Graphic Engagement: Notes on a ‘new’ method of engagement with research

By Caroline Gillett, Research Engagement Officer

Just before close of 2018, we ran our ‘Graphic Engagement’ event – the first in a brand new series of CREATIVE ENGAGEMENT workshops organized by the Public Engagement with Research team. This series aims to showcase how innovative collaborations between researchers and other artists, creatives, makers, end-users and enthusiasts can open doors to engaging new audiences with the amazing work that researchers do. Our first workshop looked at how graphic art, design and illustration can be used as a tool to engage the public with university research and we heard from four University of Birmingham researchers working with this varied method. Importantly, we chose to showcase researchers who were each at different stages of the process, with some just starting out, whilst others were building on previous work that had been successful. This way we hoped attendees would get a feel for how long projects can take to develop, as well as what the different stages of the process might entail.

Another key feature of this workshop series is the hands-on element of the day, which this time was facilitated by our special guest Pen Mendonça, who also spoke alongside our researchers, and who later gave attendees a go at using illustration exercises to talk about their own research. This practical element is something we hope to continue to embed in future workshops to provide attendees with a taster of the workshop theme either through structured table-top discussions and exercises or individual practice opportunities.

I wanted to share a few notes from what I thought was a really interesting and fun afternoon (even if I do say so myself!), in the hope that you might consider joining us at a future event or perhaps proposing a future workshop theme based on a creative practice of your own. We also received some great feedback from the 30 odd attendees who joined us this time around (thank you to those of you who came along), which I’ll summarize below.

Prof Jonathan Reinarz (History of Medicine) – discussed his Forged by Fire project that covers research on burns injury and identity in Britain c.1800-2000. Working with artist Sarah Silver Taylorwood, the research group and Sarah opted to create a graphic novel to engage teenagers with compelling real life stories from people and professionals who experienced and treated burns historically. For example, they used WWWII RAF pilot Geoffrey Page’s biography as the basis for their first graphic story which depicted his plane being shot down in flames during a battle in which he suffered severe burns. Geoffrey later went on to found the inspirational Guinea Pig Club, a club for badly injured aircrew.


Although originally drafted with dialogue, Jonathan interestingly decided to use versions of the completed graphic story with the text omitted when engaging young people in schools. Instead, teenagers were encouraged to fill out the dialogue bubbles themselves, helping immerse them in the story and perspectives of the characters, something which Jonathan believed helped heighten the impact of the graphic novel and the history lesson within it. This idea was picked up on as a great way of encouraging proactive rather than passive engagement during a later group Q&A between the researchers, with a couple of the other researchers indicating they would consider whether they too might do something similar when working with young people.


Dr Christalla Yakinthou (Political Science) – discussed her short graphic novel which focuses on storytelling & conflict transformation in deeply divided, post-war and post-authoritarian countries. Christalla spoke to us about her work in Tunisia with a group of women who experienced living under repressive regimes. Most had either been imprisoned themselves or had had loved ones imprisoned. As part of Christalla’s wider work, several consultations and discussions took place between practitioners, the activists, and Christalla as the researcher. Common themes began to organically emerge, some of which were loosely captured through a graphic facilitator (comic book artist) listening in on the group. Fascinated by the sketches left at the end of the day, the group decided to explore these sketches further as part of a graphic novel, eventually co-producing a narrative together which enabled them to ‘anonymously’ contribute their perspectives through characters within a central story. This story focused on the preparation and handover of a traditional provisions basket prepared by loved ones and given to their imprisoned family members. The basket took on a symbolic status as a conveyer of love, hope and memory. The process was highly collaborative and took quite a while as the group had to collectively agree on the overall believability and impact of the dialogue, as well as factors such as whether to use colour or black and white imagery, with the group opting for the latter to reflect the sombre nature of many of the themes. The novel is now being used to open up conversations with young people on activism and human rights.


Dr Tom Dunkley Jones (Earth & Environmental Science) – discussed his early-stage work with a manga artist to bring to life the evolution of the Earth’s climate & marine ecosystems. Clearly scientific evidence alone isn’t necessarily enough to make people act more responsibly towards the planet. Instead, we may need to think more creatively about how to engage with people on an emotional as well as rational, cognitive, facts-based level. Might the arts be a way to do this? Tom is still early in the process of storyboarding a graphic novel to ‘humanize’ the research process with this in mind, working with an artist to depict not just the science and technology, but teams of people behind environmental science research. The idea is to take a graphic look at a research vessel’s ocean expedition from the ground up – delving into the lives and motivations of personnel and research crew from cleaners, cooks and captain through to the technicians and scientists, whilst also weaving in scientific facts and processes in an accessible and enjoyable way. It’s hoped this more holistic view of what it takes to do great science might help impart greater appreciation of how environmental science is a transparent and collaborative effort where everyone can play a part in reducing the negative impact of climate change.


Dr Amaury Triaud (Physics)  –discussed how bandes dessinées (comic strips) and graphic design can bring recent Astronomy discoveries such as TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets to a novel audience. Bored of seeing the same bog standard depictions of exoplanets, Amaury set to work with graphic designer Sarah Smith to collaborate on the creation of a set of new high quality editorial images for use in print and online media, using his research findings as the inspiration for these new stylized interpretations. This proved to be a hit and later brought him into contact with Sylvain Rivaud aka Lepithec, an illustrator with a grand passion for astronomy. The duo ended up collaborating on a comic explaining what TRAPPIST-1 is through a conversational tale between quirky panda and rabbit characters. Now translated into multiple languages, the comic has been downloaded all over the world. As the collaboration emerged spontaneously, Amaury did not at the time have funding in place to pay for the artist’s work (though Lepithec did receive payment from reproduction of his work in print), so Amaury’s tale served to remind researchers of the need to think thoughtfully about costing in some budget for engagement opportunities that might arise during the later stage of a grant, especially if you have a desire to work with an artist down the line. Amaury hopes to work with both Sarah and Lepithec again in the future.


49148069_10156777121524876_4613542749969317888_nPen Mendonça – we were finally joined by our external guest, Pen, an independent graphic facilitator and cartoonist with over 20 years’ experience of facilitating public engagement. Pen discussed her recently submitted PhD which developed ‘values-based cartooning’ as a research method, employed here for a study of single motherhood. She shared her insights on her process, including how she carried out consultations with other single mothers to produce the characters in her work. Although Pen worked hard on collaboration, she also noted that it was important to express her own viewpoints and voice within her thesis and that she had to be decisive about what to take forward, as not everything could be represented within a concise piece of academic work. After this, Pen gave attendees a quick go at using illustration exercises to communicate ideas. For example, she asked people to draw things that made a good day (e.g. tasty breakfast, good coffee) versus bad day (e.g. poor sleep, travel disruption) for them. Later attendees graduated to more complex exercises where one person would sketch-note a day-in-the-life story that was being narrated by another person in 3 minutes. This helped give a sense of how difficult sketch-noting can be to do on the fly, but also showed how simple symbols can convey rich information and powerful meaning, useful when thinking about research posters or graphics.

[Header Image Credit: Graphic facilitation by Pen Mendonca at Southwark Untold with Pempeople and LITC, Tate Modern, London 2018]

Feedback: We asked attendees to give us a couple of words to describe the workshop and here’s what they said…

worldclous feedback

In addition, we had a high 8.9/10 score rating for the overall quality of the workshop. Feedback comments included, for example:“Helpful to get perspective on how researchers work with artists. Great insights on this process that might otherwise be difficult to get” and “All speakers were great – clear, passionate & very diverse stories/views & work represented.” etc. The few negative comments we obtained were in reference to attendees wanting more time for questions, networking and/or sketching activity. We have taken this into consideration going forwards and will have a longer lunch session for networking, as well as booking the room for an extra hour in case there are some people who want to stick around post-workshop brainstorming for a bit longer.

We have opted to keep to the advertised 3 hour format (including lunch) however, as we felt that it would be harder for people to commit to a half day or more and advertising a longer workshop might put people off signing up altogether. The public engagement team do of course run other half day/full day events, such as our annual Public Engagement with Research Day (PER Day), so if you want an intensive day of engagement activity do sign yourself up for this year’s event themed on RADICAL PRACTICE. PER Day will be taking place on April 5th, email for registration info. Our CREATIVE ENGAGEMENT workshops are instead designed as inspirational peer-to-peer taster sessions where attendees can dip their toes into something new. This hopefully allows people to test their own levels of interest in pursuing themes further, rather than feeling they need to over-commit to an in-depth engagement training session from the get-go.

Our next CREATIVE ENGAGEMENT workshop takes place on March 27th, 2019 (11-2pm) and it focuses on ‘Interactive Mixed Media’, which we acknowledge is a very broad term. From a humble card deck or board game to a digital app or computer game – there are many ways to translate complex concepts, facilitate two-way conversations and to proactively involve others in research design, delivery, engagement or discussion. You don’t necessarily have to know how to code, you don’t necessarily have to be a computer game expert and you don’t necessarily need a lot of money to test whether an initial idea will ‘fly’. What you might need is a little creativity and inspiration… which we hope this workshop will help provide! Spaces are limited, so please do sign up HERE.

We hope to see you there and here’s to a super engaged 2019!