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Publish with us

Eight lessons from the webinar "article to art: creating visual abstracts"

2 March 2023

By Lipsa Panda

Tips and best practices on designing impactful visual abstracts

Science is not finished until it’s communicated.

Mark Walport, UK’s Chief Scientist

For better or worse, the pandemic has transformed society’s relationship with science and scientists. Our recent Confidence in Researchopens in new tab/window report highlighted the growing public concern about health and well-being. Now more than ever, the academic community has an enormous opportunity to help build a better-informed society. Social media, for example, has evolved into a one-stop shop for disseminating – and acquiring – information, encouraging researchers to talk about their new publications and share their findings and opinions across platforms.

As a result, visual abstracts (VA) or summary figures which were once confined to traditional publishing mechanisms, have now become a multifunctional and popular mode of research communication. After months of effort in planning, investigating, analyzing and finally publicizing research, it’s not necessarily surprising that many authors don’t feel producing a VA is worth the bother. They really should! Though it does demand effort, designing and producing an impactful visual abstract can pay dividends.

This is just one of the reasons Researcher Academyopens in new tab/window recently brought together four experts in academic publishing and visual communication to share best practices, tips, and resources for creating a VA for any medium. To help you on your research communications journey, the team also compiled a bonus documentopens in new tab/window listing free resources available online.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the webinar. If you want to learn more, you can watch the full recorded webinar free hereopens in new tab/window.

  1. Know what you’re doing: a VA is similar to the abstract of your article; it provides a quick snapshot of your study but it’s the graphics doing the heavy lifting, not the prose. Remember you’re summing up the take-home message of your article as a whole, not simply recycling a figure from your article!

  2. Do your homework: Always read the submission guidelines of the journal and find out if a VA is required (or permitted) for submission. In some cases, the VA will be published with the article while for others, it may only be used on social media. This will help you determine the audience for the VA. Gather all the guidelines for font, dimensions, resolution, templates (if any) and so on before you begin sketching your idea. 

    Learn more directly from our Publishersopens in new tab/window.

  3. Plan your story:  Once you know your audience, a VA is simply a matter of storytelling. Identify the crux of your research and build a narrative around it. Your audience will influence the number of sub narratives, complexity, and level of detail you’ll need to employ. It will also directly impact the language you use, of course.

  4. Prepare a blueprint: Visualization steps can often be overlooked but do not fall into this trap! It is of utmost importance that you spend time reviewing your concept and story. To do so, sketch the flow of your story, define your communication points, and add sub-narratives or background information depending on the audience. At this point, your sketch should include the direction of information flow (left to right or top to bottom) and white space. 

    Overwhelming? Learn how to ensure your VA has enough white spaceopens in new tab/window.

  5. Pick your style:  Once your sketch is complete, it is time to choose the type and style of visual elements for your VA. You can choose icons, photos, clipart, or even simple shapes depending on your comfort level, personal taste, and audience. For an eye-catching VA, consistent elements are a must! 

    Watch the webinar to learn some quick tips.opens in new tab/window

  6. Digitalize your blueprint: By this point, you should have decided on the tool which you will use to design or build your VA. These days, you can use a variety of platforms, including PowerPoint. Following your sketch, add all your visual elements – icons, text, arrows, etc. This is also a good time to revisit and refine your narrative. 

    • Use color sparingly and watch out for color and shape associations.

    • Use the typeface suggested by the journal or no more than two fonts.

    • The most effective designs are clean, crisp, and simple.

    Don’t have time to look for free tools? Download our resource guide.opens in new tab/window

  7. Flesh out your VA: The final and fun part is to design your VA! Don your creative hat and play with colors, typeface, scale, and hierarchy to create an informative yet compelling VA. Here are a few takeaways from the session: A quick 15-minute session on color palette selection and design tips awaits you hereopens in new tab/window!

  8. Get a second opinion (or two!): Once you believe your VA is complete and ready to submit, have it reviewed by peers or family members. If their understanding matches what you intended to convey, you are good to go. Be sure to also check if your VA is legible in grayscale as well as color. This ensures that your VA is ready for printing or web display.

We hope this summary and the webinar will help you make your research communication interesting and eye-catching. Explore and unleash your creative potential to create a show-stopping visual abstract!

More questions? We are here to help. Reach us via the Researcher Academy Support Centeropens in new tab/window

Researcher Academyopens in new tab/window offers informative e-learning modules on a wide range of topics to support you along your research journey. If you have a topic in mind that you would like us to cover, please let us know in the comments section below.


Lipsa Panda, communications manager


Lipsa Panda

Communications Manager