Friday 25 March 2022

Is a picture truly worth a thousand words?

Posted by Emma Adams, NIHR ARC NENC Mental Health Fellow at Newcastle University, and Experts by Experience from Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead & #HealthNow Newcastle

An illustration of me! Taken from one of the images
below created by Siân from More than Minutes
We have all heard some variation on the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and yet often information is shared through large reports with thousands of words and few images. A 2019 paper published in Nature Communications highlighted that with all the information people can read, gaining people’s attention is increasingly difficult.

Take the image of me (right), it tells you about my hair colour, glasses, outfit, that I'm partial to a tea or coffee and that I am sitting at a table. If I had written a description of everything that you can get from the picture, it would have likely taken up far more space. If it were me, I would probably only have skimmed the text. As a public health researcher, part of my job is finding ways to share research findings in a way that will engage people to want to learn more and have a conversation (something we in Fuse like to call knowledge translation).

Alongside my Experts by Experience (individuals with lived experience of homelessness, mental ill-health, and/or substance use) we began to ponder how to share what we learned from our NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) funded study exploring access to community based mental health and substance use support during the COVID-19 pandemic for individuals experiencing homelessness and those providing support. We had finally reached a point where there was a light at the end of the tunnel, as we moved away from understanding to sharing the findings. Yes, we figured we would write a couple of papers, attend some conferences, and likely write a report, but the bigger question was would the people in policy and practice and individuals experiencing homelessness read those documents? While trying to be nice, one person levelled with me and said Emma, “I’m probably not going to share a PowerPoint with a friend” and another said, “I don’t even know what that journal is”. Quickly the realisation sunk in that we were going to have to come up with a better solution for sharing our findings.

I began to think about visuals but realised my failed attempts at drawing stick people meant I probably would not be able to do this on my own. Two of the Experts by Experience spoke about a visual they had seen designed by More than Minutes for a peer research study around barriers to accessing care and treatment for people experiencing homelessness (#HealthNowManchester). I realised in that moment we had found our answer. Suddenly the Zoom call was abuzz with energy as everyone got excited about what story our visual might tell. As one person said, “it’s aimed at people who can’t read or write, or have a disability - someone like my brother”. Perhaps even more insightful was the comment that, “it [a visual] could have a different meaning for each person depending on their own experience”. 

We met with Siân (an illustrator from More than Minutes) and began planning the image and figuring out how to depict our endless pages of ideas into a visual that was engaging without being overwhelming. Over the next few months, we had a bit of back and forth on what we were envisioning. When the initial pencil sketch arrived, we were shocked at how the images captured so much of what we wanted to share without being a visual overload. Like kids at Christmas, we sat in suspense waiting to see what the final colour version would look like. We knew it captured exactly what we wanted when we saw the coloured versions. It was the physical depiction of everything we had learned and would proudly adorn our homes and offices! Through working with Experts by Experience and having input from colleagues in practice, we believe we have created a poster that depicts the experiences without some of the stigma we often see. Each of us saw something a little bit different in the poster, and we could not wait to share it with friends, colleagues, and providers. 

Created by Siân from More than Minutes; See the full images on the NIHR School for Public Health Research website.

Having had the experience of seeing words and quotes come to life, I cannot wait to do it again. Although we will continue to write papers and reports, the ability to share the images from our phones or by email with anyone has made us think about other creative ways to communicate research in the future.

So, I end this post with a question for you, do these pictures tell a better story of the findings than a one-page summary would have? Between you, me, and our Experts by Experience, we will be returning to this visual time-and-time again whereas the paper and report might not have the same reach and engagement. 


To make this visual freely accessible, we would welcome organisations printing their own copies. If you are printing the poster, please print it in its entirety and email Emma Adams so we can see all the places sharing our findings. A limited number of printed posters are available directly from Emma for pick up from Newcastle University.

Initial findings from Emma’s study have now been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Fuse Research Programme Meeting is planned to share more information about Emma’s study. Stay tuned for the save the date and further information. 


Emma is a Mental Health Fellow for the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC) and a previous NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) Pre-Doctoral Fellow.  Her study 'Exploring and understanding access to community-based mental health and addiction services in Newcastle and Gateshead' is NIHR SPHR ResNet funded.

This project is funded by/supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Public Health Research (SPHR) (Grant Reference Number PD-SPH-2015-10025). Emma was supported by the NIHR SPHR Pre-doctoral Fellowship Funding Scheme (Grant Reference Number PD-SPH-2015). Emma is now supported by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC) (NIHR200173). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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