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Can Science Be Simple? Distilling Complexity into Engaging Images

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an explosion of research, breakthroughs, and collaboration within the scientific community. However, now that the clinical trials have been validated and vaccines are being distributed, the fight against COVID-19 faces a new challenge beyond the laboratory: convincing people to get the shots.

In the United States, medical professionals are urging everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Yet many Americans are still choosing not to get vaccinated. Why?

Confusing communications have likely played a role. As Zeynep Tufekci writes in The Atlantic, “despite… good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive.” The effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic was hampered by delayed responses and ever-changing guidelines, which fueled distrust of authorities by the public. Even the campaign phrase “Operation Warp Speed”, coined by the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, inadvertently raised suspicions about the vaccine’s safety. This built on the already pervasive distrust of vaccines among much of the American public.

Science miscommunication reaches far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists tend to communicate in ways that appeal to themselves and their colleagues while failing to first consider how their message would be received by broader audiences. What results is a failure to connect with people beyond the field.

We have been working to address this issue for several years. Drawing from her own struggles to communicate her scientific research, SJE created a workshop series on science storytelling. After attending some of those workshops, MPK became a professional scientific illustrator. Drawing from these experiences, we collaborated to create a single figure that would communicate the science of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in an engaging and accessible manner. 

How can we illustrate complexity in a simple figure? 

Using this excellent New York Times article as a reference, we distilled the complex mRNA vaccination process into a simple message: The vaccine takes something from the virus and helps your body use it to protect itself from the virus. How can we illustrate this message in a single enticing and easily digestible figure?

One of the biggest challenges of visual communication is developing an effective color palette. We hypothesized that an image with high-contrast, saturated colors, like those seen in action movie posters, would appeal to a general audience. Conversely, we expected that most scientists would prefer low-contrast, desaturated colors, as typically seen in science textbooks.

For the saturated color palette, we took inspiration from a 2014 cover image in the scientific journal Nature that illustrates the groundbreaking CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology. The Nature cover uses high-contrast colors to pique the audience’s interest and entice them to explore further. To this end, we used vibrant tones of complementary blue and orange (Fig. 1). Blue and orange are a pleasing combination because they often pair together in nature (e.g., sky/sand, ocean/sand, sky/fire). We thought that this aesthetic would elicit wonder and excitement from public audiences.

Figure 1. “Saturated” version of our mRNA COVID-19 vaccine figure. © Maya Kostman.

Pushing the aesthetic to the opposite extreme, we developed the desaturated palette with non-complementary colors (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. “Desaturated” version of our mRNA COVID-19 vaccine figure. © Maya Kostman.

For the composition, we again took cues from the Nature CRISPR cover. It does not explain all the steps in the process, nor does it have any labels, but it conveys a lot of essential information about how CRISPR works. Thus, we attempted to distill the vaccination process into a simple graphical flowchart that would be visually intuitive. 

Our figures outline the stepwise process of the mRNA vaccine from production to immunity. mRNA is first isolated from inside SARS-CoV-2 virions and processed into a vaccine (symbolized by an mRNA strand in a flask). The vaccine then delivers the mRNA to the patient and the string of genetic code gets taken up by the patient’s cells. Next, the viral mRNA gives the cell instructions on how to produce the same spike protein as that found on the outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The immune system can then recognize the spikes as foreign and signal cells to produce antibodies (the cell with the exclamation point). Armed with antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins, the patient is now shielded from future infections and immune to COVID-19.

We did not depict all of the many steps involved in the immunization process, nor did we clutter the figure with labels and explanations. Instead, we intentionally showed only the most crucial details to communicate our simple message: The vaccine takes something from the virus and helps your body use it to protect itself from the virus. The figures are not meant to make everyone an expert on mRNA vaccines, but rather, to simply spark interest and a positive regard for the science behind vaccination. 

Which figure did people prefer?

While identical in composition, Figures 1 and 2 present very different tones through their color pallets. Is one figure more effective than the other?

SJE showed both figures to scientist and general public audiences (about 90 participants total) in a series of online workshops. Interestingly, both figures drew very mixed reactions across the board.

Saturated version (Fig. 1):

“Exciting, curious, motivated”

“The sharper contrast makes me feel more confident. Seems to be easier to understand.”

“Science is soooooo cool!”

“This vaccine will work!”

“The cells are winning”

“The Avenger cells are defeating the Thanos of viruses!”

… but also:




“Too dark and eerie”


Desaturated version (Fig. 2):




“I feel ill”

“Haven’t seen dusty rose since the 80s”

“Fearful, anxious”

“Messy. Even the shield looks scary.”

“Glad I don’t have to take more bio”


… as well as:

“Health, excitement”


“A logical series. Calming.”

How did you react to each figure? What can we learn from these results that can help us make better visuals to communicate science?

Exciting, or scary? Reassuring, or boring?

These results demonstrate that people can have different reactions to the same image, regardless of the intentions behind it. 

The saturated color palette in Figure 1 had the intended effect for the many respondents who reacted with excitement and enthusiasm. But others were put off by the same colors. Even though we intentionally didn’t use red on black, as some other depictions of SARS-CoV-2 used to raise alarm early in the pandemic, many respondents found Figure 1 frightening. Some thought Figure 1 was very clear, while others thought it was either confusing or too simplistic!

As we predicted, many scientist respondents thought that the desaturated Figure 2 was more appropriate for communicating scientific information because it looked more like a figure from a scientific textbook or manuscript. But many others, including scientists, thought that Figure 2 was boring or confusing or both.

