Event infographics make keynote presentations shareable

This is an example of a narrative infographic based on a keynote by Esko Kilpi, one of the leading commentators on the changing nature of work and new economy.

Download this infographic as a PowerPoint presentation

I do graphic recording, i.e. capture key points of presentations at events through drawings. I prefer to use a tablet computer and a stylus – it’s faster than working with pen and paper. And by working digitally I can also tweet images out during the event which often creates a bit of a buzz if the event has a hashtag.

But I’ve always thought that the drawings produced during the day don’t always do justice to good keynote presentations. So what I’ve started to do is take the drawings from the keynote/interesting presentation and turn them into a proper narrative infographic after the event. That way the words of wisdom of the keynote speaker, perhaps with some interesting comments from the audience, will spread even wider and expand the reach of the event and the keynote speaker.

And unlike videos, that always take some commitment to watch, event infographics sum up the key points into a piece you can consume within a minute. This makes them inherently more shareable than videos. People crave instant visual gratification. And cartoon infographics are instant gratification with a capital I. You can always link to the event video from the infographic – and get more views for the video as well.

– Virpi

Posted in Graphic recording, Infographics, Sketchnotes Tagged with:

How I marketed a book with explainer cartoons

Internal social networks the smart way book cover

Promo pic. Notice the “Comes with downloads..” sticker. Important detail.

Two years ago I wrote a book. No, nothing fancy. Not a novel. Just a self-published how-to book on how to introduce an enterprise social network (it was about the hands-on change management stuff that goes into rolling out collaboration software). I think it would fall under business, or maybe technology category.

As someone who’s used a lot of drawings in her work I decided to make the concepts easier to understand and explain by turning them into explainer cartoons. I also wanted to test whether cartoons would help sell the book.

Since I know people like to reuse cartoons in their presentations etc I decided to offer all the cartoons in the book as extra downloads. “Buy the book (£20) – get the cartoons for free!”

Not so fast – you can’t have the cartoons unless you email me

However, I didn’t make it easy to get the cartoons. And this was on purpose. I wanted to see how badly people wanted the illustrations.

People who purchased the book would have to email me personally and ask for a download link (with a receipt that they had actually bought the book). Marketers probably know that this step can also be used for list building.

Guess how many people emailed me?

About a third of the people who bought the book actually took the time to write me an email (from the original batch of about 100 people who bought the book in the first month).

A third.

Cartoons were used in training and in pitching ideas to senior management

I also started receiving emails from people telling me how they’ve used them. Some used them in training, others when selling the idea of an enterprise social network to their senior management.

I later put some of the illustrations into a story format and turned them into infographics and PowerPoint presentations (no bullet points, just images with speech bubbles and some copy). Again I offered these to some of the people who had bought the book (as I now had their email addresses).

People would use them in all sorts of way. My favourite example is from a big multinational where a comms person printed out a vertical infographic bit by bit. She then reorganised the pieces horizontally on the wall.

Here’s some of the feedback I received:

“We absolutely love your images! Is there a chance to customize them for our internal network?”

“I wondered if it would be ok to re-use some of your cartoons for internal purposes at my firm?”

“Thanks so much Virpi – I used some of the ppt slides in an internal staff presentation I gave yesterday and found them really helpful to reinforce the importance of having a clear purpose and business focus (the “why”).

“The comics give a clear pictures of the hurdles to overcome when introducing an ESN.”

So what can we learn from this? Help your fans to spread the message

If you want your ideas to spread and you’ve chosen a book or a report as the main vehicle for doing this: remember that you will also have to “arm the converted” so they can spread the message further. Their colleagues, bosses, customers or friends don’t have the time to read the book or the report, but they most definitely will look at a cartoon…

Publishers and marketers take note

I later got in touch with couple of business publishers and asked what they thought about the concept. I told them that a lot of people want to explain the topics they have read in the book to their colleagues, staff or managers. Would it make sense to respond to this need?

