Re-envisioning the Abstract: Visual Abstracts in Writing Studies

Contributor: Molly Ryan
Affiliation: Virginia Tech
Email: mollison at vt.edu
Released: 14 August 2023
Published: Issue 28.1 (August 2023)


In spring 2021, I was enrolled in Dr. Derek Mueller’s Research Methods in Rhetoric and Writing course, where our semester explorations included investigating our own curiosities surrounding not only what it meant to engage in methodology, but also what exactly was meant to be done with that methodology once it was fully formed: In other words, how was that research communicated? How was it disseminated? 

One option of a final project in that course was to practice this dissemination through the traditional research poster. In class,we discussed the merits and failings of this longstanding, sometimes controversial genre: Even beyond the field of writing studies, scholars have noted its unique nature (Miller, 2007) while simultaneously working to provide salient suggestions to improve the faults and features that, as Bailey J. Sousa and Alexander M. Clark (2019) said, make posters terrible. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (2001) noted that because of its design setup—as in, its color, graphics, and so on—the research poster is a multimodal genre. Larissa D’Angelo (2010) elaborated that this genre is simultaneously quick to evolve (e.g., with the movement to e-posters) while also remaining a steadfast, tried-and-true method of communicating work. And yet, D’Angelo (2016) described the poster as carrying a negative evaluation from both audience members and participants. In essence, many researchers are asking what can be done to make the research poster better. The answer remains largely unidentifiable, beyond consistent attempts to reshape the design.

Notably,as I was preparing to teach a first-year Writing from Research course the following spring, the curriculum of which includes a multimodal transformation of a sustained research project, I was particularly keyed in to how the poster could perhaps remain a pillar of teachable research presentation skills and yet be reinvented, or perhaps more accurately, adapted into a more succinct, tech-oriented form at the same time. What I wanted for my first-year students was something like a microposter: a way for them to transform their research while avoiding some of the more heavily critiqued aspects of the poster itself. I envisioned this to be something eye catching and graphically focused; digitally created; for a general, even nonacademic audience; and suitable for a short mini-pitch or for social media. It was through this methods course that I found an already existing genre to match the messy criteria in my head: the visual abstract. The first visual abstract I created as a result of this methods course is included in Figure 1.

a three panel visual abstract. Panel 1: two laptops with depictions of graphics and blank text. Panel 2: outcomes, with five times article engagement, two times article views, and two times article clicks. Panel 3: implications, including increased activity, increased audience range, and increased accessibility.
Figure 1: The first visual abstract I created.

As Vahagn Nikolian and Andrew Ibrahim (2017) described, a visual or graphic abstract in the simplest of summations is a graphic representation of key research findings that would typically be described in a written abstract. The idea is to translate information not just to other scholars but to general audiences quickly, efficiently, and engagingly. It is designed to be a method that facilitates communication broadly, through venues like social media (especially Twitter), conference materials, and journals, even those not specifically accorded to digital or creative technologies. In addition, the visual abstract introduces a tangible implementation of visual rhetoric and scholarly identity: The decisions of typography, color, and graphic expression all can be considered representative of a desired impression and, by extension, an opportunity for further depth and creative expression of both the research and the scholar. Importantly, while the research poster tells the whole story, or at least most of the story, of the research, the visual abstract acts more like a brief synopsis. The intention is not to give all the information through the graphic itself, rather to draw the attention of the audience to engage further with the work, like a colorful and inspiring snippet of a greater picture.

This piece argues that the purpose of the visual abstract is not to replace the traditional poster but to act as a suitable pairing, accompaniment, or alternative. While the research poster might be likened to a full-length movie, the graphic abstract acts as the preview. This webtext first seeks to articulate the current conversation surrounding visual abstracts before offering a framework for how writing studies scholars can implement visual abstracts as a refreshing genre of research communication. Then, I give an outline of my approach to teaching the visual abstracts in the context of first-year writing, highlighting the pedagogical goals, learning outcomes, and suitability for the curriculum afforded by this genre. The hope of this piece is to provide a workable lesson plan for those interested in the genre, as well as introduce a buildable schema for those intrigued by engaging with this method themselves.