Reactions to both figures were similarly mixed when SJE polled a public audience in a later webinar (n = 80). Among those that had already decided to get a COVID-19 vaccine (n = 68), 35% preferred the saturated figure, 21% preferred the desaturated figure, and 44% did not prefer one over the other. Among the few who were not yet sure about getting vaccinated (n = 6), 4/6 preferred the saturated figure, two had no preference, and none preferred the desaturated figure. There was no clear trend among the handful that had decided not to get vaccinated (n = 4, and two preferred not to say). Although the saturated figure had a slight edge overall, neither figure was overwhelmingly preferred nor effective in swaying people to learn about the vaccine. 

Credible, or inscrutable?

Why do technical figures often use desaturated colors? Probably to be the exact opposite of a movie poster: not flashy. A desaturated figure might give a STEMM professional the impression that everything you need to know is there if you have the patience to interpret it. 

This approach might work for a technical audience. But for a general audience, that same color palette sends the message that you need special training to interpret the image. Most people get the impression that the information contained is too boring and too complex. Ultimately, a desaturated figure can create disinterest and distrust.

Figure 2 also looks more complicated because there are many colors that blend together. Scientists often seem to think that lots of different colors are necessary to explain complex information in an image. Speaking from experience, maybe it’s also because we instinctively want to make figures look complex so that we feel good about being able to interpret them.

Conversely, the high-contrast Figure 1 uses only two main colors. This makes the figure much easier to absorb at once. You only need to follow the color orange through the flow of the arrows to follow the vaccination process. But some read this simple color palette as too simplistic or even silly, which could lead to lack of credibility.

Figures 1 and 2 show the exact same information, but differences in their color palettes and tones produce a completely different emotional reaction and, consequently, interpretation. 

Is it possible to find a happy medium?

Clearly, color and tone are especially tricky to choose for visual scientific communications. Too many colors can look confusing, but too few colors can come off as too simplistic. Is it possible to strike a balance?

Going back to the drawing board, we reworked our color palette to recreate the excitement of Figure 1 but with the softer and less ominous tones of Figure 2. We tried to accomplish this using pastel shades of complementary colors, similar to this infographic created by the CDC that looks very inviting (albeit a bit busy) with soft shades of blue and orange. 

We tried using a high-contrast background behind the virus to signal danger and a low-contrast background in the body to signal safety. We also distilled our flowchart further to make it less confusing by altering details that proved unfamiliar to many (e.g., the antibody symbol on the shield).  

Taking the lessons we learned from reactions to the extreme color palettes, we arrived at this compromise: 

Figure 3. “Revised” version of our mRNA COVID-19 vaccine figure. © Maya Kostman.

What do you think of Figure 3? How do you think others would react to it? We encourage you to try it out! If someone tells you, “I’m not sure yet if I want to get the vaccine, I don’t really know how it works,” we hope that showing them this figure will invite a conversation.  

Be strategic

No single visual will work for every audience or context. Sometimes bold colors can be really effective. There are also situations where a softer, less saturated palette may be more appropriate. Either way, figures do not need to look dull or inscrutable to be credible, nor do they need to look like comic books to be interesting!

The main point here is the power of color. Some color combinations are effective for drawing attention, some combinations don’t work well, and different combinations evoke different responses. We encourage practitioners to use color and tone intentionally to achieve their communication goals. Think carefully about the audience you are primarily trying to reach and your main message for that audience. Think about both the information you want to convey and the emotional reaction that you want to elicit. We also encourage scientists and artists to collaborate to enhance communications. It’s a fun and rewarding process! (See Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Early draft of Figure 1 by MPK with annotations by SJE. © Maya Kostman.

The pandemic has highlighted the growing need for strategic public communications. At the end of the day, all efforts to develop COVID-19 vaccines are in vain if too many people do not decide to get vaccinated. Accessible science communication can equip individuals to overcome their fears and frustrations and make more informed decisions. Strategic and engaging visuals are crucial to this effort. 

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine

About the Authors
  • Sara J. ElShafie 0000-0001-8650-1532

    Sara ElShafie is a global change biologist and science storytelling coach. She collaborates with artists in a wide range of industries to uncover the potential of storytelling to engage broad audiences with complex topics. ElShafie is the Founder and Principal of Science Through Story, LLC, dedicated to helping scientists and science educators connect with audiences through effective storytelling. She consults and runs workshops for groups ranging from graduate students to NASA scientists to theme park executives. She also organized a symposium, Science Through Narrative: Engaging Broad Audiences, with speakers from the scientific community as well as arts and entertainment industries, and curated a resulting published volume of open access papers. ElShafie holds a B.A. in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago and a M.S. in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She is completing her PhD in Integrative Biology with the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley. Follow Sara on Twitter: @elshafie_sara

  • Maya P. Kostman 0000-0002-3184-9010

    Maya Peters Kostman is a Biology PhD student and science illustrator. Maya graduated from UC Berkeley, with majors in Molecular and Cell Biology and Integrative Biology, where they conducted their undergraduate research thesis in the Isacoff Lab and taught organic chemistry review sessions. Maya has since worked with the communication teams at the Innovative Genomics Institute and Addgene to create multimedia resources that aim to make science engaging and accessible for broad audiences. Their current research in the Sgro Lab at Boston University focuses on the molecular signaling dynamics of biofilms. Follow their illustrations on Twitter: @mpk_draws.

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