Tips for sharing research visually

This Academic Writing Month, Janet Salmons asked me for my suggestions on sharing research work. My responses to her questions are below.

What approaches do you recommend researchers take for using visualizations and images of various kinds to communicate research findings? Is it different for qualitative or quantitative researchers?

Like research and writing, creating images requires thoughtful process. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone use a design thinking process. This includes thinking about who your audience is and gathering information about them before developing ideas, and then using sketches or prototypes to test ideas over and over. Something else to consider, whether you are a quantitative or qualitative researcher, is what type of visual serves your goal best. Photos are great if you take them yourself to capture something very specific. Digital graphics created on a computer are great if you can keep them very simple. In my opinion, hand drawings are often the best because they can be specific and approachable, but what they aren’t good for is showing highly technical ideas. Graphic recordings are visuals created during real-time dialogue so can be great coupled with some qualitative methods.


How does one “proofread” a visual representation to determine whether the message was presented clearly?

A trained eye learns to “proofread” but even we need to test our visuals with real people (ideally, several very different ones, or at least ones who represent those we are trying to communicate with) to learn whether they are clear and how we might improve them. This is why I am a firm believer in the design thinking approach. It ensures that you are putting the viewer first from the very beginning of your process. That is the best way to develop messages, visual or otherwise, that will resonate and spark new understandings.

What software tools do you recommend? Are there free or cheap options available for student or new researchers?

There are many online tools and of course software programs for creating visuals, and which to use largely depends on the type of visual you are creating. For those that are data-based, I prefer Tableau Public, but Excel or Google Sheets work too. I also prefer Prezi over Powerpoint (a free version is available). For geographic maps you can use Google Maps or ArcGIS Online (public or education version), and for network maps Kumu is an easy, free option. Regardless of which you choose, I recommend always starting with pen and paper. You have the most options available to work out ideas without fussing with technology until you are clear about what exactly you need to create.

What resources are available to help us develop graphics, diagrams, or even photographs that clearly convey ideas and relationships?

There are entire fields of study dedicated to this! Namely, art, design, marketing, data visualization, graphic facilitation… You can find a variety of beginner courses online, such as on Skillshare and Lynda. Stanford also has a Virtual Crash Course in design thinking.

Some of my favorite thought leaders are Edward Tufte, Alberto Cairo, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Stephanie Evergreen, Dan Roam, Nancy Duarte, and David Sibbet all of whom have written incredibly useful books. To learn more about using visuals to support groups, read Brandy Agerbeck’s Graphic Facilitator’s Guide or Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution (see video) or my own short ebook, Using Visuals to Support Collaborative Work. There’s also a new book called Visual Note-taking for Educators. One of my favorite resources on human-centered design is’s free Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

What’s most important to understand about design– the study of using images to convey ideas– is that it is really all about practice. Just like research, if you want to do it well, you can’t just study it, you have to do it. Over and over again.

This blog was originally published by SAGE Publishing's Methodspace for Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo

Using visuals to support your writing process

Many of us are well trained in using writing to develop and convey our insights, but only some of us learn how visuals can help us organize and communicate our ideas.

It’s well worth learning what you can, because visuals have the unique ability to help us:

  • Develop ideas and understand experiences that language can not yet describe
  • Gather and analyze complex and/or abstract ideas in simple, immediate ways
  • Communicate across language, knowledge, ideological, and other barriers
  • Impact decision-making, which largely happens in our pre-lingual, pre-rational brains

The best visuals balance the use of thoughtful images and words, and the best writing balances thorough explanation and visualization. Writers that use visuals to describe their ideas help their readers better understand the frameworks of thinking that inform what the writer is seeking to convey, and they make it easier for readers to share those ideas with others.

The most effective way to incorporate visuals into your writings is to start using them at the beginning of your writing process. Here are some tips for using visuals throughout your process to help both you and your readers better understand your writing:



  • Photos and videos are great for documenting people, places, and things that inspire you. In fact, if you’re not sure what does inspire you, you might take a look at the photos you’ve recently taken.
  • Simple drawings, for example of maps or flowcharts, and/or collages can help you play with ideas. See if you can suspend judgement about whether your creations look like you want them to and instead focus on having fun and seeing what arises.
  • Drawings generated from group conversations, also known as graphic recordings, are great for capturing and reflecting on not just your own ideas but the ideas of your colleagues or counterparts. Since thinking itself is largely a social activity, this type of visual can be incredibly clarifying and empowering.

Organizing and Focusing

  • A great way to begin synthesizing ideas is to write them on sticky notes and experiment arranging them on a desk or wall surface.
  • Diagrams are great for organizing ideas. Some worth considering using are mind maps, brace maps, circle maps, Venn diagrams, 2×2 matrices and feedback loops.
  • When you are ready to start focusing and begin writing, you can create timelines, Gantt charts, and/or PERT charts to plan your production process in a way that can also hold you accountable.

