How to make your own visuals even when convinced you aren’t “creative” enough.

 
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Written by Echo Rivera and Jason Rivera

Let me guess: You’re convinced you’re “not an artist” or that you’re “not creative” enough to make your own visuals? A lot of researchers, academics, scientists, and evaluators think this way.

A lot of people are shy or embarrassed about creating their own visuals (especially drawings), and we’d like to help you overcome that barrier.

Maybe you read our blog post about making a science comic and thought “I could never do that!

Well, in our other post about why you should learn to make your own visuals, we mentioned that you don’t even need to be an artist or a “creative” to do it well. We also reminded you that if you do research, science, or scholarship then you are already creative. We wanted to follow up on this comment in today’s post.

Think about something like karaoke. If you feel like you’re a bad singer, and like you’ll embarrass yourself by singing in front of everyone, then that will probably stop you from getting up in front of everyone and singing out loud. But in this situation, what is actually stopping you? Physically being unable to sing? No, it’s your mindset stopping you, not a physical limitation.

We’ve both witnessed the same thing happen when trying to get people to do something creative, like drawing. If they don’t see themselves as “a creative” they avoid it because they are worried whatever they make won’t be mind blowing or amazing. Again, nothing is physically keeping them from drawing something, but their belief that they “suck at drawing” and their fear of anyone seeing what they make might as well be physically keeping them from doing it.

Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like you?

So how do you start making your own visuals even when you’re convinced you aren’t “creative” enough? You adjust your mentality.

When it comes to doing any creative activity, mindset is extremely important. We’ve already written about the right mindset to be an effective presenter and we made a video about it, too. Plus, Dr. Helen Kara wrote a guest blog post about creativity in presentations. If you’re like most people we work with, your current mindset is the main barrier to creating your own visuals.

Here are 4 reminders that will help you overcome being stuck on the idea that you’re “not creative or artistic enough” to create your own visuals.


Before we get started…there’s a free PDF download available that’s related to this post. It has:

 
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  • Two short checklists to help you determine whether making your own visuals would be helpful for YOU.

  • A list of 15 ideas for the types of visuals that academics, scientists, researchers, and evaluators could make using design software, and which ones are particularly perfect for making in professional design software.

  • A description of 3 key benefits of using professional design software (e.g., Affinity Designer) instead of non-professional software (e.g., Canva).

GET YOUR FREE PDF DOWNLOAD BY JOINING THE COMMUNICATION CAFÉ (TOTALLY FREE) USING THIS FORM:


(1) If you teach or do research, you are ALREADY creative!

Think about a time when you were struggling or frustrated, but then had an “Aha!” moment.

Maybe it was with phrasing a survey question, a course lecture activity, or finding a way to explain something in your manuscript. Whatever it was, the moment when an idea pops into your head about how to solve a problem isn’t magic. It’s the result of creative problem solving. Scientists, researchers, and educators are excellent at solving problems and generating new/ or useful ideas and that means they’re creative!

The scientific method is a process, and approaching tasks in that way provides an excellent foundation for creativity. More specifically, in this article about creativity in the scientific process, the author describes that creativity plays a role when you’re figuring out what to study, how to study it, and in forming new ideas from what we study.


(2) Art is about expression & communication

Most of us were conditioned to think art isn’t worth making unless it is technically impressive or can make you a bunch of money (think about how many plots center around parents being disappointed their child chose art school).

Yet, reality contradicts this idea. There are plenty of famous singers, musicians, visual artists, and writers that many people would say aren’t actually very good in a technical sense. Maybe they sing out of tune or their paintings are out of proportion. But those people still created their work and shared it with the world. They chose to ignore, or even embrace, the fact that people might critique their abilities. For example, Allie created Hyperbole and Half using Microsoft paint. I’m sure people have critiqued her on technique, but her comics are well-written and hilarious because they resonate with us.

Luckily, you aren’t trying to blow people away with your artistic skills, win an art competition, or leave your profession to make a living as an artist. You just need some visuals to help you do YOUR job of teaching, research, or evaluation. That means the purpose of your visuals is expression and communication.

All you need to do is create visuals that get your point across and communicate information effectively.

That’s the purpose of creating visuals in your work.

And here is the best news: if the point for communicating your scientific information or data is to get the key message across as quickly as possible, then that means you don’t even WANT to have a highly-detailed, perfect artistic masterpiece. Why? Because that level of detail is probably going to be unnecessary and excessive.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

Substance is key. Even though visuals are meant to bring interest to your work and draw in your audience, the most important aspect is that you effectively communicate your point. Even if you are only able to make stick figures, that’s perfectly fine! If it gets your point across, then you’ve accomplished your goal of communicating info in an engaging, visual way.

For researchers, academics, and scientists stick figures are probably more effective than masterpiece-level art.