Understanding the Foundations

Much of the current literature on visual abstracts falls into two categories: statistical analyses of the modality of dissemination and characteristics to define the genre. One of the most tangible throughlines of the work thus far is the significant difference in audience engagement. Irrefutably, visual abstracts equate to a much higher audience interest rate. In 2017, Andrew Ibrahim et al. established that visual abstracts on Twitter resulted in more than double the number of user clicks and visits to the actual article itself compared to traditional textual counterparts. Lee Lindquist and Vanessa Ramirez-Zohfeld (2019) recorded in their study that visual abstracts received over five times the impressions on Twitter compared to textual abstracts—approximately 170,000 compared to 25,000, to be specific. Finally, Sandra Oska, Edgar Lerma, and Joel Topf (2020) established that visual abstracts resulted in five times the engagement over textual abstracts, and 3.5 times more engagement than key figures abstracts. Nikolian and Ibrahim (2017) offered what might be the most formative gloss of the formation and nature of the visual abstract within STEM fields, including six characteristics in an observed sampling of the genre, a template and example figures, and five design considerations. Nikolian and Ibrahim began their work with framing the significance of medical journals within the context of the medical field at large, noting that journals act as a bridging between researcher and audience. But that bridge is sometimes inaccessible, particularly for major stakeholders in medical treatment (like patients) who require context of salient findings in layperson's terms. Thus, their recommendation of the visual abstract for research dissemination is meant to decrease the distance between general audiences and practitioner–scholars. 

Importantly, Nikolian and Ibrahim (2017) described that the visual abstract, contained to just a single slide-sized unit, is not designed to replace the classic abstract, nor is it meant to describe all the elements of the article. Rather, it is intended to articulate the intention and central point of the work and encourage the reader to continue. Nikolian and Ibrahim’s identifiable genre characteristics (with acknowledgement that these characteristics are specific for medical work) include both a question and outcome summary, outcome comparisons, outcome data, and most crucially, a graphical representation for each of these elements. Further, the design considerations include “Focus on User Experience,” “Clarity of Purpose,” “Rapid Prototyping,” “Iterative Improvement,” and “Thoughtful Restraint” (p. 255). What is most salient about these frameworks is the emphasis on usability, creation efficiency, and collaborative improvement.

Beyond Nikolian and Ibrahim’s framework, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023) provide a template, as well as a suggested best-practices list for authors. This list and template, both of which read similarly to a replicable method, provide further clarification on what this genre should look like and includes recommendations such as the inclusion of keywords and instructions to not exceed 85 characters per panel. There is crossover between the CDC recommendations and Nikolian and Ibrahim’s work—the inclusion of the title and identifying author information, and visuals for each key point—and further, the CDC addresses concerns of domain and originality, noting that all graphics should be appropriately sourced without any possible copyright infringement.

The Visual Abstract and Writing Studies

So while the visual abstract is still a relatively new genre—only gaining significant traction in the last five years or so—one of the most immediate surprises I encountered in my primary inquiry was the notable absence of writing studies in the broad genre discourse. While research in multimodal composition has not yet engaged with the visual abstract specifically, I want to point out a few key instances where I see an implied sponsorship of this work in existing scholarship.

In 2010, Laurie E. Gries and Collin Gifford Brooke explored the uneven and sometimes poorly attended relationship between slideware and the writing classroom, noting (not unlike the discourse around the conference poster) that slideware continuously struggles to capture audience attention and often fails to portray an accurate and engaging picture of what the researcher is actually doing. What I find particularly relevant about Gries and Brooke’s piece in this context is their discussion of how any sort of multimodal exploration is left to the last part of a course, with research delivery operating as an afterthought. The curriculum at my university is no exception: The multimodal element is placed as the final project, in coordination with the presentation.

Gries and Brooke (2010) also said that leaving multimodal delivery to the end of a course excludes any inventional element. They argued that a mindset of transformation, including rhetorical constraints with an emphasis on play and innovation at the forefront, creates a much stronger story of research for students. This is an argument that I believe the visual abstract pairs particularly well with. While in this specific instance, I posit the visual abstract as the concluding assignment, there is certainly much to be gained from teaching a visual summary as a consistent throughline to the overarching plot of the work itself. Gries and Brooke made me ponder how the visual abstract could be of greater service to student invention processes throughout the semester rather than at the end of the course where I had originally placed it. In my university’s curriculum, students frequently are tasked with creating a proposal that acts as an abstract-like articulation of their research; the visual abstract could absolutely pair or even replace the more standardized conventions of this task, challenging students to be audience forward and multimodally minded from the start. And the visual abstract inherently answers many of the calls that Gries and Brooke forefront: operating within rhetorical constraint, focused on user experience, and designed for brevity and impact.

