Working with scientific illustrator

If you are a scientist, why and how to work with a scientific illustrator?

I am often asked about it and it seems that this is a somewhat
puzzling topic for scientists and researchers. So here is a short attempt to explain the reasons and the basis of a successful collaboration between a scientist and a scientific illustrator.

Why working with a scientific illustrator?
As a scientist, it is vital for your career to communicate, the better you
are at it, the higher impact your work will have. During the long years
you spent specialising in your field, you are trained to communicate
prevalently in a verbal way: to write and to present orally. In contrast,
learning to communicate visually in a clear manner, is more often than
not, neglected and considered of lesser importance. In consequence, most
scientists never really learn how to communicate effectively through
images. Moreover, scientists are trained to focus on high accuracy and to
dwell on the every last detail of their topic which makes it likely to forget
that not everyone has their detailed knowledge, and to lose sight of the
bigger picture. Deeply immersed in their specialised research, scientists
tend to spend relatively long time on preparing complex figures and are
inclined to think that no one else could translate their complex message
into a clear picture. And that is precisely when working with a scientific
illustrator can be very beneficial.

A scientific illustrator learns how to synthesize and to communicate
complex messages in a clear and visually accurate way. By having a
scientific background but at the same time not being an expert of a
particular specialisation, the illustrator can asses more objectively what is
essential for a scientific communication. An experienced illustrator can
help to present a complex message concisely by stripping it off the details
that might be unnecessary to the message. This is one of the biggest
advantages of working with a scientific illustrator: seeing the whole
picture instead of a collection of details.

To recapitulate, if you are a scientist, here is why it can be a good idea
to work with a scientific illustrator:

  • your message is presented in clear and visually appealing images;
  • your ideas are expressed in a way that you yourself would not
    think of
    or could not realize;
  • you learn from the illustrator to improve the way you translate
    your ideas into visuals;
  • you save time by outsourcing the time consuming image creation;
  • you have high quality tailor-made visuals at your disposal.

How to work with a scientific illustrator?
The collaboration with an illustrator is based, like every good
collaboration, on discussions and a mutual exchange of ideas. It requires
usually an iterative process to find the most adapted visual solutions to a
given problem. To make this process run smoothly, before contacting an
, you might want to prepare, if already available, a draft of the
planned communication or relevant extracts of it for which the visual(s)
is/are intended. If you already have some first ideas on your images, it is
good to discuss them with all your collaborators involved in the project. If
relevant, note your personal preferences, for example: “We have so far
always represented this in this form or colour”. This can help to maintain
coherence between your already existing images and the images that the
illustrator will create. If you feel like it, you can prepare simple sketches
which can be hand drawn or look for existing examples that can serve as a
reference in terms of content and/or style. Ideally, get in touch sufficiently
in advance before your deadline.

During the discussion with your chosen illustrator, if you know exactly
what you want, summarize briefly the purpose and the main take home
message of each image in your communication. If you are not sure yet
what you need, take advantage of the illustrator’s expertise and ask for
suggestions. Illustrators love to conceptualize ideas and to design images
that best express the chosen message.

After the initial discussion, you can go back to doing what you are
actually trained for: research. In the meantime, the illustrator will delve
into your topic and produce first drafts. Once the drafts are ready, you
receive them to check whether they correspond to your needs and
expectations. If several people are involved, you should collect the
comments from all of them and, in case of contradictions, clarify those
before going back to the illustrator with your feedback. The latter will
then update the drafts accordingly and resubmit them to you for another
cycle of checks and corrections. Personally, I am comfortable to do up to
three iterations on figures but every illustrator handles this differently so
you should ask in advance. Once you are happy with the drafts, I prepare
the final files in several formats and deliver them to you. For publication/
grant application figures, I provide an editable source format, so you can
reuse them in the future. This is also not always the case, so again be sure
to ask your chosen illustrator in advance.

I hope you can see now that the collaborations with illustrators are quite
straightforward and can be very rewarding for both sides: enhanced
communication impact, mutual learning and a time saving relationship
based on experience and trust. Simply put: the best of collaborations!

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