A scientist, a designer and a visual engineer walk into a bar… OK, sorry, this isn’t really an addition to our list of chemistry jokes. Instead this unlikely trio have published a paper in Wiley’s Advanced Materials explaining how to create effective figures in scientific papers.

It only takes a glance round a typical academic poster session to work out who has a talent for design and who doesn’t. That jazzy background you’ve spent two days making on photoshop might make a good distraction from doing research, but it’s going to make any information you place over it incomprehensible! I’ve also heard lecturers say that if they see another PhD student write their poster heading in Comic Sans then they’ll retire from science in shame. No, really. That font should be destroyed.

Figures can be mystifying if too complex

I asked Marco Rolandi of the University of Washington – the scientist among the authors – what had been the motivation for writing the paper? ‘When I started working as a faculty member, I noticed that I was spending quite some time explaining to my students how to prepare figures for a paper or a presentation,’ he told me. ‘I realised that, apart from experience, I had not many qualifications in the matter. I also could not find any appropriate resources – most design books were too specialised for us.’ Soon a collaboration with the designers came about. ‘Professor Cheng and myself have presented several seminars on how

to prepare figures to a range of audiences given the interest in the material, the article is a brief summary of our seminar,’ he adds.

Fancy backgrounds can make text hard to digest

The paper, titled A brief guide to designing effective figures for the scientific paper, addresses the lack of design know-how in many young scientists. They argue that, as figures are usually the first thing readers glance at, it’s worth taking time to get them right.

One of the things the authors focus on is the concept of simplicity. For example, deliberately working to consistently use the same font at the same size throughout a figure can reduce clutter and improve understanding. Fonts can often get distorted when images are created with one program, then cut-pasted into other image editing software. And once you’ve been working on an image for a while it’s easy to overlook points like this, which would be obvious to a fresh observer (that is, the people you’re out to impress).

It’s also critical to define a single, key message you want a figure to convey, say the authors. And it’s possible to use tried and tested design techniques – contrasting shapes, sizes, orientations and weightings  – to bring out the most important details effectively.

Emphasising important details with design techniques is a simple but effective skill to learn

So does Rolandi think there is a big issue with poor communication in chemistry journals? He says no, that’s not it, but in multi-disciplinary areas ultra-clear communication could aid understanding. ‘We currently have a study funded by the NationalScience Foundation…aimed at understanding whether better visual communication might improve exchange of ideas in multidisciplinary fields, such as nanoscience and nanotechnology. We have some very interesting preliminary data, but it’s not conclusive yet.’
As the big questions in science become ever more interconnected, being able to communicate with experts from other fields will become more important than ever.

So, writing a paper? Designing a poster? This handy guide could be worth a look.

Josh Howgego

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