The work of Cheryl E. Ball, Tia Scoffield Bowen, and Tyrell Brent Fenn (2013) further laid strong groundwork pointing towards writing studies’ readiness for this work: specifically, the idea of deconstructing what might be considered typical genre conventions in favor of “embrac[ing] the wow” (p. 26). In this particular context, the authors speak on shifting expectations in the venue of the writing class from school-imposed genre work that often lacks any significant impact or sparkle into dynamic, audience-focused invention buoyed by student buy-in. In other words, there is a tendency in the writing classroom to impose a “substitution of the medium” in multimodal contexts: treating a multimodal transformation as an exchangeable substitute for a written medium (p. 29).

The visual abstract is a genre that both encourages instructors (and students) to “embrace the wow”: its newness, its conciseness, its openness in interpretation lend well to both thinking beyond conventional slidedecking or posterbuilding. So, too, the visual abstract lacks some of the predetermined genre expectations that sometimes plague the writing class. It could be argued that because there is still so little in canonical genre standards, it is possible that some of the potential pitfalls of other common multimodal genres in first-year writing might be avoided. Finally, the visual abstract could certainly be misconstrued as a substitution of media—as in a visual exchanged for a written abstract—and the pedagogical choices explored later in this piece seek to play with how this can be addressed, but with the specificity of quick interpretation and broad audience engagement. I believe the visual abstract dodges this obstacle as well.

Speaking to the complexity of this genre, Eunjeong Lee’s (2023) article in Written Communication on multimodal composing in the writing class as a method of justice and activism feels particularly poignant for its possibilities. A special feature of the visual abstract is its ability to place selective choices of identity disclosure at the forefront of the image itself, rather than as an afterthought. Lee’s piece included the following call to action: “In working toward equitable and just language and literacy classrooms and society, language and literacy teachers should actively create a space for students to think about their lived experiences as a source of critical knowledge” (p. 83). Of course, it is a huge ask for a genre to carry the weight of lived experiences and critical knowledge, so the visual abstract is not the ultimate answer to this important task. Yet, in teaching the genre myself, I watched my students involve their lived experiences in the creation of further critical knowledge throughout the project. Their choices for their visuals were theirs to make, and I felt that the somewhat tentative fluidity of the genre enabled me to take a step back to make space for those choices. An underexplored but particularly generative aspect of this genre is its ample opportunity for bringing, and teaching, personal expression and identity within the research writing genre. Each visual abstract that I’ve made personally has allowed me to consider what I want the aesthetic and general impression of my research to be. My decisions in typography, graphics, phrasing, and arrangement all are indicative of not only who I am as a scholar but also how I envision my particular project being received (refer to Figures 2 and 3).


Figure 2: A three panel visual abstract, with a significant rainbow graphic in the left panel
Figure 2: A three panel visual abstract, with a significant rainbow graphic in the left panel


A seven panel visual abstract. Panel 1: title in white sans-serif text: With Hope, a student-centered model of critical pedagogy for first-year writing. Panel 2: author identifiers: Molly Ryan, mollison@vt.edu, Virginia Tech. Panel 3: research question, with purple question mark graphic, what might a critical pedagogy method look like in practice? Panel 4: methods, including model building, analysis, and blueprint coding, with simple line accompanying graphics. Panel 5: results, including assignment language, activities, instructor analysis, guiding values, and strategic planning. Panel 6: keywords. Panel 7: Implications with accompanying line graphics.
Figure 3: The visual abstract for my Master's thesis.

It would be a misstep to neglect the work of Jody Shipka (2016) on making, compositional fluency, and agency. Shipka described the dangers of equating newness exclusively with digital forms and that doing so risks movement away from established, familiar genres that may be appropriately (re)adapted, remixed, and revised. The visual abstract works as a living example of this practice—for as much as I comment on the newness of the visual abstract, it remains a remix of an established genre: familiar, but fresh; similar, but different from its textual origin. In being generous to pillared genres, as well as making space in the multimodal class, the visual abstract shows up as a bright option.