Most marketers already know how to turn bigger content into bite sized pieces that can be used in content marketing, but no-one thinks that they can use content to make the book more appealing to certain type of corporate readers. The interesting bite sized visuals and presentations could be used for both content marketing and as extra downloads. If it sells more books it must be a good thing?

I think I received the online equivalent of a blank stare. Downloads? PowerPoints? Cartoons? What an earth are you talking about.

If you work in publishing or marketing feel free to add your views below or tweet me at @voinonen. I’m curious to learn more on how you work.

– Virpi

Posted in Illustrations, Visual content marketing Tagged with: ,

Cartoons can make your event go viral

Live event cartoons by Virpi /Businessillustrator.com

Couple of recent event cartoon tweets  

Couple of weeks ago I took my trusty iPad and a cheap stylus to two conferences in the UK: The Enterprise 2.0 Summit in London and an IT conference called SharePoint Saturday in Burbage, Leicestershire. At the Enterprise 2.0 Summit I turned some of the speakers’ key points into cartoons and posted the illustrations on Twitter as they spoke (this is one reason why I rarely draw on paper – it takes too long to post the image online). The SharePoint Saturday was a technology event and I used it as an opportunity to challenge myself a bit. I’m definitely not a techie (but I do have an interest in the current technological developments).

Event promotion through hashtags

Dion Hinchcliffe event cartoon by businessillustrator dot com

Since I know images can be easily detached from the context I added the following words in the drawings themselves (the hashtag is from the Enterprise 2.0 Summit):

Inspired by @Speaker’sTwitterName at #e20s 
By @voinonen

I obviously added the hashtag in the tweet itself as well. By adding the event hashtag people could easily look up the event to find out where this cool cartoon came from. If you need expand the reach of your event, cartoons with event hashtags are the way to go.

People love cartoons of themselves

By adding the speaker’s Twitter handle (and mentioning them in the tweet) I made sure the speakers would share it as well (it is very difficult NOT to tweet a cartoon about yourself..). Since many of the speakers are big names also on Twitter their tweets will spread far and wide.

Imagine how this can boost your event social media reach. Big name with large follower base + cartoon with the speaker = whoosh.

So what happened?

2014-11-26 10_25_22_580px 2

My #e20s event cartoons were shared over 100 times during the event (this was a small event for mostly opinion leaders – not a mass conference). It’s worth noting that people continued to share them after the event. This doesn’t happen to text tweets – only striking visuals can expect a long Twitter life.

And visuals can also get a second life on blogs and websites. After a few days people started emailing/direct messaging me to ask whether it was ok to use the cartoons in their blogs.

All this is pure organic reach – no need to pay or boost anything.

Two cartoon tweets

Added bonus: event sketches aren’t usually a problem from a brand perspective. (Often when a big corporation produces visual content they can be a bit suspicious of visuals that aren’t stock photos or slick corporate videos).

So who does event cartooning?

Virpi Oinonen drawing on an ipad at spsuk event

Photo of yours truly (tweeted by an event participant sitting behind me – thanks Simon Thompson!)

Graphic recording (or event scribing) is growing in popularity, but I haven’t come across many event cartoonists (I don’t mean caricaturists – I mean people who draw concepts). This guy was the only one I could find after doing a quick search online.

That’s a shame.

I think graphic recorders who do event scribing are missing a trick by not turning some of their key illustrations into tweetable visuals. This way they could help the event reach a wider audience online – as well as make the event stand out for participants and speakers (I personally think cartoons are a nice way to show appreciation to the speakers). And while I think working digitally makes more sense at events than using pen and paper, even analogue graphic recorders can try event cartooning: just take a photo of the drawing and post it online (the quality isn’t great – but at events speed is of importance).

Attention content marketers

Event organisers (conferences, seminars, workshops etc) are not the only people who should look into the power of cartoons – content marketers could also make use of event visuals. The ex digital producer in me sighs every time I see good content going to waste.

It’s worth mentioning that Twitter is just one channel for these illustrations: visuals have an even longer life span on Facebook, Pinterest, blogs etc.

Have you come across any cool event cartoons? I’d love to share some good examples!

