Tools for creating diagrams for science communication

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Tools For Creating Diagrams for Charities

When explaining research to your charity’s supporters, having a diagram to show what’s going on can make all the difference. But if you can’t find the right one, creating your own graphics might not be as difficult as you think. 

In this blog, I offer a few different options on how to make diagrams for blogs, webpages, documents, and presentations. We’ll look at different software available, from professional graphic design software to apps you probably use every day. And if you’d rather hand it over to a skilled professional, we’ll look at where to find graphic designers who can turn your ideas into reality.

Examples of how charities have used simple diagrams and graphics to explain research include:

First things first – is there already an image out there that you could use? My blog on where to find medical stock photography can also help you find suitable diagrams to explain certain concepts.

Graphic design software

There’s a few different options for programs to make useful diagrams and graphics for your science communication. 

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a professional graphic design tool. For that reason, I understand it has a bit of a steep learning curve. But there are plenty of tutorials out there to help people get to grips with the basics.

Adobe has a series of basic and advanced tutorials:

And the website Creative Bloq has a massive list of Illustrator tutorials –

Other Adobe Illustrator courses from popular online learning platforms: 

For medical illustrations, there are a few tutorials on YouTube, for example this one about drawing a red blood cell:

An alternative to getting started quickly is to use pre-made icons. The Noun Project provides more than 1 million icons and images for free which can be used directly within Illustrator. For example, check out these related to biology:

Cost: Charities can use the enterprise edition of Illustrator on its own for £15.17 per month, as part of a 12-month contract. Alternatively, you can bundle it with a range of other Adobe products, including InDesign and Photoshop. You might find that your organisation already has a licence you can use. 

If you like the sound of Illustrator, but not the price tag, Inkscape could be a good alternative.


Inkscape is a free, open-source version of Adobe Illustrator. It has many of the same features as Illustrator, and as for Illustrator, there are also a number of tutorials available to help you get started, including Inkscapes own: 

Inkscape was suggested to me by presentation trainer Duncan Yellowlees, who has found it invaluable.

Cost: Free. 


BioRender is web-based software for biology and medicine diagrams. It’s designed for scientists wanting to make professional-looking figures for papers and presentations, but it looks like it could be repurposed for simple images too. It seems easy to use, with a ‘drag-and-drop’ interface, and more than 20,000 icons for a range of different life sciences. It also has templates for different biological processes and concepts which you can use.

Cost: The team BioRender told me that an individual licence for non-profits is $420 per year, or $39 per month (about £340 per year and £30 per month).  You can use the free version to make up to five images as a trial. 


(Graphic designers, look away now.) Perhaps you just need to mock-up a simple cell-like image or something that looks like a tablet? PowerPoint might be a reasonable option. If you’ve ever done a presentation, chances are, you’ve used PowerPoint to make it, so you’re probably already familiar with it.  

It’s easy to repurpose PowerPoint as a graphics software. Make your image using the objects and shapes, and then export the slide(s) as an image file using ‘Save As…’. You can save it as a PNG, JPEG, or BMP file. 

You can also save objects so that they have a transparent background. Select all the objects you want to save, then right-click, ‘Save as picture’, to save them as a PNG file. 

Cost: If you already have Microsoft Office, then you’re ready to go! If you don’t, then Personal subscriptions for Office 365 start at around £60 a year. 

Pen and Paper

If you’re handy with a pen or a pencil, then maybe just draw it by hand, and scan it into your computer. Hand-drawn can be a simple way to make some pretty effective images and even videos, like this one from Alzheimer’s Research UK, shows:

You can even have the best of both worlds by sketching something out by hand, and then editing in Illustrator or Inkscape. Illustrator has a function called Image Trace which can convert image files into the ‘vector’ files that Illustrator can work with. (Inkscape also has a feature called Trace BMP). 

Find a freelancer

If you’ve tried some of these options, but you can’t get it looking right, it might be quicker to call in the professionals. Luckily, there are plenty of places you could find great freelance graphic designers and illustrators to help you get what you’re after.

  • CharityComms freelancer directory – CharityComms has a great directory of charity freelancers, which you can browse by skillset, including Creative & Design
  • ‘Third Sector PR & Comms Network’ Facebook group – If you work in communications for a charity, but aren’t already a member of this great community, you should be. It’s a great place to find recommendations for freelancers (and many other things besides). 
  • Lifeology – Lifeology has only recently appeared on my radar, but it could be an excellent option for charities looking for artists to work with. It is designed for bringing scientists, science communicators, and artists together. Speaking to the team at Lifeology, they say they are happy to match up charities and other organisations with artists, for free (though you’ll have to pay the artists of course). 
  • PSCI-COM mailing list – Another informal network of science communicators – sending a message to the PSCI-COM mailing list could be a good place to find scientifically-minded graphic designers and illustrators. 

How do you use diagrams to explain your charity’s research? Let me know! Get in touch via email, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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