How to avoid bad science in pharma visuals

We look at the art of scientific imagery

Posted on Jun 13, 2017

Elearning

Motion graphics

Comms & campaigns

You’ve worked painstakingly to perfect your scientific content. Every key communication point has been covered, every data point, footnote and reference has been checked, every ‘et al.’ has been italicised, not an asterisk is out of place.

When it comes to your visuals, figures and tables displaying your data will likely be under the same scrutiny as your written content. But what about when you need something different? An infographic, an animation or a creative way to depict a complex scientific concept?

It has been said that our brains are capable of absorbing 36,000 images per minute. In his book, Brain Rules, developmental molecular biologist Dr John J. Medina states: ‘Hear a piece of information, and three days later you'll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you'll remember 65%’. No wonder, then, that visuals form a key part of any learning initiative or marketing strategy.


"Hear a piece of information, and three days later you'll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you'll remember 65%."
Dr John J. Medina Developmental Molecular Biologist

In pharmaceutical communications and medical education, the right visuals can be invaluable. From intricate mode of action stories to key pivotal trial data, a few carefully designed images can convey accurately and effectively more than an entire page of text. But sometimes, even with the most detailed brief and the most talented creative team, visual concepts can get lost in translation, and misleading imagery can be catastrophic for a brand.

If the creative process is allowed to overshadow your content, you can end up with a visual or infographic that is impossible to interpret, misrepresentative of your data or just plain inaccurate, and this can significantly dilute your marketing or educational message. For example, if a USP for your brand is early onset of action, a misplaced asterisk showing first statistically significant benefit at the wrong timepoint will fail to demonstrate your competitive edge. Arguably worse still, if your brand is only indicated in a subset of patients, misrepresentation of the treatment cohort could call into question the validity of your efficacy claims.

In short, as Ilissa Ocko, climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City, states in her blog Crafting Your Own Visuals for Science Communication, “It’s much more important to get the science right in an okay visual, than to have a stellar design with flawed science”. 

Visuals checklist

Nonetheless, a stellar visual that does have its integrity intact is hard to ignore and easy to remember, making it an invaluable addition to your content. So how can you get your visuals just right?






  • Start by seeking specialist visual design expertise. If you plan to animate or make your visual content interactive in any way, make sure you also have a developer on hand to ensure your visuals will work in practice
  • Ideally, keep your creative team working closely together throughout the project so nothing gets lost in translation
  • Aim for simplicity: stick to one message per visual with minimal explainer text
  • Preserve accuracy: don’t allow yourself to get distracted by stunning but irrelevant imagery – double check that your content is still correct and on message after being given the visual treatment
  • Test it: ask a fresh pair of eyes to tell you which 1000 words your picture is really painting
  • And finally, don’t waste your space or your audience’s time with visuals that are more gimmick than value added. If it doesn’t enhance your content or your message, don’t be afraid to ditch it and start again 

If you’d like to learn more about how to embed visual design into your scientific learning, take a look at our previous blog, 5 golden rules for good visual design in elearning

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