– Virpi


PS. More examples of my event sketchnotes:

Talk by Laszlo Bock (head of HR at Google):

Frederic Laloux’s talk at the RSA (about his book Reinventing organizations):

SMILE – Internal communications conference in London:


Posted in Graphic recording, Sketchnotes Tagged with: , , ,

What to do when visual brand guidelines don’t mention illustrations?

Brand guidelines suck illustration

Illustration by Virpi Oinonen.

This is a guest post from Russel Cooke who works as a journalist and content creation expert in Los Angeles.

As any freelance content creator will tell you, a brand guideline handbook is an indispensable part of any well-organized creation process. Writers need a glossary of terms, designers need color schemes and font guidelines, and photographers need leadership on tone and mood. But there’s one subset that always seems to be forgotten in these books: illustrators.

So what’s is an illustrator to do? Many brands don’t ever consider the creation of illustrations when drawing up their brand guidelines, maybe because they don’t anticipate the need, maybe because they don’t anticipate that illustrators will need them. But they do. So how do you manage illustrations when they don’t appear in the brand guidelines? We’ve assembled some key questions to ask when dealing with this difficult topic.

When is an illustration necessary?

Since people began publishing content, there has naturally been the drive to find out which content appeals most effectively to the masses.  When deciding if an illustration is the right kind of visual accompaniment to a piece, it’s important to consider the topic. Is an illustration appropriate? Some brands deal with serious and sensitive issues like health, disease, or politics. In this case, it’s best to exercise caution. It’s possible that an illustration might not be the best way to explain something. Due to illustration’s association with comic books and children’s cartoons, using an illustration on a serious topic might appear flippant or even disrespectful.

However, when attempting to explain a complicated topic, an illustration can make the difference between comprehension and utter bafflement. When dealing with a topic that requires a lot of abstract concepts, an illustration can save the day. A comic’s ability to represent abstract, confusing ideas visually can be exactly what’s necessary to help the audience understand.

Is an illustration right for the brand?

This can be a tricky one. Because it’s likely that the brand guidelines will not include guidelines on illustration, many less open-minded managers might be hesitant to break the mold. In cases like these, go back and look at the brand values from a wider, more comprehensive perspective. What is the brand philosophy? What are they trying to teach the audience?

Then look at your illustration: does it fit the answers to the question? You have one trick in the arsenal, which is that the visual guidelines are meant to ensure that everything that is produced serves the brand, not vice versa. If you can show that your illustration serves the brand, you’re in good shape.

A final tactic will be to see who else you can involve in the decision. Many times, overly cautious brand managers may nix or veto ideas they deem too risky or attention-grabbing. This is self-defeating. In cases like these, it can be beneficial to discuss the issue with a higher-up, because they tend to have more confidence in their instincts and feelings, and might feel inclined to say yes where the conservative brand manager didn’t.

How to commission an artist

Commissioning an artist to create an illustration is a lot like commissioning any other type of freelancer. However, where most writers can adjust their voice and tone to fit the mood and theme of what they’re writing for, illustrators often have a harder time adjusting their style. Where an open call for writers will usually be sufficient for finding a skilled writer, looking for an artist is different.

There are services available on the internet for businesses and employers looking to commission an illustration. Oftentimes, these services allow you to browse through portfolios. If you already have an idea of the style you want, simply browse through portfolios until you find some artists that fit your requirements. After that, the process resembles any other freelance hiring situation pretty closely, though again, the allowance for changing the style is a bit smaller than it is when dealing with writers.

Visual brand guidelines are an indispensable part of brand management. They allow brands to stay strong and true to themselves through multiple design teams, marketing managers, and brand specialists. It’s no wonder that people can be hesitant to manipulate or change their interpretation of the sacred documents.

However, for an illustrator, Visual Brand Guidelines often don’t even specifically account for illustration. In this case, it’s best to build a case for how an illustration fits the brand, make sure you’re serving the spirit of the guidelines, if not the explicit rules, and forge ahead.

