Drawing in Research

I’m giving a webinar for the PHC Knowledge Translation Community of Practice today and wanted to jot down a few notes as a companion. Many of the activities I have included were used in my Going Visual workshops at SFU. For the sake of this session, I am revising them below. The title of the webinar is…

“Drawn to Your Research: Using Visuals to Improve Academic and Non-Academic Presentations”, will guide participants through a series of fun drawing exercises designed to amplify your visual literacy. No previous drawing experience is required, only a willingness to make your marks!

Visual Practice

I must clarify first what I will mean by “presentations”.  It could in fact be a powerpoint presentation that you are working in which, many researches would be used to. But for the sake of this session I will widen the scope of presentation to anytime you are telling the story of your research, whether that be in the boardroom, the classroom or elevator. You may in fact find yourselves presenting your research on the back of the proverbial napkin, and if so, this workshop is intended directly for you.

Drawing, and more specifically drawing comics has been making headway in academia lately. In my world of teaching and learning, we use it to help synthesize ideas for the classroom, but in the research world the audience and the time you have with them can be much more diverse, and unpredictable. Regardless of audience, there is something much more approachable about a quick doodle or sketch compared to a graph, diagram or white paper. Case in point Jorge Cham (PHD comics) and Daniel Whiteson have teamed up to bring us  We Have No Idea a collection of comics dedicated to answering some of sciences toughest problems, in a comic book format.

So many ideas, a sketchnote

Academics from a range of disciplines are beginning to realize that this form has a great deal to offer for research communication and teaching. – Helen Kara

In her post called Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia, Helen Kara recently shared an extensive list of institutions and organizations offering courses, conferences and practices in comics art. She also linked to a prominent graphic recorder and illustrator Sarah Firth who works in these areas.

Map vs sequential images

There are other ways that drawing has been popular to synthesize and share information including graphic recording and facilitation. In this practice, the ‘recorder’ plays an intermediary role in a meeting or lecture, and ‘scribes’ the exchange including text and images in a way to summarize meaning visually. Sarah Firth is such an illustrator artist. There are wide range of techniques and formats where these renderings can take place, two of the more common, and somewhat distinguish this field from comic art are maps and sequences. Sequences rely on a series of frames that are meant to be read one after another, while a map can be seen in its entirety.

Making Sense of Complexity – (sequential) Sarah Firth

In Making Sense of Complexity – we see a great eg. of sequential storytelling from Sarah Firth

Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia – (map) Sarah Firth

In Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia we see a great eg of a visual map from Sarah Firth

The activities below are geared towards building a practice of making sequential art, or comics. In this way you can begin to tell your own research stories.


  1. Spiral time (warm up)
  2. Squiggle bird – I can draw! (confidence booster)  Pareidolia.
  3. Visual Vocab – The basics. (daily practice) The most simple image. Sketchotes
  4. 4 icon story – Visual story telling. Sequence vs. Maps
  5. Back of the napkin – What is your research?

Spiral time

Make your own spiral


Squiggle bird

Get started with a simple character

Visual Vocab

Build your visual vocabulary in your sketchbook!

Working on the basic building blocks of visual language will improve your ability to be creative and communicate in creative ways. In “The Essentials of Visual Language“, we can try a series of assignments that explore the fundamental building blocks of visual work, including; lines, shapes, faces and text.


#gv18 Icon Jam


Four icon story

Tell your first story, only with pictures!

Simplifying a complex narrative to its essential visual elements can help you understand whats important to keep.  One exercise you can do to help practice your visual story telling skills is the “Four icon challenge“.

Rome and Juliet as expressed in four icons. Designed by Kyle Tezak
Rome and Juliet as expressed in four icons. Designed by Kyle Tezak

Kyle Tezak, a designer in Minneapolis published the challenge as a “fun design challenge” but ended up pushing it further than expected.

This personal project attempts to synthesize stories into four icons while keeping the narrative intact. The project started as a fun design challenge for me to do in my spare time, but I actually ended up learning a lot about the significance of objects and themes in storytelling. It also forced me to re-examine some of my favorite stories and gain a deeper understanding of them.

4 icons representing the film Cool Hand Luke by Tom Woodward.
4 icons representing the film Cool Hand Luke by Tom Woodward.

Assignment: Reduce a movie, story, or event into its basic elements, then take those visuals and reduce them further to simple icons.


Four icon challenge instructions

  1. Choose your story. This could be a movie, or book from popular culture or a story of your own.
  2. Choose you media and consider your space.  Feel free to experiment or try some new format.
  3. draw your 4 icon story to the EdMedia website. If you want to make a game out of do not share the title, but let your audience figure it out on their own!

TIP: To find a wide selection of free icons and visual references, a great resource is The Noun Project. As we discussed in Going Visual I, icons are a powerful and efficient way to visually communicate large concepts and ideas.

More in four

Scouring the internet for more resources to tell a story in four frames, I stumbled on a few cool links. First, the style of a 4 panel comic is actually “a thing” called “Yonkoma“. A typical Yonkoma is laid our with 4 vertical panels, of the following steps.

Ki (起):The first panel forms the basis of the story; it sets the scene.
Shō (承): The second panel develops upon the foundation of the story laid down in the first panel.
Ten (転): The third panel is the climax, in which an unforeseen development occurs.
Ketsu (結): The fourth panel is the conclusion, in which the effects of the third panel are seen.


These guides get taken further on the site Instructables through a step by step activity entitled “How to write 4-panel Manga“.

Finally there is the the fantastic 4panel.ca. An ongoing collection of 4 panel comic strips, with a wide range of contributors, and styles.  Some very traditional comic book style with text and image, others getting closer to the “4 icon challenge” activity, others approaching “grids and gestures“.


4PANEL.CA is a space where a range of talented artists creatively explore the four-panel comics format in a formal, abstract, literary, conceptual and/or transformative context.

Back of the napkin interview

Get to listening, one of the most important skills for an academic illustrator.


Activity! This is a form of “Flipchart resume”. We are going to try and find out a bit more about each participants research, while at the same time practicing our visual communication skills. You will need to …

– Conduct a 5 min. interview and record notes quickly and efficiently.

– Capture as much information as possible on the page, include as many details as you can.

– Divide your page

– You will need five separate areas to record the responses to five questions.- Choose your tools

– Colours may be used convey meaning, choose them wisely. 3 colors MAX.

– Record the person’s responses with at least 1 image, and no more than one word.

Interview questions

  • How are you feeling today?
  • Besides drawing, what other creative outlets do you enjoy?
  • What is your research question?
  • Free Choice: Choose one final question to ask your interviewee

    – Switch and repeat

    – Gather for critique

    Modified from “A Better Icebreaker

    Source: http://johnleskodotbiz.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/a-better-icebreaker/

Presentation slides

Reading list

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