By exploring these sources, I hope to have illustrated that while writing studies has not specifically engaged with the visual abstract as of yet, the thematic inclinations of multimodal scholarship point towards many of the values that the genre is forwarding. Of course, there is still much unsaid about the potentials and failings of this genre, and more research is needed to understand how it may be further developed. However, I believe there is value and rhetorical exigence in writing studies contributing to that conversation.


A prominent concern of this genre is accessibility: how this genre can be treated through a disability lens, in the context of the writing class and beyond. I want to acknowledge that there is a significant gap in the scholarship at this moment on visual abstracts and disability. While further study is needed here, I believe one point to consider in the implementation of visual abstracts to a curriculum is avoiding the dangers of retrofitting, that is, only considering how this genre can be made accessible after the fact. In the context of my assignment, students are writing a traditionally written abstract as well. In the context of presenting their visual to the class (or just the instructor, in certain instances), they are asked to describe their visual abstract, including what each panel represents, what graphic they chose for each phase, and what it stands for. However, I am not asserting that this setup is enough nor necessarily adequate in interacting with the genre through a disability lens.

What I think is a strong affordance of this genre in the context of the writing class and disability studies is the possibility of incorporating an accessibility lens directly, rather than as an aside. For example, the work of Sean Zdenek (2020) on caption studies and alt text points to the potential of writing studies to influence the narrative of how visuals are described in specifically nonrhetorical and rhetorical contexts. The visual abstract, in its naturally multidisciplinary state, is a generative vessel for teaching captioning and alt text for students. Because it is particularly popular on Twitter, there is an opportunity to analyze how automatically generated alt text on a social media platform compares to a manually composed alt text. In the context of already existing visual abstracts, an intriguing throughline of research would be to analyze the alt text—if any—for these images. How are they described? What is the developing canon of alt text for these images? How do they compare to written abstracts of the same piece? Where are the failings and successes?

Adjusted Parameters

Formulating how I wanted to introduce this genre and,moreover, how to teach it—particularly in the context of first-year writing—was more complex than I anticipated. Although the identifying characteristics of the genre are relatively discoverable and increasingly overlapping, there is arguably no praxis of visual abstracts (yet) to articulate a specific approach. There exists a combination of examples and recommendations, but what was rather obviously missing from the literature was the how: how to teach this genre, how to “do” this genre, and, most pressingly, how to bridge the gap between this genre and traditional abstract for students.

Not only did I want to understand how to implement this work myself, but I also saw myself as somewhat accountable, particularly as a first-year writing instructor at an R1 university with prolific STEM programming, for introducing my students to this method of research dissemination. In my mind, it was not a matter of if they would encounter this genre in their futures, but when. However, I also needed to consider the existing skeleton of the course curriculum and how this genre spoke specifically to the learning outcomes.

One such consideration was that the genre is largely focused on STEM research, and consequently some of the aforementioned defining characteristics are not necessarily directly applicable to a general-education writing course assignment. For example, outcome data and comparisons are largely accordant to quantitative research, particularly with meaningful statistics, which may or may not harmonize with work in rhetoric and writing, or even liberal arts more broadly. Thus, I created a set of characteristics adapted from defining scholarship for my visual abstract assignment:

  1. clear identifiers (title, author, affiliation, key terms)
  2. summarized purpose or inquiry
  3. identified process or methods
  4. visual elements for each process/purpose/inquiry
  5. consideration of visual rhetoric

These qualities are purposefully broad and vague, with the intention of adaptability, teachability, and flexibility—both for scholars and students. In the spirit of avoiding hard parameters and “embracing the wow,” I believe that this list is not fixed nor a series of unbreakable rules. While the clear identifiers are arguably essential, the other four guidelines exist as a set of directional cues.

Risk and Reward

When I was assigned to teach English 1106: First-Year Writing, Writing from Research in spring 2023, I was faced with the challenge of selecting how, and if, I wanted to theme my course. With the guidance of my mentors, I followed my gravitation towards the concept of rhetorical pronoia, theorized as the rhetorical lens of “tactical foresight” (Mueller et al., 2016). In essence, I adapted a take on first-year writing that honored principles of writing across the curriculum (WAC) while also training an eye on the future, including future genres. For me, the visual abstract was an organic piece of this futuristic puzzle for my students.

