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Conversation with Diana Marques – Part 2

Past, present and future projects, bringing together scientific visualization and digital media.

January 14, 2013
(Diana Marques)

This is the second part of an interview with Diana Marques, who told us in our previous post  about what motivated her to become a scientific illustration,  its importance (before and after the advent of photography), as well as techniques and styles used, which is the product of the interpretation of lots of different data.

The second part focuses on Diana’s past and future projects and about their importance for the public awareness and public engagement of science.


Regarding the different types of work that a scientific illustrator can develop according to the purpose and target audiences, Diana notes that:

DM — There is a great difference between styles and techniques when we speak of scientific illustration that serves the scientific community and when we talk about scientific illustration for the non-scientific public. The first type is almost the “dark side of scientific illustration” for most people, but when it is available to half a dozen experts on that subject, it is essential. And so, this kind of illustration requires a very specialized scientific knowledge and has a more particular graphic style, more technical.

Ilustração de Diana Marques
(Illustration: Diana Marques)

Besides this more technical scientific illustration, if you want to communicate science to a general audience —and then the scientific content of the message is not so hermetic —the image has to be much more captivating because the intention is to win people’s attention and tell them something. Even when dealing with people who may not be motivated, we seek, through the image, to draw their attention and then to communicate something. This doesn’t happen in the scientific community, where experts are ready and waiting for the pictures, it’s they who seek them. In a general audience we have to use visual marketing techniques in order to communicate the message effectively,that increasingly has a considerable degree of complexity when compared with the images that were formerly scientific illustrations. We are talking about messages as complex as explaining global climate changes or represent an entire ecosystem. Important messages on issues that affect all of us. These illustrations follow the trend of socialization and democratization of science we have been witnessing in recent decades.

Regarding the work that Diana developed and these two major fields of scientific illustration (mentioned above)she stresses that it’s a pleasure to produce images for publications describing species that are new to science. About her illustration work for a general audience, she says:

DM — There’s a whole other side of the illustrations I have produced, for example, to natural history museums, where I know they will be seen by thousands and millions of people. The illustrations I did for the Smithsonian are seen by nearly 7 million visitors a year. To think that our work reaches so many people is extraordinary.

In particular, Diana enhances the satisfaction she felt, when she designed a stamp collection for the United Nations, a collection about endangered species:

DM — Maybe they (people who see the collection) find the images captivating enough to think and realize that it is an endangered species that is represented there, and feel compelled to read the name and seek more information, people can be engaged beyond the object of art, which is beautiful and looks great on the envelopes, but can simultaneously generate awareness of the problem.

Ilustração de Diana Marques
(Ilustração: Diana Marques)

With the admission to a PhD program in digital media, she wants to add a new component to her work. In addition to Biology and illustration, she is also doing a specialization in visual communication in science using digital media, in the context of museology. This way, she works on the sociological dimension of the museum through the use of technologies.

DM — I am focusing, besides the message, on the public, the best way to get the message. Of course there are a number of notions of visual marketing which I have from my design experience, but I want to go beyond that, know what people are grasping the scientific images and what their levels of satisfaction are – in this case, in the context of a museum.

Focusing on the public, the illustrator wants to promote the power of decision about what they want to see in the museum. In order to do this, she is now working on a project in collaboration with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

She explains what the project is about, contextualizing it in the reality of the museum and the evolution of the organization in museology:

DM — The museum has on permanent exhibit a collection of skeletons, all modern groups of vertebrates – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish – belonging to species that, except in one case, are still existing today. This is a special collection of skeletons, because most of them were collected or purchased in the nineteenth century, with the purpose of constituting an exhibition on the first national museum of the United States.

The collection was moved to the Museum of Natural History when the building was built, in 1910. In the 60’s the exhibition has adopted the configuration it has today, after having been curated by scientists at the museum. At that time there was already the concern to place the skeletons in a way they allowed to “answer” the question “What do we mean by this skeleton?” although, at that time the museum was not functioning as today. Nowadays it counts with a whole team of communication and marketing, who define how information is conveyed; experts already exist for communicating science.

How important are these skeletons?

DM — This collection is a historical heritage, both for its antiquity, and the importance of some people who collected the skeletons. It also has biological importance, since it contains many examples of species that are not extinct but are not easily to find either other museums’ collections and exhibited this way.

Therefore, we intend to preserve all this value keeping its configuration in the set of four rooms, assuming the 60’s look, the dating of the texts on the walls and recognizing that some of those legends have the name of the species outdated because they were renamed or reclassified.

The illustrator stresses that the way this collection is presented today, has problems such as poor communication and interactivity, as well as low levels of visitors satisfaction, which led to investment in the upgrade and potential of the collection of skeletons.

What is the project about?

DM — We are developing what will be a digital renovation. It consists of adding a digital layer that is intended to establish a bridge between visitors and the exhibition. In order to do this, we are developing a free mobile application that visitors can download to their own devices (phones, tablets) before or during the visit. This application will allow the visitor to interact with the skeletons in order to have more information about them, either through stories about the represented species and the form and function of muscles or bones, or through stories explaining concepts such as the comparison of the skeleton of a bird with the one of a bat to understand evolutionary concepts of common ancestry.

It is also expected to use stories that engage more on a human level, almost like a non-damaging ‘anthropomorphization’. For example, comparing the way the neck of an hinga works (bird whose neck works with a leverage system) with the way some instrument were used by Indians.

Diana says that the use of diversified content, oriented to people, objects or concepts, aims to engage several different audiences.

The project — technological resources:

DM — We are using augmented reality, which is a technology that is not so recent as one may think–it dates from the 60’s — but only now has become applicable due to the development of systems such as GPS and sensors that our current mobile devices have (gyroscope, magneto scope, etc.).

Using the camera of mobile devices, the application recognizes objects or real images and overlay them with an additional content, like a video or a picture, a photograph or text.

The mobile device recognizes the specimen and the visitor sees, through the device, for example,muscles or skin of the skeleton, allowing it to make immediate comparison between what is real and what is virtual, with extra information.

Augmented reality has this special feature, it allows the coexistence between reality and virtuality in the same space, the screen of our device.

This is a tool that museums are starting to pay attention to because it’s promising, though still raises some questions, such as “Using mobile technology in a museum does not distract people from the exposed object?”

It is anticipated that the augmented reality enables greater dialogue between visitors and the museum, helping to leave the perspective of unidirectional transmission of knowledge and giving voice to the visitor’s preferences and the way they like to do and see their visit.


This interview focused on what it scientific illustration, what kind of techniques, styles and sources are used, as well as new contexts in which it can be an increase of value for the communication of scientific knowledge. We thank Diana Marques for this enlightening interview, and you should definitively visit her online portfolio.

Written by Susana Pereira

Susana Simões Pereira, maths teacher and PhD in science teaching and communication. I enjoy games and photography and I'm passionate for science and art, specially when together in the same context. You can follow my updates on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.