– Russel Cooke

Russel Cooke is a journalist and content creation expert who recently relocated to Los Angeles, CA. His love of content marketing knows no bounds, and his work often discusses its implementation. Follow him on Twitter @RusselCooke2.

Posted in Illustrations, Tips Tagged with:

How do spam filters work? – Cartoon infographic

How do spam filters work infographic by Businessillustrator.com
This was a content piece for a client’s content marketing campaign. I did the concept for the infographic, the visuals (cartoons and design) as well as the copy editing. Raw copy came from the client. This was an interesting project because I got to learn about spam and spam filters, which is a surprisingly fascinating topic, as well as use visual metaphors in a fun way.

Imagine if I had done this infographic in a “traditional” way with visualisations of stats. That would have been very, very boring.

– Virpi

Posted in Infographics, Portfolio, Visual content marketing Tagged with: , , ,

How to commission comic art


comics collage

Snippets from comics by xkcd, Darryl Cunningham, Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Dan E. Burr.

I’ve drawn comics for over twenty years. With delight I’ve noticed the rise in demand for comics for marketing and communications in recent years. And why not! Our world is getting increasingly visual and increasingly complex and comics can tame complexity visually. Perfect.

But how should you commission comics? What questions should you ask? Here are couple of suggestions.

Key questions to ask:

  • Is a comic right for the topic?
    Comics come to their own when you have to explain abstract or complex topics that are not easy to explain in words (a lot of financial information falls in this category). They are also good for topics that tend to be emotionally difficult, even taboo. Comics often help make challenging topics more approachable. However, in the English-speaking world comics still carry a bit of a stigma for being children’s art which tends to limit people’s understanding of what the format is capable of. Check out Economix comic(for economics), xkcd (maths and science) , Marc-Antoine Mathieu (philosophy, existentialism – read about his project he did for the Louvre), or Darryl Cunningham’s comics (economics, mental health, science) to get a wider view of what’s possible (especially if superhero comics are the first type of comics that come to your mind when thinking about the format).
  • Is a comic right for my audience?
    While I do think professional communications people are often unnecessarily conservative when it comes to comics, sometimes the medium is not be right for a particular audience or for the message you are trying to convey. If in doubt, you might want to do some testing for example by posting something for a test audience (maybe do an A/B split test) and see how they react (9 out of 10 the reaction is positive – if the content is good).
  • Is comic right for our brand?
    One problem that I’ve found when working with bigger clients is that there is no mention of comics or even illustration in their brandguidelines. This means that the brand police/guardian might look at your comics project proposal and declare that the project is off brand. The trick in a situation like this is to look at the company brand from a wider perspective: what is your brand about? What are your values and messages? Does the comicreflect those messages and values? If so, you can argue that the visual guidelines are there to serve the brand, not vice versa.If you work in marketing you might want to bring up the topic of content marketing. Content marketing has given marketers more leeway when producing visual content.

    Personally I’ve found that the people who tend to object to using comics are the middle managers (and the visual brand people). Senior executives and frontline staff tend to be very positive about the format. If you can get a senior executive endorse the format you can hopefully bypass the brand police/guardian.

  • Are you writing the story or will you hire someone to write it for you?
    There are comics artists who are both writers and artists, but it might be easier to find an illustrator/comics artist who will work from a script (me and my colleagues like to do both, however). Make sure you involve the artist from early on  – otherwise you might not get enough visual think to go with your ink.
  • Will you use real people as characters?
    Make sure the  writer can adapt real life events into stories and the artist can actually draw characters that resemble the people they are trying to depict. Seriously, there are a lot of artists out there who can’t draw likeness.
  • Long story or a short comic strip? One-off or a series?
    If you need to catch people’s attention consider using a comic strip instead of a story that spans several pages. Short and snappy also tends to work better online, longer stories are better for printed publications. Note that some comic artists specialise in comic strips and some artists are experts in creating longer stories. Comic strips often work as a series so have a think what your needs are. Do you need a constant stream of content or is a one-off comic enough?
  • What kind of style should you use?
    If you are concerned about credibility realistic style might be better than cartoony style. Also have a think about the visual brand. Should you use brand colours and stylistic elements in the comic? Also, do you necessarily need to use the classic comic format – maybe your comic would work better as a PowerPoint presentation on Slideshare? Just because they are called comics doesn’t mean they have to appear on paper, or even have panels.
  • Do you know how the comics artist works?
    Most professional artists create concepts of which you choose one for further development. If you change your mind completely after the concept stage you might end up paying extra. So make sure you put some thought into the concept development phase.
  • Where to find a comics artist? 
    You can try the Professional Cartoonists Association, the Cartoon Movement website or illustration agencies. Or you can contact us, of course.
  • What kind of artists should I look for?
    If you have a complex, abstract topic look for artists that have a track record for drawing abstract concepts (cartoonists generally tend to be better at this than comics artists who draw superhero style comics). Or maybe you have a specific style in mind?  You might also want to ask whether the artist works digitally or not. Artists who work digitally are usually faster and can make changes with least hassle.

