Adaptable elements

The key aspect of my approach to visual communication for scientists is to provide a range of solutions that scientists themselves can adapt to their individual needs. The conventional approach in most scientific institutions is to create a single complete figure, that the scientist uses once and is then not suitable for future use. Often simply changing the annotation, or slightly editing part of the figure, is all that is required, but that can be difficult or impossible to achieve. Instead, the scientist either spends time and effort to create a new figure from scratch, or makes do with a less than satisfactory existing figure.

Providing a library of individual visual elements, that a scientist can then use to build up their figure, goes a long way to resolving this problem. In addition, if the elements themselves can easily be adapted and edited then the scientist has the opportunity to create a bespoke figure that exactly meets their requirements. However, it must be borne in mind that not every scientist will have the time, or the inclination, to edit the visual elements. Therefore, providing complete elements as off-the-peg image files, that the scientist can use in their figures with the minimum of effort, is an important part of the visual communication solution.

In all cases, the starting point is an Adobe Illustrator file, as the Layer function within the software makes it relatively straightforward to build up an adaptable and editable visual element. Three examples of this approach are shown below, all showing different approaches to creating and using the visual elements.

1. Anatomical brain

In this case, the visual element is an anatomical image of a sagittal section through a human brain. The drawing in Illustrator is based on a photograph and so is more anatomical than diagrammatic. It is made up of many layers in Illustrator, as shown, with each layer successive layer adding more detail to the overall image.

Seventeen individual layers in Illustrator are used to build up the final image

Once the image is complete, the visibility of individual layers can be toggled on or off within Illustrator to change the appearance of the brain, and image files can be exported from Illustrator at each point to capture these different versions of the brain. In this way, a scientist can create a suite of brain images, all with a consistent visual appearance, that can be used in a variety of ways.

Four versions of the anatomical brain, all exported from the same Illustrator file

2. Diagrammatic human head and human torso

Creating a more diagrammatic visual element, such as a simplified sagittal section through the human head, always the element to be even easier to adapt and edit. Many different layers are used in Illustrator, with a separate part of the structure of the head on each layer. These parts fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, meaning a part can be removed (by toggling the layer visibility off) or replaced with a different version (by toggling on the visibility of an alternate layer) to create a wide range of possible images. The animated gif below shows the original Illustrator file, containing a large number of layers. As the visibility of these layers is toggled on and off, the image of the head changes.

Animated gif showing the effect of toggling individual layers on and off in Illustrator

The parts making up the head were original drawn as outlines only, but alternate layers, containing more a anatomical rendering of some parts (such as the cerebellum) have been added. Additional parts, such as the facial features and facial nerves, were also added, to fit the scale of the base image. Many layers can be added to the same file, meaning that a wide range of possible images can be exported from one Illustrator file just by toggling the visibility of layers, with no additional editing required on the part of the scientist.

Different versions of the diagrammatic human head, all generated from one Illustrator file

The same approach can be used with similar diagrammatic Illustrator files, such as the versions of the human torso shown below. Here, the position of each layer in the original Illustrator file controls whether part of the anatomy on that layer appears at the front or the back of the image. This means that areas of interest can be easily brought to the front of the image, as well as being revealed by toggling off the visibility of the layers in front of it. A small amount of editing may be required after changing the order of layers, to ensure the image retains its integrity.

Different versions of the diagrammatic human torso, all generated from one Illustrator file

3. Combining visual elements

It is also possible to combine visual elements from two or three different Illustrator files into one and, with some editing of individual layers with that file, create a coherent image.

In the example below, two Illustrator files containing diagrammatic human heads, and a separate Illustrator file containing an image of a nasal inhaler, were used. The facial nerves were copied from the file contain the outline head and added to the file containing the pink / grey coloured head. The nasal inhaler was then added to that file, and additional edits made so that the nozzle appears to be inside the nostril. This type of editing involves more effort on the part of the scientists but can result in a figure that completely matches their requirements.

Combining elements from three separate Illustrator files to create the required figure

Providing scientists with a wide range of adaptable, editable visual elements, together with some training in how to make use of them, should allow them to more easily construct their own figures. Edited files can be added back into the existing library of visual elements, thereby building up a visual communication resource that can be utilised by others.