ECR Visual Communications Competition – Mathew D. Wilkes’ illustration goes global!

Mathew D. Wilkes (University of Sheffield) was one of the three winners of the UKCCSRC ECR Visual Communications Competition last year.  We spoke to him to find out how his winning image was created and the amazing journey it’s been on since the competition.

Hi Mathew, congratulations on winning our competition!  Why did you decide to enter?

The winner’s bursary was an incentive, but I’ve always liked creating illustrations for work that I do. The piece I submitted originally started off within my doctoral thesis, where I was looking at Gas CCS. I initially developed a 2D illustration and then converted that into a 3D illustration. So, I already had a lot of the custom-built elements like power plants and transportation systems and then, for proposals I’ve written, I’ve expanded on it to include CO2 utilisation and storage. When I saw the ECR Visual Communication Competition advertised on LinkedIn, I thought that it was a perfect chance for me to get the illustration out there and hopefully win something.

What’s your background in illustration?

I think it started when I did an A Level in Fine Art. That’s always been a hobby of mine – painting using oil and acrylic based paints, on different mediums, whether that be canvas, wood, clothing, shoes, everything. I use it as a creative outlet outside of academia and research. Research is very mentally straining, so I need time to step away from it, and when I come back, I’ve got much a fresher set of eyes on the issue.

I did quite a few commissioned pieces during lockdown, and that’s also when I started doing illustrations based on my work. It started off with the piece for the thesis, but I also did other images and then animations for presentations.  I found the combination of science and illustration really helped with presentations I’ve given at international conferences. I gave a keynote speech when I was on my PhD, at ESCAPE-32 in Toulouse, and that felt very nerve racking, as I thought it was something only senior academics got to do. I used the illustrations to guide the narrative and explain my research, which helped calm my nerves.

Do you find that when you’re doing your research, you’re thinking visually as well? Or do you do the academic work and then kick back with doing something visual, helping you see it a different way?

I’ve always been a visual learner. So, whenever I was revising for exams, I found that if I drew an illustration, for example for chemical engineering, it helped visualise chemical processes. For a lot of the journal articles I do now and the review papers that I write, they will come with illustrations that show clearly what the process is about. I think it’s very important for chemical engineers, and researchers in general, to be able to disseminate their research in bite-sized formats that everyone can understand.

What happened after winning the competition?

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) got in touch through a mutual friend and the UKCCSRC, as they were producing a policy paper on “Carbon capture, usage and storage: a vision to establish a competitive market”.  They wanted to use the illustration in that, but I had to liaise with them to make it more accessible. Originally it was bright and vibrant colours, so you could distinguish between the different industrial sectors that CCUS will play a role in, but for those who are visually impaired, we needed to make the illustration accessible. So, I was in communication with their graphics and design department and had meetings about how we could change the illustration, but it still be the image I actually created.  They then gave me the credit at the bottom of that policy paper page.

I learnt some interesting things through that, for example there was a website they directed me to showing colour matching for accessibility (WCAG colour contrast checker). It can make illustrations more muted, and it didn’t have quite the same feel as the original illustration, but it has a wider impact.

Mathew’s winning image

Someone in the Department of Business and Trade (DBT) then contacted me as they wanted to include the illustration in a newsletter to be sent out by DBT’s investment minister, Lord Johnson, to potential investors and institutions.

After that, I got a message on LinkedIn from Ronan Ávila, who is the Geological and Economic Assessment Deputy Superintendent at the Brazilian National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Biofuels (ANP). He wanted to use it in a presentation that he gave as part of a panel looking at CCUS initiatives to reach net zero for Brazil.

Wow. So you’ve gone global!

Yes. There’ve been a few people who have asked just to use the illustration in presentations that they’re giving, but I don’t know what capacity they’ve been used in.

As far as you know, is there anything more in the pipeline for it?

Not for that particular image, but I want to convert it to look at more bioenergy CCS. And I’ll be producing illustrations for the current papers I’m working on.

What software do you use to create your images?

Originally, I was using Adobe Illustrator (note: many universities provide Adobe Creative Cloud licences free for staff/students), but there’s also a free vector-based illustration software called Inkscape which is pretty much identical. Then there’s also PowerPoint. You can add shapes on that and when you click “edit shape”, you can edit the points, so it works as a vector-based design tool too.

Obviously, your illustration skills are much better than most academics’, but what encouragement or tips would you give other researchers regarding visual communications and images?

It’s important to remember that even freelance designers never just come up with original ideas in their head. You need to do some research and look at what other people have done. For example, if you search for “CCS” then a lot of those 3D layered images come up. So, do a bit of research, see what’s already out there, what people have done and then start combining ideas in your head. That’s how you can then visualize what you want to explain to people, what you want to include or you want to exclude.

Then you start building on that. When you’ve developed a nice illustration, you can play around with it, try different colours, removing different aspects, etc. Sometimes illustrations, especially academic ones, are overcrowded with too much information.

So, my recommendation would be to utilize your research skills to look at illustrations that are already out there, piece them together and come up with your own idea.

Thank you, Mathew, and congratulations again on the success of your image both in our competition and the wider impact that it’s had since!  We wish you all the best with future illustrations.

And to everyone else, we hope this inspires you to experiment with creating images yourself, to support and even improve the communication of your research.  Please get in touch ( if you ever want to discuss that.