You might also want to check out the Pro Cartoonists’ tips for commissioning cartoons and Radix Communications e-book on how to use comics in B2B marketing (note: they draw more on the superhero comics production process while I come from the indie scene which is more focused on conveying ideas).

– Virpi

Posted in Comics, Tips, Visual content marketing Tagged with:

What does a visual scribe do? – Infographic

Virpi OinonenThis is a narrative infographic by my colleague Richy K. Chandler. We both offer visual recording/sketchnoting services here at Business illustrator. This is Richy’s visual explanation of what a visual scribe can do.. (If you want an explanation of the terminology – check out this post on the difference between graphic recording, graphic facilitation and sketchnoting). -Virpi What does a visual scribe do - narrative infographicPS. We can turn visual notes from events into narrative infographics that you  can share online after the event (content marketing, anyone?).

Posted in Graphic recording, Infographics, Sketchnotes

One core message + visual metaphor = effective communication campaign

Virpi OinonenDuring my career as an online producer for Greenpeace and other nonprofits I learnt a very important lesson. That has served me well in my later communications jobs and in my current job as a cartoonist/visual explainer. Here’s the lesson: Find the core message and visualise it.

There can be only one… (core message)

one message one visual metaphor

Often other people in the organisation (experts and senior managers) came to me with a request to add about 7 “equally important” points in the content item I was producing (PowerPoint presentation, slideshow, video, infographic or animation). And I would have to stand firm and say: No. Only one core message per content item. If you have to fight for your audience’s attention (and let’s face it: in most cases your message has to compete with about 10 different things that take up your audience member’s mental processing capacity), you do not want to burden them with more than one key message. But what do you do when experts or senior managers in your organisation insist on getting seven “equally important” points in the presentation or video? Try these arguments:

  • we can always offer a link to more information for those who want to know more (white paper, report, strategy document, web page etc)
  • we can always add more complexity to the core message in future messages (we can build on the foundation of the core message)
  •  if we lose the audience with our complex messaging, they are less likely to pay attention to our content in the future (burned once, twice shy, as they say)

And then find a visual metaphor that sums up the core message

Since most of the topics I had to communicate were abstract concepts (environmental and economic implications for example) I had to figure out a way to somehow distill the essence of the message into a visual. There’s nothing like a visual that makes the abstract concept more concrete – and real – in your audience’s mind. If using video or photos you are obviously constrained by real life constraints. Even if it would be possible to explain the consequences of a new law affecting charity donations it would have required a lot of time and money to produce a video would hammer home the main point. Not so with drawn visuals like narrative infographics or cartoons! I started doodling visual concepts in a sketchbook (or whatever piece of paper I could find) to see whether I could come up with something that would capture the essence of the core message. I later realised that what I had been doing was basically cartooning. Cartooning is all about finding the core of the issue. And it’s about using visual metaphors: explaining a concept with something that is unrelated to the concept that enables that lightbulb moment to take place in your audience’s brains. You obviously don’t have to become a visual artist to be able to use metaphors: speechwriters, advertisers and other communications professionals use them all the time. So, to recap: only one point + visual metaphor = powerful message that people will remember – Virpi

