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Posted: Sep 22, 2011

Designing effective figures for scientific papers

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Today we are going to tackle a general topic that deals with how data is represented in scientific papers. In the course of writing 1,200 Nanowerk Spotlights over the past six years, we have worked our way through thousands of papers. And if one thing has stood out, it is the quality of the illustrations included in these papers: some are just excellent and capture the essence of the findings; others, well, let's just say there is room for improvement.
This issue has now been nicely captured in an article by professors Marco Rolandi, Karen Cheng, and Sarah Pérez-Kriz, all from the University of Washington, in Advanced Materials ("A Brief Guide to Designing Effective Figures for the Scientific Paper").
As the authors write in their paper, "Figures are often the first part of a scientific paper that is reviewed by the editor, and if the paper is accepted, often the first part examined by your peers. Figures should not be seen as decoration or as attention-getting visual attraction. Visual representations can convey facts, ideas, and relationships far more clearly and concisely than descriptive text. Indeed, many advanced imaging tools and visualization methods were first developed for scientific purposes as a means towards discovering or quantifying patterns, trends, and comparisons. Figures are powerful tools to effectively and efficiently convey complex information. Well-designed figures can help the audience better understand the objectives and results of your research."
They make five specific recommendations on how scientists should design effective figures:
Design figures for the audience (not for you)
Just like language, graphics communicate information to other people. It is crucial to keep these people, or addressees, in mind when the graphic is being constructed. In the case of scientific papers, it is your scientific peers, first the reviewers, later the readers of your paper. Important design considerations are the make-up of the audience; their background knowledge; and any specific conventions that exist within particular research fields.
Focus on the most important information
here the authors recommend that, before starting to design the figures you should identify the storyline and how each figure will contribute to it; and that you establish the key message for each figure. Every element in the figure should contribute to that message.
Design a clear visual structure
The most difficult part of designing a figure is determining an effective overall visual structure. To this end, the best design principle is "form follows function", i.e., that the shape of an object should be based upon its intended purpose.
In the case of figures, the authors suggest that "form follows function" means that the visual composition should guide the viewer along a logical sequence of information:
"The viewer should be able to: 1) Easily enter the image. The top-left corner is a natural entry point for the viewer. Most people view an image by scanning from the top left to the lower right. Take advantage of this innate tendency by beginning the figure in this area. 2) Attain an overview of the most important information. Most viewers expect a left-to-right and/or top-to-bottom pattern of movement. Creating a "filmstrip" of images in either of these directions supports this convention. 3) Absorb additional details and secondary content."
Use visual contrast, but keep figures simple
shape, size, orientation, weight, position, or color of design elements
Vary the shape, size, orientation, weight, position, or color of an element (or group of elements) to make the key part of the figure visually clear. (Reprinted with permission from Wiley-VCH Verlag)
The authors recommend to vary the size, shape, position, orientation, or color of an element (or group of elements) in order to make the key part of the figure the most visually prominent and they give a few pointers on what to avoid: don't incorporate every form of visual contrast. A single type of contrast (i.e., only shape, or only size, or only color) is usually sufficient. Avoid using too many colors. A limited color palette is often most effective. You might even consider using a limited black-and-white palette rather than full color. Finally, remove all non-data elements that do not serve a communicative function. This includes decorative flourishes such as drop shadows, 3D extrusions, unnecessary gradients, etc.
science graphic
A disorganized science graphic, with questionable use of shadows, glows, and other software effects. The text is illegible due to low value contrast. b) A clearer version of (a) designed by one of the authors (M.R). Reproduced with permission. c) A version of (b) improved by one of the authors (K.C.). In this redesign, the molecular reaction has been enlarged for greater legibility. Fewer type sizes are used, and components are aligned on an implied grid. (Reprinted with permission from Wiley-VCH Verlag)
Create legible and readable typography
In order to enhance readability of the text in figures, here are three recommendations: 1) Use sans-serif fonts. They are often more legible than serifs when set in small sizes. 2) Maximize the contrast between type and background. A 70% contrast of type and background (i.e., white type on a 70% dark gray background) is optimal. 3) Include scale bars and label the axes. Consider whether the figure needs a legend to label the patterns and symbols used.
So, that's it. If you think carefully about designing figures, you are already a step ahead in the creative process.
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