Throughout human history we’ve been using images to communicate messages for far longer than we’ve used words, from petroglyphs to hieroglyphs to modern-day graphs. It’s no surprise, as the brain processes images in as little as 13 milliseconds and it has been shown we can remember up to 65% of visual information 3 days after viewing it, compared to only 10% of information we’ve heard or read.



As images are such an important part of communication, as a medical writer, you’ll often encounter situations where you’ll need to alter images as well as text. These days, infographics, photos and even animations are used to convey important medical information almost as much as the writing that accompanies it.

Whether you’re working on a highly stylised slide deck or a graphical abstract, it can be helpful to know how to make the most of your visuals. We’re sure that you’ll find at least one of these tips, tricks and tools handy for your next brief!

1. Free media (stock images, videos, icons, infographics, graphs and more!)

It’s all very well to look ahead to editing visual components, but what if you’ve not got any to start off with? It’s really important that whichever image, video or graphic you use, it is referenced appropriately and accredited according to its copyright status. Below you’ll find a list of royalty-free sources of different types of visual assets you can use, but make sure to always check the latest T&Cs first.


Icons are frequently used in medical writing because they convey context in a very swift, minimalistic way. A well-placed and relevant icon can elevate a block of text into something much more interesting.

  • PowerPoint – that’s right, inside PowerPoint itself you’ll find an extensive range of free, scalable icons. Head to ‘Insert’ > ‘Icons’ to explore the library. You can edit the colours and boldness (via line ‘weight’) as you need to adjust the appearance.
  • The Noun Project – this is a great collection of various ‘themed’ icons. Icons will need to be credited without a subscription, but there are some affordable plans.
  • Flaticon – another neat collection of themed icon sets. Icons will need to be credited without a subscription, but there are some affordable plans. Once you have downloaded a license for a set of icons, you retain the right to use the icons even if your subscription lapses, however, as always, check the T&Cs.



Photos and videos

Photographic and animated elements are used more often in assets that are less technical, such as in healthcare advertising. When writing copy as a medical writer, it can help to start thinking about the design elements of the finished project even if you’re not responsible for the visual development yourself. Design teams will always appreciate a placeholder image or mock-up of what you’re envisioning.

  • Freepik – lots of stock images available for free, with attribution. Subscription plans also available.
  • Unsplash – high-resolution photos, free to download and use without attribution
  • Pixabay – more high-resolution photos, free to download and use without attribution
  • Pexels– both photos and videos are free to use and don’t require attribution



Infographics are a convenient and accessible way to convey complex diagrams – from cell signalling pathways to organ system physiology. They are also used when creating graphical abstracts to summarise the main features of a publication. It’s rare you’ll find a ready-made infographic for your specific needs, so the following tools can be helpful to draft your own.

  • Mind The Graph – this brilliant resource is specifically set up for scientists and allied medical professions to create beautiful infographics. There are even veterinary graphics ready to go! The paid version also allows you to request custom templates or graphics that aren’t yet in their library, but it’s already pretty comprehensive.
  • Canva – if you’re not looking to make something too technical or prefer a tool that’s quicker to use, Canva has some lovely generic infographic templates and an extensive library of images, videos, graphics and icons to use.


2. Screenshots

Sometimes you need to replicate content from one slide deck to another, demonstrate something to a colleague, or ask a client a question. Screenshots are your best friend here, but there are some hidden tricks to make the process even easier.

Easy keyboard shortcuts to save you time:

Icons are frequently used in medical writing because they convey context in a very swift, minimalistic way. A well-placed and relevant icon can elevate a block of text into something much more interesting.

  • Mac: [Shift + Command + 3] will take an instant, full-screen screenshot [Shift + Command + 4] will create a cross key cursor so you can take a free-form screenshot. Typically, these get saved to your desktop and from there you can open it up, copy it, paste it etc.
  • Windows: [Windows key + Shift + S] means you can go straight to highlighting the area you’d like to screenshot, or use the little toolbar that appears at the top of your screen to screenshot different areas quickly. For example, the entire screen or just a specific window. Once you’ve selected your screenshot, it’s in your clipboard so you can simply [Control + V] to paste it where you need, or you can click on the screenshot thumbnail to open up the Snip & Sketch application which allows you to draw on and edit your screenshot. Annotate it, copy it, save it and send it on. The world’s your oyster.


