public health

BU research explores the use of comic artistry and storytelling in public health information

Research at Bournemouth University is looking at the effectiveness of comic artistry and storytelling in the sharing of public health messaging.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) the project will catalogue and analyse comic-style public health graphics, specifically those created during the Covid-19 pandemic, and seek to make recommendations on how the comic medium can be effective at delivering public health messaging to help drive behaviour change.

The idea for the research began as Dr Anna Feigenbaum, the lead researcher, and her colleagues Alexandra Alberda and William Proctor shared clever comic-style graphics with one another that had been created and shared on social media about Covid-19. These single, sharable, comic-style graphics blend the artistry and storytelling of comics with the Covid-19 messaging we have seen throughout the pandemic.

Dr Feigenbaum, an Associate Professor within the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, said, “What we saw from these comic graphics was the way that the artistry and storytelling combined to share messages in a more emotive and interesting way. This built on work we were already doing on how public health messaging could utilise this medium to make their own messaging more engaging and even lead to better behavioural outcomes.”

José Blázquez, the project’s postdoctoral researcher, has started work in collating over 1200 examples of comic-style Covid-19 messaging with the aim of understanding what makes them so compelling, and how this genre of communication could be further used to create what the project’s research illustrator, Alexandra Alberda, calls an “accessible, approachable and relatable” style of messaging when communicating important public health messages. The team aims to build a database that archives these comics, including information about their artistic and storytelling techniques, audience engagement, circulation, and what implications they may have for the sharing of health messaging in the future.

The final outcomes will be shared as a report and an illustrated set of good practice guidelines. Results will also be shared in the team’s edited collection Comics in the Time of COVID-19 and a special journal issue for Comics Grid. It is hoped these guidelines will inform public health communicators, as well as graphic designers and educators.

The team has even created their own Covid-19 web-comics, published by Nightingale on Medium

Dr Feigenbaum continued, “Data comics are on a real upsurge as people look to make sense of the world through data visualisation, and there are some wonderful examples from amateur artists who have been incredibly clever and creative in taking what are, essentially, public health messages, and turning them into emotive comic-style stories.

“These sharable comic graphics are engaging and informed – there is a lot to learn here about the way we make sense of the world and how this genre could help us to see the communication of important messages in a whole new light. What we’re researching now could be seen as best practice in years to come.”

In addition to the main team of Dr. Feigenbaum, Dr. Blázquez and Alexandra Alberda, this research will be conducted with Co-investigators Dr. Billy Proctor, Dr. Sam Goodman and Professor Julian McDougall, along with advisory partners Public Health Dorset, the Graphic Medicine Collective, Information Literacy Group and Comics Grid. 

More information about the project will soon be available at www.covidcomics.org

This post originally appeared on the Bournemouth University website.

Anna Feigenbaum Administrator
Associate Professor in Communication and Digital Media

I am a writer, researcher, teacher and workshop leader specialising in data storytelling for civic good. From digging into dusty archives to data visualising absent deaths, I am drawn to the difficult, the messy, the ethically challenging questions that exist around the edges of debates over how we tell stories with science and data. As a consultant and trainer, I collaborate with charities, NGOs, Public Health organisations, investigative journalists and other researchers to explore empathetic and effective ways to tell data stories. I believe that it is often those without access to big budgets and fancy tools that hold the data stories we most need to change the world.

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Graphic Images: how webcomics can aid public health awareness

Dave Whamond/CagleCartoons.com

As you’ve probably guessed from the title, webcomics are being discussed as a new method for getting across public health messaging. Alexandra Alberda, a researcher at Bournemouth University, explained some of her ideas about how and why webcomics – and data-comics – work so well at getting across info, with a particular focus on using them during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has been a long and drawn-out catastrophe, and there has been a need to get urgent messages out to the public for everyone’s safety and well-being. But these messages can get muddled, drowned amongst a sea of long press-conferences, Twitter mis-info, and wild conspiracy videos. This is where the unique aspects of webcomics can step in and help.

Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

For a start, comics are easy to engage with for a lot of people, young and old. They have an aesthetic and use of language that is simple enough to be accessible for a very broad target audience. That broad appeal, especially in the context of educating the public about a pandemic, makes them a potentially powerful tool for public health communications.


‘Data-comics’ are something Alberda discussed in her talk as part of the speaker series. Now, the words ‘data’ ‘statistics’ and ‘figures’ are bound to immediately put off a lot of people (myself included) who don’t have a mathematical bone in their body. The same goes for charts and graphs, which can be pretty dry at the best of times. So, data-comics attempt to bridge that gap, and aim to repackage that info – for example, virus R-numbers, infection rates, risk calculations etc. – into something more easily digestible and understandable.  Take XKCD, the long-running webcomic that blends scientific topics with sardonic humour and a classic stick-figure aesthetic, or the Graphic Medicine project run by illustrators and academics to see how data-comics can be used in public health communications

Randall Munroe/XKCD.com

At the heart of it all is storytelling. Alberda outlines that a key part of web and datacomics about medicine and public health is transforming a whole mess of disparate facts and figures and putting them into a story format. Storytelling is such an innately human way of making sense complex things and issues. We tell children cautionary tales to warn them of the dangers out there, we package world events and issues into news stories and articles, and we even organise our memories into story-like structures. A great example of this can be seen in a webcomic that’s sprung up specifically to explain coronavirus to kids in a way that hopefully appeals to them through light-hearted dialogue and a fun, childish drawing style.

So, webcomics might just be an ideal way to get public health messages and guidance across effectively and entertainingly to a wide range of people across all demographics, and COVID-19 might just be the push that gets the ball really rolling.

Comic credits, from top to bottom:

Featured image: Malaka Gharib/NPR
Dave Whamond/CagleCartoons.com
Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR
Randall Munroe/XKCD.com

All images have been used for educational purposes, please contact s4599277@bournemouth.ac.uk for removal.

Originally published at: https://covid19speakerseries.edublogs.org/2021/01/28/graphic-images-how-webcomics-can-aid-public-health-awareness/.

Conor Byrne Editor
MA student in Media and Communication

MA student in Media and Communication at Bournemouth University and contributor at Covidcomics.org.