Tell it with a Comic – Live-Drawing and Visual Storytelling at AAAS

by Sara Pasqualetto, Alfred Wegener Institute

Science communication has become a fundamental element in the effort to disseminate scientific results and deliver accurate and understandable facts. A group of artists teamed up to serve this purpose: the start-up RIVA Illustrations translates scientific concepts into visual storytelling and creates amazing artworks and illustrations to describe scientific researches and projects.

A post-doc and a senior scientist wake up one morning, somewhat rested after a jet-lagged sleep in the hotel their research institute has booked. The third day of a big international conference is ahead of them, and the initial excitement for the occasion is starting to fade out. Two interesting sessions are happening simultaneously in the morning, lunch is booked to catch up with that colleague they worked with four years ago, and there is still that town-hall meeting they co-organized that needs a last-minute presentation to fill some 15-minutes of void.

Polar Prediction Live Drawing
The amount of information and input researchers receive in their academic life, and especially at conferences, seems overwhelming. Sometimes, one could consider an achievement to remember some key information from a couple of presentations they heard. Sometimes, the topic is so new that is very hard to make sense of it in a way that can be useful. A team of researchers and artists thought about this issue and came up with a brilliant solution to make science fun and more accessible. In occasion of the AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, amazing pieces of art came to life inspired by scientific presentations. Some of them are very close to the field of polar prediction: APPLICATE coordinator and PPP Steering Group chair Thomas Jung (AWI) presented the APPLICATE project at this meeting, in the framework of the session on “The Future of Earth’s Climate: A World of Extremes?”, organized by the European Commission and the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME). In his presentation, Thomas Jung talked about Arctic research and climate and weather prediction, under the observant eyes of a most creative artist among the audience – while Thomas presented on APPLICATE, Fiammetta Ghedini produced an illustration live (see upper right picture).

Translate Research into Visual Storytelling
Fiammetta Ghedini is the co-founder of RIVA Illustrations, an agency aiming to translate research into visual storytelling using illustrations, comics or live drawings and graphic recordings. RIVA Illustrations has managed the Horizon2020 European project ERCcOMICS, which – through visual storytelling – aimed to bring a fresh look at how science communication is carried out.

For providing artwork for the AAAS meeting, Fiammetta flew to Seattle with the goal to transform scientific information and research results into live-drawn comics. As she and her fellow artists Lorenzo Palloni and Francesco Guarnaccia imprinted their impressions, the results were shown live on screen. For this, they would not only engage with the speakers at the meeting but gather information to capture the main message behind the talks and reproduce it in a graphic form available for the wider public. The artworks from the AAAS Meeting can be seen here.

We reached out to Fiammetta Ghedini to ask her about her work and how she and her colleagues came up with the idea of storytelling in research.

Fiammetta, what is the main goal behind ERCcOMICS and Riva Illustration?

F.G.: The main goal of the project is to enlighten science with art and inspire art with science. And with “art” I don't mean a purely aesthetic activity, but those graphic arts like illustrations and cartooning, traditionally purposeful and complementary to text, that humans have always used as a thinking tool. This is why I usually use the term "visual storytelling".

After the very positive results of the live drawings session carried out during 36 scientific talks at AAAS 2020 (sponsored by the ERC), we now also work with graphic recording, which is a visual translation of scientific talks in real-time.

How did it all come about?

F.G.: When I was a PhD student in Italy, I began to work as a communication officer for my lab. I didn't really think of it, it was spontaneous and unofficial. On the other hand, I have always had a passion for drawing and for comics, so it was natural to combine these two interests. After my PhD, I moved to Paris, where I started working in an ERC-funded project about artificial intelligence and music, called Flow Machines. I began working on a comic about Flow Machines when the ERC published a call for promoting high-risk high-gain communication of ERC projects; it was obvious for me to think of comics. At that time, I met Ahlem Abbaci, who is also an "ex-researcher" like myself and was working as a manager at Sorbonne Universités by the time. She transformed my idea into an actual project, which got funded. This was in 2015 when ERCcOMICS was born. In four years, we produced 18 long comics stemmed out of the collaboration of professional artists and researchers in many domains, from sociology to astrophysics, from neurobiology to anthropology. You can read them all here.

And how is it going now?

F.G.: With our work, we want to translate research and innovation concepts and results into powerful visual storytelling tools. Tools that can be used not only as an alternative to more traditional communication strategies but also to ingrain ideas in people's minds, for specific target groups or the general public. This is what Ahlem and I prepared and worked on together for several months. Our aim is to make the visual storytelling method extraordinarily successful through our start-up company RIVA Illustrations that we launched in 2019: an agency specialised in visual storytelling for research and innovation.

What is the unique, most relevant feature of storytelling for you?

F.G.: I believe science - like any other human activity - needs storytelling. We need storytelling to better understand the world, get a grip of it, and because of this, we’re inevitably drawn towards it.

However, this basic human characteristic can have side effects. If you have worked in science communication for a long time, you know the feeling of frustration that sometimes arise from interactions with journalists: interviews based on data and hypothesis may result in dramatic headlines. I think that the more extreme phenomenon of fake news stems from the same need: it's a way to shape science into a story, to invent a narrative that can make sense of subjects that are too complex to understand in an era of information overload.

Here, visual storytelling provides an answer to this problem as it embraces, rather than rejects, the human need to incorporate stories into our understanding of the world.
Cartooning, illustration and graphic recording supply a visual and narrative translation of scientific concepts maintaining their independence as a form of expression, therefore without polluting the scientific contents. And they can address complex subjects without necessarily resorting into simplification. Last but not least, the close collaboration with researchers in the process of creation ensures correctness.

What can scientists learn from artists?

F.G.: We discovered that not only art can illustrate science, but also that science can inspire art.
On the one hand, several researchers are already really enthusiastic about the initiative and have fully embraced it. They often tell us that working with artists means thinking about their research in terms of a narrative and also with a visual approach, and this helps them to better define the problems, to have new ideas and to reflect on the impact of their research.

How has the interaction between these two worlds been so far, in your experience?

F.G.: Artists can sometimes become intimidated by the idea of having to understand complex concepts. But, after the first one or two meetings with the researchers, they become enthusiasts and full of new inspirations. We mostly work with artists who are already successful in their field and who have published their work. The storytelling techniques and visual ideas they invent and explore for a scientific project can often be exploited by us artists later on to create a personal project.

To discover the artists Fiammetta Ghedinii is working with, check out RIVA Illustrations' portfolios and  website.