A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Scientific Figures

Today’s post is a special one. For the first time EVER on Artful Scientist, I am featuring a GUEST BLOGGER. the following was written by Danny Ward, a PhD researcher at the John Innes Centre/University of East Anglia in Norwich. His research focuses on human and bacterial pathogens. He is also an aspiring science writer and science communicator.  He has his own WordPress blog and website at well!


When I ask you to think of great works of art by great artists, what and who comes to mind?

The Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, Café Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh, or Water Lilies by Claude Monet, perhaps?

How about a technical diagram of the heart’s aortic valves illustrated in perfect scientific accuracy by a researcher sitting in a laboratory? I think that’s probably not what you had in mind.

Scientific figures won’t be gaining a place in a gallery filled with masterpieces from the world’s most brilliant impressionist painters any time soon, but that certainly doesn’t disqualify them from the realm of art. Science is by its very nature data and fact driven, often filled with cold, hard numbers. How that data is presented is where science shakes hands with art.

Scientific figures are every bit as important as scientific discoveries or facts. Without clear and accurate drawings, illustrations, graphs, and charts, much of the meaning behind many scientific studies would simply be lost.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nowhere is this truer than in science.

A picture helps us learn, it allows us to more easily digest hard data, it helps to make science more engaging and accessible, and it helps to visually communicate complex and difficult topics that could otherwise take pages and pages of text to explain.

Creating a good scientific figure is a skill. This is where creativity and communication meet the data. If someone just threw loads of numbers at a blank page and left you to work out the rest, that probably wouldn’t be the best way to communicate a message or explanation behind what scientific finding has been observed. Creating a scientific figure requires us to get in the shoes of the reader or audience and gauge exactly what is the best way to present all those numbers kicked out by some scientific instrument.

As scientists, we must include a variety of factors in the design of our figures. Just like a painting, a photo, a film or a sculpture, a scientific figure must communicate a message which evokes a response or feeling in the reader. The better the design of the figure, the better that message can be communicated.

The following are essential for a great figure:

  • Clarity – Does the figure clearly communicate the message you intended?
  • Declutter – The figure should focus on the essentials; any other unnecessary information should be omitted or move to a separate figure so as not to detract from the main message.
  • Colour – A figure should make use of a variety of colours in a logical manner to help make interpretation easier without adding too many layers of additional detail.
  • Size does matter – A good figure should proudly present its main points whereby they take up most of the figure. Too much empty or wasted space only detracts from a figure’s clarity.
  • Figure choice – The type of chart, graph, table or illustration you choose is so important; many will not be the clearest or most engaging way to communicate the science.
  • Accessibility – The figure should consider what audience it seeks to target and their previous expertise and experience with the topic.

Below is an illustrated example of this which compares the hypothetical data of two fictional medicinal drugs. On the top is what could be considered as a poorer graph as it is hard to work out what is going on here. On the bottom is a graph which considers many of the design points described above.

A complicated chart with grey text and lines on a darker grey background.
An overly technical, not-so-successful figure.
A simple bar graph with blue and orange bars demonstrating efficacy of two drugs, A and B.
A simpler, but far more effective means of demonstrating that drug B is more effective than drug A.

These two graphs show the exact same data but how they do it is where the art of science figure-making lies. The top isn’t clear at all. It’s very hard to piece together what is going on. The bottom graph is far clearer. We can immediately see that drug B gets a higher measurement than drug A.

The top graph is overly complicated. It’s cluttered and it isn’t easy to visually digest. The bottom omits much of the information to give a cleaner-looking graph that focuses on the essential information. The absence of information is what ends up adding to the clarity.

What may look like a simple bar chart showing how one medicinal drug is better than another often is far from simple. The amount of work that goes into a chart like this is staggering. Weeks, months or even years of laboratory work, sometimes conducted by multiple people, is necessary even for seemingly simple charts.

There are many considerations when making a scientific figure. It takes a lot of skill, practice, and talent to make a graphic which communicates its message clearly and effectively. Next time you see a graph in a research paper, an illustration in a textbook, or a table in a report, make sure to see the art in the science. It’s in there, if you know where to look.

This article was written by Danny Ward, a molecular microbiology PhD student from Norwich, England.

Learn more about the author at https://dannyjamesward.wixsite.com/home

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