Sharing, Publishing and Presenting 

  • Graphics are excellent for supporting ideas in proposals, articles, reports, and books. Unlike your writing, which may be incredibly thorough, graphics need to be as simple as possible to be understood very quickly. Plan to take as much or even more time developing these as you do your writing.
  • Don’t forget to also use these graphics to share ideas more widely, for example on social media or websites and in emails or presentation slides. Be sure to ask others what your visuals mean to them so you can revise them just as you would your writing.
  • Photos and videos are great ways to personalize your work and make it more approachable for wider audiences. For example, you can take photos or videos of yourself conducting research, making it through pivotal benchmarks in your writing process, and getting published to share your process and build a following online.

This blog was originally published by SAGE Publishing's Methodspace for Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo

How to use visuals for analysis and discovery

I was recently speaking with a researcher about her dissertation, which involved interviewing doctoral students about their research process. What she shared really struck me: her participants were most excited about how instrumental their visualization software had been in helping them form their own understanding of their data. Yet, they only mentioned the software briefly in their methods section.

I think this is because researchers often think to use visuals to present findings, overlooking the fact that to effectively communicate they must first fully understand the information. While researchers may be surprised by the role visuals can play in their process, professional creatives like myself use visuals for observation, analysis, discovery and presentation.

Researchers from all fields have a long history of using visuals as tools for analysis and discovery. No matter what purpose it serves, the type of visual that is best used all depends on what is being compared.

Sketches and photos for observations

Hand drawings have long been used to compare characteristics, particularly in the natural sciences. Consider Charles Darwin, whose keen observations of finches led him to one of the most fundamental scientific theories of all time.

Beatrix Potter, Wikipedia Commons

Beatrix Potter, Wikipedia Commons

There are many more examples from across the sciences, including:

Leonardo da Vinci, Wikipedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, photographs are also visuals created from observation. Photojournalists investigate current events through their lens, physicians use medical imaging to diagnose pathologies, and remote sensing photography allows geographers to better understand landscapes. Diane Arbus documented marginalized people while Ansel Adams captured pristine Western landscapes.

Here are some tips for using sketches or photos for analysis and discovery:

  • Train your eye to search for and pay attention to the smallest of details.
  • Use measurements like distance and scale to note patterns.
  • Develop a regular practice as it will take time to master creative skills.
  • Try to connect with other “trained eyes” so they can help you refine your craft.

Diagrams for abstract systems and possibilities

As philosopher and comic artist Nick Sousanis talks about in depth in his book Unflattening, using visuals allows us to think outside the limits of language and, therefore, our current cognitive frameworks.

So it isn’t too surprising that many ground-breaking researchers have have used visuals to both better understand and describe the systems and concepts they were studying:

If you want to use diagrams for analyzing abstract ideas, here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Start simple: map out processes and systems that you already know, such as a flowchart of your research process or a genogram of your immediate family
  • Experiment with different types of diagrams, such as mind maps, feedback loops, PERT charts, decision trees, and network maps.
  • Try developing visuals with others in real time. This is often referred to as “whiteboarding.”
  • Set aside any pre-occupation you may have with accuracy and give yourself permission to explore your imagination.

Graphs and charts for numeric data

Some researchers can spend the bulk of their time, energy, and process ensuring that their data is both reliable and complete. It can be easy to overlook opportunities to integrate visuals into all stages of your work.

If we are comparing amounts, computers allow us to quickly process massive datasets and instantaneously perceive patterns. Before computers, many researchers used maps and graphs to understand and communicate patterns, including in:

John Snow, Wikipedia Commons

John Snow, Wikipedia Commons

Here are some ideas for how to use visuals as you collect and analyze data:

  • If you are a beginner with software, choose a user-friendly program such as Excel, Tableau, or Kumu and start using it regularly. Utilize online and/or in-person communities to support you as you learn how to use the program for all of your research needs.
  • Ask your network about how they’ve used software to visualize data throughout their research process. For example, I know geographers use GIS and some qualitative researchers use Nvivo to “see” their data.
  • Keep in mind that usually the software that is great for visual analysis is not great for visual presentation. You will likely have to learn how to make the most of it, learn another program, and/or work with other professionals to communicate your ideas.

No matter what type of research you do and what type of visuals might best support your process, consider building partnerships with creatives who are accustomed to using visual tools as part of their own processes. Just like skill with numbers is only one aspect of research, artistic skill is only one aspect of creative work. We are all interested in understanding and conveying ideas. Visuals are powerful because they allow us to do both - and that’s certainly something to get excited about!

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