PS. “Learn to think like a cartoonist” workshop in Brighton

If you’re interested in sharpening your communications skills by stealing some of cartoonists’ tricks of the trade then you might be interested in a Cartooning for Communicators workshop by a professional speechwriter and cartoonist Martin Shovel. The workshop is in Brighton on 11 July and is definitely worth the trip if you’re based in the UK. I interviewed Martin for my blog about a year ago – do check out the post as it’s full of interesting insights about the

Posted in Internal marketing, Tips Tagged with:

Event infographics – content that can extend the lifespan of your conference


This is an example of an “event infographic” or a visual summary of the themes that were presented and discussed at an event (conference, workshop, keynote etc). I usually go to the event myself and do sketchnotes (using my iPad or and old-fashioned notebook) and then compile a visual summary at my desk after the event. In the above case I also added links to background information etc.

If you are looking to extend the life span of your event or are looking for highly shareable content to boost your content marketing, then event infographics could be a good solution. People love to share simple visuals that sum up the key points of the discussions – especially if they are characters in the visual themselves!

An event infographic can also take the form of a slideshow.

– Virpi

Posted in Graphic recording, Infographics, Sketchnotes

Science needs more comics artists – interview with the creators of Neurocomic

Neurocomic brain - Businessillustrator.com

Panel from Neurocomic

Virpi OinonenEvery time I see somebody explaining scientific concepts in an engaging way I feel like doing a little dance. So when I came across the graphic novel Neurocomic I did a proper 70s disco dance routine. Neurocomic explains neuroscience, or brain science, through an engaging story and clever visual metaphors. I interviewed the creators Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros about the work process and asked them for tips on how to communicate complex concepts with comics.

Matteo and Hana - creators of Neurocomic www.businessillustrator.com

Matteo Farinella (the artist) and Hana Ros (the scientist)

Virpi: How did you end up explaining neuroscience through a graphic novel? Did you consider any other formats (animation, video, etc) and if so, why did you choose the graphic novel?

Matteo: Even if I was doing a PhD in neuroscience I have always been drawing and writing comics, so for me it was an obvious choice. However, I think comics are actually one of the best formats to explain scientific subjects. Not only because they combine words and pictures, but also because they allow you to play with the page layouts in order to visualize logical connections and other complex ideas which would be difficult to explain into words or moving images.

Hana: What I love about comics is that you can really spend as much time as you like/need on certain parts. The dwell time is up to the reader to decide, and for me, I like to hover on some images/text for longer than others, I like to pay attention to detail (for example, the fingernails on a character’s hand, the piece of grass at the bottom left hand corner, or the light from a lampshade) – which together with the ability to go backwards and forwards and that it will never escape – that is what I love about the format of comics. They are not only to be enjoyed for their narrative, but they are there to be visually savoured. Also – I did a Masters degree in film, and I have always been interested in animation, so I’m secretly hoping one day Neurocomic will become an animated film.

Virpi: Did you encounter any resistance for the project? Was it easy to get funding for it?

Matteo: To be honest I am still amazed by how much support we had for this project. A few years ago the idea of combining comics and science was little more than a dream for me and when Hana suggested to apply for a Wellcome Trust People Award I would have never expected to receive any funding. Instead the Wellcome has been incredibly generous and supportive and later also Nobrow – our publisher – invested a lot in it and they have done an amazing job at promoting and distributing the book. I think it couldn’t have been any better.

Hana: Getting funding is never ‘easy’ – writing a lengthy application for our project was challenging but it really helped to crystallise our ideas at the start, which was hugely important at that stage, so we could formulate a clear plan of what our intentions were and where we were heading. We feel very fortunate that the Wellcome Trust supported us at this early stage – having their affirmation that it was a good idea to mix neuroscience and comics was critical; I don’t think we would have achieved our goal without the Wellcome Trust, and we are extremely grateful for their continuing support. Nobrow have also been great every step of the way, helping as much as they can. Im now running out of ways of saying how we are grateful for everyone’s support – but honestly – I personally feel very lucky to have had them backing our project. (I’m glad I’m not giving a speech at the Oscars, or someone would be trying to get me off the stage now…)

Neurocomic scientist - Businessillustrator.com

Virpi: How did you develop the story? Was it a collaborative process?