I realized, however, that framing was going to be something I needed to carefully consider, and just as there are hidden gaps in the connectivity between research and visual abstracts, there exist similar potholes in the processes of creation.

In the spring 2023 semester at my university, our annual college-wide research symposium—which includes graduate students and senior undergraduates of all disciplines—strongly recommended submission of a visual abstract to help participants and audience members quickly understand the presented research. However, the call for papers provided no further specifications, no formatting suggestions, and no additional information on how to go about the creation of this work. Of course, the work from Nikolian and Ibrahim (2017) as well as the CDC (2023) provided something tangible for authors to consider, but for undergraduate students, particularly those just entering the untamed and sometimes intimidating realm of multimodality, it is not so easy to automatically create something that efficiently summarizes research in a digital form, particularly when some students are just finding their footing in the complex work of research at all. Selecting a program or method for creating this type of abstract, finding graphics and strong summarizing phrasing, and selecting personal elements that reflect the nature of their research as a whole all represent notable challenges. So, while the bases of the genre are locatable, the tactical elements and replicable steps remain generally unapproachable or intangible.

This was where I knew it was my responsibility to close the gap. Teaching this genre was a risk, I knew—and there are certainly other methods of multimodality in the writing classroom context that are more documented, more methodologically established. So, too, there are plenty of options that accord with the WAC framing of my course. As I stated before, I could’ve taught the traditional conference poster, for example, and I believe there is certainly still merit in choosing this option.

Yet I believed the risk was worth the possible reward. And, in my mind, the visual abstract was so new that it was worth, as my aforementioned mentor Derek Mueller might say, an honest attempt. If it failed in my first-year writing course, if it flopped, if my students didn’t engage with the genre in the way I hoped they would, I could learn from that attempt and re-approach it differently in the future. 

The Assignment Framing

As I described earlier, in the English 1106: Writing from Research curriculum, a multimodal transformation of students’ sustained research project is included as the final piece of a semester’s work. Typically, this transformation is also recommended for what our curriculum calls the “Hokie Pitch,” or a brief, public presentation of the research to the class in the last few weeks of the semester.

In English 1106, the course outcomes include research processes, style conventions, and multimodal design—the central idea being to build on the rhetorical foundations established in English 1105. The language given for the English 1106 multimodal component is as follows: “You will have composed written, oral, and digital texts, gaining awareness of the possibilities and constraints of oral presentations, visual literacy, and electronic environments” (Hokies Writing, n.d.).

The use of the visual abstract as the multimodal assignment, given the framework of the genre, speaks directly to the visual literacy aspect, and, because in this case I chose to pair it with the presentation requirement, the ideal of understanding the oral aspect of research composition works here as well. I believe a unique element of this assignment speaks to the awareness of electronic environments: Because the visual abstract is emerging most prominently in social media, there is an opportunity to bridge the gap for students between the sometimes unsynchronized environments of a platform like Twitter versus an academy-specific digital platform (e.g., an online conference, where a research poster might be presented).

There is another opportunity within this course objective to explore the disconnect between translating a traditional abstract into a visual abstract, or vice versa. In my course, students practice a written abstract for their research project, not only to scaffold their visual abstract (should they choose to create one) but also to explore the challenges and constraints of summary.

Building on the idea of visual versus written abstracts, I introduced the visual abstract as a genre during the research project, when we explored the different methods of approaching the concept of the abstract broadly. When we transitioned to the multimodal unit, we began by theorizing how research could be transcribed for an audience. Some of the genres we explored as a class included video essays, photo essays, research posters, research websites, and infographics, in addition to visual abstracts. Part of my pedagogical setup included discussions of the audiences and affordances of each while providing examples for students.

Throughout the course, students had permission to explore any field or question of their choosing as they crafted their research. All I asked was that they pursue a genuine inquiry or interest with attention to their personal curiosities. I was committed to keeping the multimodal assignment in the same spirit, and my aim in providing this variety of genres was to encourage my students to consider which multimodal option suited their research—and ultimately their curiosities—best. To frame the assignment itself, I used the following strategies: 

Choice and Agency

Rather than mandating students take on a visual abstract, I presented it as an option they could choose amidst a variety of aforementioned possibilities. I made it clear that the students were free to select the option they felt best suited their field, their research, and their intentions with their project. I believed it was important—and I had the bandwidth in my teaching load to sponsor this—that students were not mandated to choose one option.