Still not convinced? Think about the icons we see on our phones or computers. The best icons are simple while quickly conveying what they represent. Many music app icons, for example, simply use some kind of stylized music note. Most email icons tend to use a stylized envelope. Other apps will just use a company’s logo, which they know you’re probably familiar with.

In other words: lower your bar!

Visuals you create to share your work only need to be good enough to get the job done.


(3) Artistic ability can be learned & developed

This is probably the mindset that most people struggle with, so we need to talk about this one in depth.

NO ONE is born just naturally being a master artist and YOU CAN LEARN HOW TO DRAW WELL!

We all have the potential to be creative, but that only happens if we practice and cultivate it. Sure, some people may seem to have a natural inclination to create impressive work, but even those people have to work and practice to reach their full potential.

When you see a work of art that is considered a masterpiece, all you’re seeing is the final result. You aren’t seeing all of the sketches and brainstorming that led to that final work, and you aren’t seeing all of the versions that might have been discarded beforehand. Plus, you definitely aren’t seeing how much time and effort they put into practicing before they got to this point. Some of the greatest works of art or design are great because the artist took years building their skills up to that level.

But like we talked about in the last section, you don’t need to get to this level. You don’t need to practice and work that hard to accomplish your goal of communicating effectively. That means you don’t need to make a MAJOR investment in time, energy, or money to reach this goal. You only need to spend just enough time and practice so that you can create basic stuff that gets your point across.

Skills can be learned and practiced, so even if you’ve never created any artistic work before, just the process of creating will begin to help you become more skilled and creative. In another article about creativity in science, they state “Everyone has the aptitude for creative thinking” (Robert DeHaan, retired Emory University cell biologist).

Have you ever thought, “I wish I could think more visually!”? If so, here’s what you need to do to make that happen: start making your own visuals.

If you start creating your own visuals now, you will get better as you go along. You will get better at figuring out how to express your ideas through visuals so you can connect with your audience and communicate with them more effectively than you could by only using speech or a wall of text on your slides. Practice makes perfect isn’t necessarily true, but practice makes BETTER certainly is, and getting better at anything is always an ongoing process.


(4) You’re unique and that makes your visuals unique

This is another mindset that is hard for people to believe, but it’s absolutely true. In this article about creativity in the scientific process, the author also describes how everyone uses their individual background knowledge and experience in the creative process. No one else has your brain or background, and that is enough to make unique visuals.

This works the other way, too. You’re unique and so are others. That means, comparisons to how others draw is totally useless and a waste of your time. Learning from them is fine, what we mean is feeling competitive, jealous, or bad about your own visuals because you’re comparing yourself to others is unhelpful. So, next time you are amazed by someone else’s work, be inspired by it instead of being deterred by it.

This can be especially difficult to believe if you are an academic or researcher who is used to constantly competing with other people for jobs, pubs, invited talks, grants, and whatever else. It’s a problem that academia can be so competitive at times. That’s toxic and does all of our fields a disservice. Even if you’ve tried to not be a competitive person within academia, that is the culture in some places, and it can be hard to fight against that all the time.

Allowing yourself to be more creative and to create your own visuals — and loving your own work while loving others’ work — can be a powerful way to resist this narrative.

You’re a unique person, making unique points and doing unique work, so your presentations and visuals can and should be unique too. If you ever get trapped here just remember that it isn’t a problem if your drawings “aren’t as good as” someone else’s. What matters is whether you’re making your points effectively.

Ultimately, that should be the point of learning new skills and practicing them, right? After learning new techniques and practicing, you apply what you’ve learned to your own work, which will result in visuals that are only possible as a result of your unique set of abilities, experiences, and ideas.

No one can truly copy you and you can’t copy someone else, so why worry about what anyone else is doing?


So, yes. We are suggesting that you just START CREATING visuals. If that feels intimidating or overwhelming to do on your own, then maybe training on how to do that will help.

We have an online course where you complete 5 visual projects in just 5 hours. All lessons were made specifically for scientists, academics, evaluators, and researchers. The specific goal for the course was to help you learn the technical and graphic design/visual thinking skills you need to get started with making your own visuals. Visuals you can use in your conference presentations, course lectures, reports, handouts, participant recruitment flyers, infographics, and more (see our free download for tons of ideas on the practical ways you could use your own visuals).


Before you go…there’s a free PDF download available that’s related to this post. It has:

 
WhyLearnAffinityChecklistMockup.png
 
  • Two short checklists to help you determine whether making your own visuals would be helpful for YOU.

  • A list of 15 ideas for the types of visuals that academics, scientists, researchers, and evaluators could make using design software, and which ones are particularly perfect for making in professional design software.

  • A description of 3 key benefits of using professional design software (e.g., Affinity Designer) instead of non-professional software (e.g., Canva).

GET YOUR FREE PDF DOWNLOAD BY JOINING THE COMMUNICATION CAFÉ (TOTALLY FREE) USING THIS FORM: