A Call for Cuteness: Imagery in Science Communication and Outreach

Communication of scientific research is vital but often difficult when a subject is complicated or not easy to explain or visualize. Simplified characters can be a fun and clear way to explain a study subject.
A Call for Cuteness: Imagery in Science Communication and Outreach


Many scientific topics are distanced from the human experience and understanding, such as molecular mechanisms, enormous timescales, or complex forms and lifecycles. Imagery is one important tool available to scientists and educators to clearly depict this complicated material.  In scientific practice, drawings can be used to clarify a subject and even provide data in scientific studies (Bartušková, et al., 2022), and  in science engagement, images increase understanding and retention of information (McGellin et al., 2021).

Besides publications, scientists communicate through conferences, seminars, lectures, and public outreach material including tweets, posters, and blogs.  There is more freedom for creativity in these informal media, but also more competition with other visual stimuli and information.  In a crowded conference, bulletin board, or webpage, it can be difficult to get others to engage and reflect on information.  Clear and simple images can catch the eyes of colleagues and community members, but also function as characters to follow through the story of our research.  These images also give viewers a more personalized view of how we relate to our topics, showing the fun and enjoyment we have in our work.   Scientists can use the theory behind images and their meanings to make simplified and cute imagery so that their subjects are both clear and enjoyable.  An excellent example to illustrate these theories and principles are the bodies of perennial plants, a complicated subject frequently overlooked because it is hidden belowground (Fig. 1.; Bartušková et al. 2022; Klimešová et al., 2020). 

Figure 1. Belowground storage organs. The main types of belowground storage organs of perennial herbaceous plants, realistic specimen drawings from CLO-PLA database (left; Klimešová et al., 2017) and illustrations of generic cute storage organs (right).  All structures other than taproot are clonal; organs are stem (yellow), root (brown), or leaves (green).

Images are all around us and form a complex mixture of connotations and meanings (Ashwin, 1984; Ehrenfels & Smith, 1988).  As explained by semiotics, images are signs, composed of the understanding of an original referent, the signified (e.g. a plant) and the image that represents it, the signifier (e.g. a picture of a plant; Ashwin, 1984).  There are three types of signs based on their faithfulness to a referent (Fig. 2.1) and six principal functions (Fig 2.2; Ashwin, 1984).  All functions can be used to convey a message, but especially emotive, conative, and poetic functions are used to relate to and entice the viewer.  From these individual functions, Gestalt philosophy breaks down an image as both a series of parts and their combination into a whole, with emergent properties and meanings formed by this whole (Fig. 2.3; Ehrenfels & Smith, 1988).  

Figure 2.  The types of signs, functions, and their presence and role in images.  The three types of signs (1) decreasing in resemblance to the referent (from left to right) using the example of Iris spuria (photo courtesy of Alena Bartušková), a clonal plant growing from a rhizome.  The six functions of signs (2), indicated on an expressive illustration of Iris spuria.  Image parts and whole (3), with indication of important components (A) and expressive/stylistic features (C) on the whole image (B).

Cute images are visually appealing and endearing (Lorimer, 2007), utilizing the referential, emotive, and poetic functions of imagery. Cuteness is all around us and often very popular, such as Hello Kitty and other characters by Sanrio, an internationally recognized brand that exists largely to display their cute characters.  Cuteness is also used in mascots for the Olympic games, sports teams, and many consumer goods such as breakfast cereals.  Cute imagery has also been used in commercial science books and toys from companies such as Basher Science by Simon Basher, Giantmicrobes by Drew Oliver, and I Heart Guts by Wendy Bryan Lazar.

Cute things generally have simple shapes and features.  In alignment with Gestalt philosophy (Ehrenfels & Smith, 1988), one can select only features vital for identification of the subject, and add elements for emotive or stylistic appeal (i.e. emotive and poetic function).  Cute images typically use anthropomorphic features, especially facial expressions (Lorimer, 2007).  Anthropomorphism is the use of qualities or activities attributed to humans, inferred onto non-human subjects (Airenti, 2018), for example, added human facial expressions are an important part of many cute designs.  Narrative is also a powerful tool to communicate information (Dahlstrom, 2014) and anthropomorphism may help form the subject as a relatable and recognizable character within a narrative.  It is important to simplify and remove extraneous details, but also not add confusing or misleading features (Fig. 3.1).

Figure 3. Representation and Relationship. Examples of scientific representation (1) that are either accurate or inaccurate and anthropomorphic relationships (2) that are either based on belief or interaction.

Anthropomorphism can increase enjoyment (Yeo et al., 2020), retention of details, and decrease confusion from scientific texts (McGellin et al., 2021).  Although anthropomorphic attributes are unrealistic, they can be a part of pretense, holding a counterfactual for amusement (i.e. playing pretend), a common and healthy form of play for children (Severson and Woodard, 2018).  Anthropomorphism can be either a belief or an interaction, the former is a framework of understanding, which can be unrealistic and harmful (Fig. 3.2; Airenti, 2018).  In contrast, anthropomorphic interaction is an extension of relationship and empathy, and can be important to help one cope and relate in the world (Airenti, 2018). 

Cuteness and other charismatic qualities may be especially important in more obscure topics (Chan et al., 2012) because these qualities are rarely attributed to organisms more dissimilar to humans (e.g. invertebrates; Lorimer, 2007).  Thus anthropomorphism can combat potential speciesism and misconceptions by informing the public of under-recognized features shared by many of these organisms, such as the experience of pain or damage (Chan et al., 2012).  Placing a face on the storage organ of a plant can indicate its role as a body, and a sad expression can indicate an effect from damage or suboptimal conditions. 

The process of forming a simplified image can also help us understand our own subject, such as what is crucial for recognition and conveys the most important information.  This simplicity and interaction can also bring clarity and amusement.  Simplifying an image and subject can be difficult and slow, but it can also be an important part of breaking down the subject to better understand and teach about it.  Image-making can be frightening for individuals unfamiliar or lacking confidence in their abilities, but these images, especially simple forms, do not need to be made using complicated methods or techniques.  Simple arrangements can be made in many styles and using any form of artistic medium, including digital formats in a wide number of programs (Fig. 4).  These differences in expression, use of medium, and enjoyment in exploring and expressing scientific topics, are some of the most important parts of making unique and fun images for public engagement. 

Figure 4.  Medium and Style. Different depictions of belowground storage organs based on medium and style, showing the clustering behaviour in bulbs of Oxalis polyphylla, variation in rootsprouter strategy, and a generic epigeogenous rhizome, respectively.   

People can see a smiling plant and understand that plants do not actually have faces.  Anthropomorphic and emotive features are about interaction and are fun and healthy ways to interact with a subject.  Although over-exaggeration and embellishment obscure a topic, with careful consideration, we can transfer our own understanding and emotions into fun and informative material. 


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