Scientific figures need attention to detail

The little things matter; for example, a typo. In theory, a typo is a minor mistake that makes no difference to the meaning of the writing. In practice, if you’re like me, your opinion of the quality of the rest of the work decreases. Moreover, you may inadvertently seek out further faults.

The same can be said for figures: poor attention to detail will spoil an otherwise perfectly good plot. For this reason, here’s a short list of easily adjustable details that will improve your figures.

Pick attractive line properties

A line is much more than something joining point A to point B. It has numerous characteristics such as colour, weight, style, and ending. Making an attractive figure involves considering all of these properties and more. As an example, I have two simple schematics of freezing and melting at an ice–water interface. For the latter, I pay careful attention to line properties and consequently produce a much nicer figure. Can you pick out all the improvements?


Arrows: A narrow, sharp arrowhead is much more appealing than a short, fat one
Dashes: Choose dashes over dots where possible
Junctions: Lines meeting at a junction should never stop short or protrude
Endings: The infinite line ending (three aligned dots) used here is simple but effective in clarifying that the temperature profile continues beyond the region shown
Curvature: Use Bezier curves for nice smooth results rather than building a curve from a collection of short straight lines
Weights: Keep thickness consistent between lines unless you have a specific reason not to
Angles: Using line segments joined by right angles looks superior to lines at random angles (see next figure)

Keep design elements subtle and professional

As with lines, pay close attention to other elements of your design. A useful rule of thumb when adding elements is to ask yourself whether they serve a purpose. If not, you’re likely better off without them. Again, I find this is best expressed with an example. This time, I’ll invoke a blank flow chart.

flow chart
Frivolous and arbitrary use of colour, lines, shapes, and effects is inappropriate for most situations, especially science

Colour: If you decide to use colour, be careful as there are a number of factors to consider
Shapes: Using other shapes in place of a simple rectangle is typically not necessary or practical
Effects: Effects such as drop shadow and gradient fill should be applied subtly or not at all

Match fonts with the body font

The font you use in a figure should not clash with the rest of the text on the page. While it’s possible to pair different fonts to create an appealing contrast, doing so is subjective and best left to graphic designers. Instead, avoid a clash by using the same font and keeping font sizes consistent.

The arbitrary mix of font faces and sizes makes the left-hand figure appear inferior

It’s easy to end up with a range of font sizes when experimenting with text placement in a figure, but it’s worth the extra five minutes at the end making everything match.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

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