Matteo: I had some of the settings and characters in mind since the beginning so I wrote a short script and storyboard to discuss with Hana. Then she suggested changes and new characters and we went back and forth like this a few times, before I started drawing the originals. Some parts were relatively easy to agree and some others (especially the more scientific parts) were more of a compromise, but overall I really enjoyed the collaboration. Drawing comics can be a very solitary process and sometime it is easy to lose perspective, I think it is incredibly useful to have someone to work with, who can tell you honestly things like “this part is boring”, “this picture is not clear” or “let’s do this instead”. Finally the art director of Nobrow had only a few minor edits.

Hana: Hahaha! It’s funny to read Matteo’s answer – I never thought I was being so critical. I’d like to think that it was purely a zen-like, harmonious collaborative process. Although, Matteo knows me too well by now – that I’m a very honest person, even with my opinions (but hey, we are still friends!) I think we are actually very different and I think it helps to work together on a project like this – we bring different things to the table. Luckily for me (and everyone else), I let Matteo do all the drawing…

Virpi: How did you collaborated in practice? 

Matteo: At the time we were working in the same laboratory which made things easier, it was very much an ongoing conversation. Then of course we had a few (more or less) official meetings where we would sit down and go through the comic page by page. However, it was probably all much more informal and improvised than it sounds!

Hana: I think many of our conversations happened over a coffee, dinner or most likely – at the pub. I think an informal setting is more conducive to open and honest discussions, which are needed for a creative project like this (plus it helps being friends).

Virpi: You use visual metaphors to explain scientific concepts. Can you explain why you chose to use visual metaphors instead of more “realistic” visualisations?

Matteo: If we just wanted a narrating voice explaining scientific diagrams we could have done a documentary or a textbook and there are already many great examples of these. The real power of comics is the narrative element: the power to draw the reader into a story in which they feel actively engaged, instead of being treated as passive recipients for information. I also think that visual metaphors can be much more powerful than accurate descriptions.

Hana: I agree with what Matteo says – but just to add – it also allowed us to create a more fantastical world and a fun story, which was more personally rewarding than writing a dry descriptive book with little or no narrative.

“The real power of comics is the narrative element: the power to drawn the reader into a story in which they feel actively engaged”.

Virpi: What is your favourite visual metaphor in the book and why?

Matteo: Mine is definitely the metaphor of neurons as trees. It is not original at all, it was actually introduced by the father of neuroscience Ramon y Cajal more than 100 years ago, but I like how it shaped the scientific language itself. Also – from a very selfish perspective – it is very fun to draw, I never tired of inventing intricate neuronal forests!

Hana: Ah.. Matteo stole my answer… I like the trees too – I spend most of my days in the lab looking at neurons with a microscope and when I take my dogs out for a walk I still find myself looking at trees and thinking they look just like neurons. It never fails to amaze me.

Virpi: Matteo, you mention in the intro video that you used “little lies to tell bigger truths, to make the bigger concept clearer”. Subjecting scientific concepts for a visual storytelling treatment means that you need to make some compromises. Do you have any advice on how to avoid simplifying too much?

Matteo: Yes, mostly you need to leave out a lot of details. Basically for any statement you can make there are some exception or even an alternative theory, especially in a complex subject like neuroscience. You simply cannot include everything when you are trying to tell a story that flows, the reader would get completely lost with a “but” in every page. We considered adding some notes but we decided to not break the spell of the story in the end. For me a partial solution was to represent the scientists as very human and somehow unreliable characters. Some people tend to think of science as a linear faultless path to knowledge but it is important to remember that it is made my by people with their own interests and personal opinions. We should always think critically about what we read and look for more independent information.