Chrome extension:

  • Awesome Screenshot – this is a handy extension for your Chrome browser that has all the functionalities of the above screenshot tools, but you can also record your screen, which can be particularly useful if you’re recording a webinar session for a client!

3. Free photo and graphic editing software

Once you’ve found your ideal image, you may need to adjust it. There are various tools you can use to get the most from your chosen image.

  • PowerPoint – has great functionality for basic editing – cropping, re-colouring, resizing and simple adjustments. Grouping elements together can make them easier to move around, and to copy-paste knowing you’ll get the same dimensions each time. One handy trick to making sure you get shapes in proportion is to select the shape you want, and then single-click anywhere on the page. This will automatically draw a shape that is symmetrical. If you want to resize it, just hold down [shift] as you move the cursor, and it will lock the aspect ratio. This is really useful for when you’re making repeating icons or graphics, especially those pesky circles that can go a bit wonky.
  • Canva – a brilliant, simple, intuitive, fun and surprisingly powerful tool for creating anything from graphical images, to leaflets. The Pro subscription opens up even more functionality. If you’d like to learn how to get the most out of it, this is an excellent (and cheap, for a first-time sign-up!) course on Udemy that takes you through easy photo and image editing step by step.
  • Photopea – if you’re a Photoshop nerd but don’t have the budget for a subscription, this is an excellent open-source online version that has virtually all the functionality of the real deal. You’ll find all the usual tools, including more advanced and powerful tools like ‘magic content aware’ here, and you can export into all your favourite file types including vectors. The ‘background eraser’ tool is particularly useful for when you want a transparent background to be able to insert the image on a branded slide deck with an opaque background. Make sure to save your image as a .png to preserve the transparency – white backgrounds are for rookies!

4. Colour schemes

Colour is everything, especially when it comes to designing visual assets. Often, clients will have very specific colour schemes they want to use right down to the unique HEX code for the colour (‘turquoise-ish’ won’t always cut it!)

To save your client time, make sure you’re replicating visual components in the exact colours they want. Programs like PowerPoint will let you use the colour ‘eyedropper’ tool to hover over the exact colour you want, and it will match your selected text or shape perfectly to that selected colour. But what do you do when you need to copy colours from online?

  • Colorzilla Color Picker – this is a Chrome extension you can quickly install, and you’ll be able to ‘eyedropper’ any colour on your current webpage. Handy for fetching colours from a client’s own website or online brand lab. Some web pages are a bit finicky and won’t allow you to colour-drop, so a quick workaround is to simply take a screenshot (use the tips above!) and open that image in your web browser, and you can dropper away using the ColorZilla tool to your heart’s content.
  • Adobe Colour Wheel – clients don’t always have their own colour scheme and you might be asked to create something from scratch, so being able to pick a cohesive scheme yourself is a great skill to have. Adobe Colour wheel not only shows you which colours work well together based on established colour theory, but has other invaluable tools to assess whether your chosen colour scheme is visually accessible. This helps you to decide whether those with visual impairments or visual accessibility needs can still easily read your content. Making sure content is easily utilised by all is something we all need to be increasing our awareness of.
  • Coolors – this is a fun tool that also will create a cohesive colour scheme but is so simple and quick to use, where Adobe’s is a little more technical. Just try not to get addicted to pressing the spacebar to produce the next rainbow of colours!

5. Fonts

It’s easy to get caught up in the images when considering the visual design of a piece, but fonts can be just as important to get the right mood in a piece. Fonts can vary so much, and can convey very different feelings – from the dramatic gothic bold type to the modern and sleek sans serif. Knowing where to find fonts that embody the intended message of the piece you’re working on can really elevate all your hard work.

  • DaFont – free downloadable fonts, search by tags or types of font e.g. handwritten, serif, typewriter
  • What Font Is – sometimes there’s a font you really want to copy but you just don’t know what it is. Use this tool to upload a screenshot of the font and it will identify what it is, or find a very similar font. You can also use this Chrome extension.

No matter what your next project is, one of these tips, tricks or tools is sure to enhance your design efforts and save you time in the process. Let us know which of these ideas you have found most useful!

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