Visualizing complex information: a picture paints a thousand words

- EN - NL

On Thursday 25 April, top researchers at Radboud University took to the stage during the symposium on ’The Future of the Mind’, organised by Radboud Healthy Brain. This time, the audience not only comprised researchers but also a live illustrator.

While DaniŽl Wigboldus opened the symposium and explained that all’attendees who had come by car had undoubtedly driven here on auto-pilot, unbeknownst to him, he was being drawn at the back of the Red Room. There sat illustrator Bert Smits, with his drawing table and a whole tray of pens. Listening attentively to DaniŽl’s words, Smits sketched him on paper: in a car with the personalised number plate ’Daniel’ and a thought bubble with the text "Hopeless without navigation". Because - as DaniŽl revealed - we rely heavily on technology.

Smits’ task for the day? To boil down all the top scientists’ words on the promises and risks of digital technology for a healthy brain into one illustration. Smits: "In every illustration project, I learn about new topics. That’s what makes my work so interesting! This time, it was about the impact of digital technology."

Second time

This is the second time Smits has been present at a university to draw. Smits: "I visit all sorts of places and meet all layers of society! From primary schools to government institutions. I even ended up drawing Mark Rutte on one occasion."

Smits visually summarises training sessions or mindmaps on a regular basis. "I’ve been doing it since 2000. Then, there was suddenly a term for it: live cartooning."


At symposiums, Smits illustrates in real-time. But he always thoroughly prepares himself in advance. Smits: "For this symposium, I read up well beforehand. Especially because it was held in English and I not only had to listen carefully, but also immediately envisage how to illustrate the core message. I also always research the speakers in advance, so that I’ve got an idea of what they look like. In addition, before the symposium, Radboud University published a number of stories that were useful to me. And the rest? That just happens live on the spot!"

But even that came with an extra challenge: each speaker at the Healthy Brain symposium only had 10 minutes to speak. Smits: "With a total of 15 speakers, it was tough work! I sometimes did a quick scribble and then immediately had to put it to one side, as the next speaker had already taken to the stage. In between, I found time to finish all the drawings. Very occasionally, I even draw with two hands. Although I’m right-handed, I can draw fairly well with my left hand, too."

The essentials

One thing is for sure: a picture paints a thousand words. Smits: "Especially if you combine it with text. But I always say: I can never depict the entire story, or in this case, the entire symposium. I listened carefully during the day and captured the essentials. Such as the concept of collective cognitive capital, which Emily Murphy talked about in her keynote. Sander Schimmelpenninck also made incisive statements about our social media use. So, I decided to draw him with a multitude of thought bubbles, with quotes like ’social media fuels madness’ and ’idiots shouldn’t be given a platform’."

Another advantage? Images draw attention. Smits: "After the symposium, a networking reception was held, so that all the guests could talk to one another. I was there with my drawings and I must say, I engaged with a lot of people. ’How do you come up with them’’, many researchers asked. Some asked for an explanation, while others laughed about how I had caricatured them." Smits has to laugh about it, too: "Yes, I get why it’s funny. It’s something completely different from an academic publication!"

Radboud Healthy Brain