Depicting process and time in a scientific illustration

Depicting a process or a time flow in a scientific illustration can be very challenging. This is due to the simple fact that processes and time are dynamic, while a figure is, by its own nature, static.

However, if done correctly, visually showing a time evolution can be very effective. It can help your audience understand the process you’re describing, as they can see exactly what is going on and which elements of the process they should focus on. It can also help them remember what they learned by adding a visual element to their memory.

So, how should you depict process and time in a scientific graphic? Here are some tips to create a super-effective scientific visualization.

Show different frames of the process

The most straightforward way to visualize the passage of time in a scientific illustration is to present a series of snapshots of the process.

The viewer’s eye should be guided in the right direction, so that he isn’t confused about where to start. The two most conventional directions are from top to bottom and from left to right.

For example, this figure shows the process of skin aging. The three stages are arranged vertically, from top to bottom. Our eye flows naturally from top to bottom because, culturally, we are used to this direction.

Use arrows

When a figure or diagram is more complex than the one shown above, the direction of the flow might not be immediately clear to the viewer. To avoid confusion, consider adding arrows.

Arrows should unobtrusively guide the viewer’s eye in the correct direction and facilitate the reading of the scientific illustration. So avoid fancy arrows and keep them as simple as possible. Remember: they are not the focus of your graphic, but rather a guide for the viewer.

Take this illustration of cancer cell development. There are two separate flows here. If we don’t add arrows, viewers might be unsure whether to read the image from top to bottom or from left to right. Adding a couple simple arrows in different colors immediately clarifies the structure of the illustration.

Build a time diagram

Sometimes it can be useful to combine pictures with quantitative time information. A typical example of this is the evolution of an organism: after how much time does the change you depict take place?

Good news: there is a very neat way to do this! You can simply build a time diagram, where time is on the x-axis, and you align the different frames horizontally.

Take a look at the sample image below: it represents the life cycle of a dandelion. Notice how, by looking at a single image, you can easily gather two different types of information: what the different life stages are, and how long they take. All we did, was arrange the different pictures over an x-axis with a precise scale. This figure has a much more scientific and precise feeling than just some evenly spaced drawings of the different phases of the cycle.

Draw cycles effectively

We sometimes need to represent cycles in our scientific illustrations. These can be tricky because the reader doesn’t often know where to start looking on the figure.

“But it’s a cycle, of course there’s no beginning or ending!”

Of course, I hear you. But a viewer who has limited knowledge about the subject will need to start somewhere. So, make an effort to identify the most natural starting point of your cycle, the one that will feel the least confusing. Then, place it in a prominent position, as we discussed in question 4 of this article. This way, the viewer’s eye will be drawn to the point you identify and have a more comfortable experience. Bonus tip: for a circle-shaped cycle, the most prominent position tends to be at the top, in the middle; for a rectangle-shaped cycle, it’s more on the top left.

Let’s take a look at the example below. In the first image, the most prominent element is the large sponge, which is the common point of two cycles. Thus, it makes sense to make it the starting point of the diagram. However, it is placed at the bottom left, which is an awkward position for the main element of an image. The second image is much clearer: the large sponge is now on the top left of a rectangular cycle, and I have differentiated the labels to make the illustration easier to read.

Finally, guide the viewer’s eye around the cycle! Add some arrows or any other visual element that suggests a sense of progression. A clockwise rotation feels more natural to most readers.

You can also create “quantitative cycles” by placing each phase in a position that relates to the time in takes compared to the full cycle length.

Conclusion

Let’s summarize the four tips we have seen for depicting process and time in a scientific illustration.

  • Show different frames of the process to represent the passage of time.
  • Use arrows to guide the viewer’s eye along the process. Left-to-right and top-to-bottom are the most common flow directions.
  • Create a quantitative time diagram by placing frames over a graduated x-axis that represents time.
  • Draw effective cycles by giving the viewer a clear starting point and guiding their eye along the cycle.

So here you go! I hope you will be able to show process and time more effectively in your scientific graphics. I would love it if you shared with me the graphics you create by tagging @tales_of_science on Instagram!

If you feel a bit overwhelmed and would like me to help you with your scientific graphic, just drop me a line! I’ll be happy to help you!

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