Presentation of Relevant Contexts

I took care and time, as I did with all the multimodal options, to give students examples and explained characteristics of the genre, as well as how the genre is evolving in multidisciplinary contexts. I explained why visual abstracts are becoming a frequent topic of conversation in the multimodal research world and how it was very possible that many of them, particularly those on research-geared tracks of study, would encounter this genre in the future.

Work Time and In-Class Practice

When I presented the multimodal assignment, I built two days into my course calendar as a workshop for them to explore digital platforms for their research with my assistance. I presented the assignment sheet, showed them examples I created myself, and reminded them that they did not have to select the abstract option—they were free to use the time to explore a variety of genre options, should they wish to. When my students began their work time, I moved around the room to check in with each of them individually to offer support, suggestions, and feedback.

Template and Simplified Parameters

Because of the sometimes uneven locus of first-year writing classroom, I built two templates (one in Google Slides and one in Canva) with suggested parameters and a simple set of criteria for students to use to build their projects. This is certainly not to say that I think students are incapable of building this modality from the ground up. Rather, because I knew that this assignment felt new and different, I wanted to supply usable resources to support their exploration and learning rather than demand they venture into the world of visual research with no starting point. I hoped to indicate to my students that I did not want them to pay for any advanced software to create this modality, nor would it take learning a totally unfamiliar platform for them to engage meaningfully with the genre.

On the topic of templates, however, it is important to acknowledge the tradeoffs in this assignment. While I maintain that usable resources remain a strong foundation for student learning, there is certainly a risk in templates, too: Students may not fully engage with a template or, arguably, may not interact as deeply with the assignment as much as they would should the template not exist. I would argue, however, that the template is meant to be generous and generative, a nod to those who have significantly more trepidation about working in a new mode. Should this assignment be adapted to an advanced composition context, for example, the template option could certainly be removed. In that case, an instructor could choose to use only the following limitations in their creations, the same limitations I employ myself:

  • The abstract should be approximately the size of one standard presentation slide.
  • The title should be the largest text element and clearly visible for the audience.
  • The graphic elements should be the highlight, rather than the text itself.

The Assignment

I’ve included the actual text of my visual abstract assignment sheet here.

Creating a Visual Abstract: Sharing Our Research with a Broad Audience

Rationale: To practice reorienting our research writing for a public audience and in accordance with multimodal trends in the greater genre of academic work.

Assignment description: You will transform your academic research paper into a visual abstract that you will present to your peers. The intention of this assignment is twofold: 1) to introduce your research to a public audience in a way that is accessible, and 2) to explore composition in digital genres beyond writing. Your visual abstract will consist of one (1) slide, with up to three panels, constructed within the definitional template below. In addition to translating your research to a broad audience, this genre allows for considerable self-expression: In other words, your choice in visual design, color, typography, and so on, can reflect your personality and identity if you choose. Your visual project should have the following elements:

  1. The Visual Abstract: Your visual element will be presented to the class during your presentation. In accordance with our course theme, I encourage you to think creatively and critically about the best visual representation of your research.
  2. A Visual Summary: This visual summary should explain to me, using the rhetorical terms learned in this course, how you designed your abstract. In addition, I’d like you to consider the situation for your visual—where do you see this visual being incorporated?

Visual Abstract Details

How do I design my visual abstract? A relatively new genre in the academic world, a visual abstract transforms the abstract or summary of your research paper into a graphic form. Visual abstracts consist of the key aspects and takeaways of the research portrayed through images rather than words.

