as rat brains – the overall, elongated shape of the brain; the prominent olfactory bulb on the front; the distinctive shape of the cerebellum on the back. While shape is indicative of a rat brain, the use of colour appears to be completely arbitrary. Also, the brains are almost always shown with the front of the brain on the left. Only one of the twenty brains included here is facing in the opposite direction. Interestingly, the same is also true for human brains. The expected direction for a section through the brain appears to be for the brain to be ‘facing’ left.

Similar assessments can be made of the other visual elements shown in the gallery of re-drawn visual elements, most of which are based to some extent on the anatomical appearance of the object they represent. The elements can appear complex to a viewer unfamiliar with the anatomical object. As colour is rarely indicative, removing the colour and examining only the shape can reveal the similarities between the elements and highlight the key features. The visual elements below represent the pituitary gland and  hypothalamus. When viewed simply as black forms, the sac-like shape of the pituitary, and the ovoid shapes and connecting lines representing the hypothalamic nuclei, are more clearly shown.

Representations of pituitary glands and hypothalamic nuclei re-drawn in their original colours (top) and then shown as black shapes (bottom), to emphasise their form

In neuroscience, the visual elements often represent objects or concepts that are not readily seen with the naked eye, or even with modern imaging equipments. In these cases, the elements have indicative shapes that owe more to function than to the true form of the object. Examples of some of these neuroscience shapes are included in this gallery on the Portfolio webpage.

One of these shapes, which is ubiquitous in neuroscientific conceptual figures, is the visual representation of a neuron synapse and its role in chemical neurotransmission – where chemicals pass across the small gap (synapse) between nerve cells (neurons). Examples of these synapse shapes are shown below.

From l to r: Original representations of neuron synapses from Nature publications; the synapse shapes re-drawn in their original colours; the shapes shown in black.

Looking at these shapes, and the large collection of synapse shapes included in the gallery, reveals a huge variation in form, but there are some consistent features:

  • The neuron synapse is usually portrayed vertically, with the pre-synaptic bouton above the post-synaptic bouton. Occasionally they are shown horizontally, with the pre-synaptic bouton then on the left.
  • There are most commonly two boutons shown but if only one is shown, then it is almost always the pre-synaptic bouton.
  • The synaptic vesicles (circular holes) are only present in the pre-synaptic bouton, although the number of vesicles is highly variable.
  • There is always a gap, of varying width, between the boutons to represent the synapse.

Within these parameters, there is huge scope for variation, and the colours used are completely arbitrary. Once a graphic designer or illustrator is aware of the features that must be included, in order to make the figure recognisable, then they can confidently produce a figure that conforms with scientific expectations but is simultaneously well-designed.