Hana: It’s a fine balance to have the story flow and to convey information. There are clear compromises, but I think its unrealistic for people to assume we would be able to explain neuroscience in its entirety in a comic book. Its more like a taster – to get people interested in the subject matter, and if they want to explore neuroscience further, then there is plenty of information out there. Making neuroscience accessible to everyone was key for us, and giving people a way into it (a sort of foot in the door) that isn’t daunting (and is approachable) is more important to us than just relaying pure information.

“You simply cannot include everything when you are trying to tell a story that flows”.

Virpi: What did you enjoy most about the project?

Matteo: For me it was a very important project, it made me realize that my drawings are not just a funny hobby but they can actually be combined with my passion for science and maybe create something useful.

Hana: As cheesy as it sounds – I think seeing people’s enjoyment of it – that feeling is so rewarding, and completely unexpected.

Virpi: What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Matteo: I think the biggest challenge was probably to conclude the project. When dealing with such huge topic like the brain it is very difficult to say “OK, this is enough, we can stop here”. There is always more than you can add and parts that you think you can remake better. Luckily we had some external deadlines with the Wellcome Trust and with Nobrow so we had to move on. Some people said the book is a bit too short but I can live with that, the most important for me is to be happy with what is there.

Hana: I skipped this question, and had to come back to it, it’s a tough one, but after some soul-searching, I finally have an answer: I think working with another person (on anything) is always challenging. In a collaboration, you cannot just make decisions alone, and everything needs to be jointly approved. Sometimes there is a fine line in compromise, and that can be difficult at times. The way to overcome it is to have good communication, honesty and trust, which I have learned during this project. It’s tricky, but ultimately the rewards are greater too. I have definitely preferred doing this project with Matteo than doing it alone. But it does need discipline and respect for one another – as it’s often too easy to find things to disagree on. Luckily we are still cool with each other (I hope I haven’t jinxed it now…)

Virpi: Do you think science, and complex topics in general, require that the illustrator/comics artist understands and is interested in the topic?

Matteo: I think ‘pure’ collaborations between artists and scientists are possible but they definitely require a lot of work and understanding on both sides. Not only for the illustrator in the subject she/he is trying to represent but also understanding of the creative process by the scientist. I think we should really make an effort to find good metaphors and ways to communicate their knowledge outside academia, otherwise scientific knowledge is essentially lost, locked in a language that not many people can understand.

Hana: Some level of understanding obviously helps, but I think the main ingredient that is needed is passion/interest in the topic.

“I think we should really make an effort to find good metaphors and ways to communicate their knowledge outside academia, otherwise scientific knowledge is essentially lost”.

Virpi: Have you read any other comics on scientific topics? Do you think the genre of the science comic is on the rise?

Matteo: Yes, now that I start to pay more attention I am discovering many cartoonists working on scientific subjects. There is even an international conference called Graphic Medicine which I attended last year. Some books like Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham and Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures by Goodwin and Burr are also selling quite well so I really hope the genre is on the rise.

Hana: I only came across them after we had already finished Neurocomic, so it was interesting to see a different style (for example, Cunningham uses photographs in his book). I love comics more than other books so I hope the genre is on the rise – I would personally like to read a comic about physics to help me understand the likes of string theory and quantum mechanics, so if anyone is reading this who has the knowledge to do one, please get in touch!

“I would personally like to read a comic about physics to help me understand the likes of string theory and quantum mechanics”.

Virpi: What advice would you give to scientists and others who want to communicate complex concepts with comics?

Matteo: I am not sure if I feel in the position to give anyone advice since I am just starting myself… I would just express them all my support. I know it is hard work and very easily criticised by our colleagues, but I also think it is extremely important and could be very rewarding at times. Someone should just go ahead and try, always being faithful to the facts but without worrying too much either.

Hana: Go for it! There is no right or wrong way of doing it, we are all working it out as we go along. But the main thing to have is passion for the subject and the medium/format you choose, otherwise if you don’t enjoy ‘the making of it’ then it will show. I think having fun and doing a project you love is the most important thing; as with many things in life, doing something for yourself (and staying true to yourself) is the path to happiness.

You can follow Matteo and Hana on Twitter.

– Virpi

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