  1. clear identifiers (title, author, affiliation, key terms)
  2. summarized purpose or inquiry
  3. identified process or methods
  4. visual elements for each process/purpose/inquiry
  5. consideration of visual rhetoric

How do we create a visual abstract? You are welcome to use any digital platform you like to create your visual. Please do not pay for any software. I highly recommend Canva, PowerPoint, or Google Slides for creating your project—all have templates and easy to use features to help you. Downloadable templates: Canva (PowerPoint file backup) and Google Slides (PowerPoint file backup)

Recommended approaches to the visual abstract:

  • Pull your key information first: I recommend going back through your research paper first and creating a separate document, no more than a page long, of the key takeaways. This might include your research question, your key findings, and your future implications. This is the information you’ll include in your visual. 
  • Choose your scenario: I recommend thinking about a specific scenario for this visual. Would you find it in a campus residence hall or dining hall? Would you present it at a research symposium? Would you place it somewhere outside of the university sphere? 
  • Strive for creativity, not perfection: While I expect you to put time and effort into creating your visual, I do not expect an artistic masterpiece. This assignment, like our course, is meant to be exploratory, brave, and generative. I encourage you to be bold and try new approaches in this project, I am here to support you.

Visual Summary Details

Use the following headings and prompts, in this order, to guide your response.

  • Scenario: What is the situation you imagine for this visual? Where do you see it doing this work? Be as specific as possible.
  • Rhetorical choices: What rhetorical strategies does your visual employ, and in what way? I am less concerned with perfect answers here and more concerned with thoughtful use of terminology. For example, if your visual abstract establishes logos, is logos established through the order of the information, the choice of font or headings, and so on? How does this visual abstract honor your identity or personality as a researcher?
  • Design process: Walk me through your design choices. What methods did you use to create this project, and why did you choose them? What did you find straightforward about this process, and what was more challenging? Would you attempt this visual again or try another type? Why or why not?

To Receive Complete Credit

  • The visual summary is 300–600 words.
  • The visual summary is correctly formatted with the directed headings.
  • Your visual abstract is carefully constructed, creatively produced, and summarizes your research.
  • The visual abstract shows effort appropriate to the scope of the project, including thoughtful writing and engagement with the topic.
  • Your multimodal transformation is turned in on time, to the correct Google Drive folder.
  • Submit your assignment as a single Google Doc in your Google Folder in the “Multimodal Transformation” folder.

Perception of Choice

To my surprise, all 20 of my students selected the visual abstract option for their multimodal transformation. This result raises an interesting question of the perception of choice. Naturally, if all students make the same decision to take on one option, an immediate concern is whether they felt they had another option. I did encourage them to consider the choice, given their practice writing an abstract, but it remained curious to me that they all made this selection. This option may have been viewed as more desirable because of the template, for example. If I were to offer this breadth of choices in the future with similar results, I would seek to more deeply analyze and discuss with students why they made this particular selection. 

In this context, with the guidance of the templates and the assignment sheets, all of my students generated versions of the visual abstract that were attentive to their projects, indicative of salient design choices, and significant to their own developing positionalities and identities as scholars. Not only was I wholly encouraged by their investment in the project, I was humbled by their creativity and genuine feedback on how valuable they found the genre to be.

In addition to the creation of their abstract, I asked students to formulate a short visual summary in which they engaged with their choices and rhetorical considerations in the making of their project, as well as where they saw this graphic appearing in the greater world. What I found in reflecting on their responses was a deeper engagement with rhetorical contexts and terms, a nuanced understanding of their research audience, and an acknowledgement of their own explorative imagination in seeing their research in a new form. And I was encouraged by how many of my students said they not only enjoyed the project, but that they would definitely engage with it in the future.

Final Thoughts

While there is still much to be learned and established about the visual abstract as a genre, I argue that the statistical evidence in engagement and enhancement of audience experience warrants significant attention in the context of rhetoric, writing, and technical communication studies. Further, and even more importantly, the lived evidence of the 20 students in my class—their enthusiasm, engagement, and positive response to this framing and assignment—indicates to me that this genre is teachable, intriguing, and rhetorically exigent. I hope that this framing is at least a valuable tool for consideration in the writing classroom, if not an applicable, flexible heuristic for engaging with an essential, mandatory genre in the future of research summary.


I want to thank Dr. Derek Mueller for his support, inspiration, and significant effort in developing my engagement with this genre. Without him, this work would not have come to fruition.


Ball, Cheryl E.,  Bowen, Tia Scoffield, & Fenn, Tyrell Brent. (2013). Genre and transfer in a multimodal composition class. In Carl Whithaus & Tracey Bowen (Eds.), Multimodal literacies and emerging genres in student compositions (pp. 15–36). University of Pittsburgh Press.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2023). Visual abstracts. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/for_authors/visual_abstracts.htm

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