Too many scientific figures are ugly. I see three possible reasons:
- Laziness: scientists could make nice figures, but don’t put in the effort
- Obliviousness: scientists are unaware their figures are ugly
- Indifference: scientists care only about the data, but not their presentation
Take the following published scientific figure (suitably disguised):
Let’s list the problems: (1) Space is poorly used and data are cramped. (2) Text is bold for no reason. (3) Multiple fonts are used. (4) Tick marks are barely visible. (5) Some labels don’t fit in their respective boxes. (6) Axis values are unnecessarily repeated. (7) Dashed and dash-dotted lines are ugly. (8) Mathematical symbols are not italicised.
All of these problems are easily fixed:
Too lazy for good design
Although the figure’s problems are easily fixed, they still require manual intervention and extra effort. Hence, my first suggestion above for ugly figures being that it’s a case of laziness.
Within laziness, I’m including an unwillingness to learn the correct software tools to use and to override bad defaults. For example, the ugly line styles in the original figure are primarily MatLab’s fault. But there are workarounds or Inkscape to fix them. Further, to remove the redundant labels and make better use of the space requires some manual code additions to fine tune the figure. But these should be quick and straightforward.
Could it be easier to make a nice figure? Sure. Is the extra effort required an excuse for ugly figures? No. That excuse stopped being reasonable at least 10 years ago with the proliferation of scientific software and ease of finding answers online.
A possible argument in favour of being lazy is that the extra time and effort could be better spent elsewhere. Making a figure pretty at the expense of its content would be a problem. Except, I think we’re a long way off from this being a problem worth worrying about.
Oblivious to good design
Being oblivious may be the most legitimate excuse for ugly figures since scientists are seldom taught anything about graphic design. And obliviousness to good design would explain the overabundance of, say, pink stars that I see in scientific figures.
If you are unsure if you’re oblivious, here’s a few dos and don’ts:
Indifferent to good design
You might ask who cares what an arrow looks like? As long as it points to the right thing. Or, who cares what markers are used? as long as they’re distinguishable.
With similar logic, I could argue (as I’ve done before) that spelling doesn’t matter. Finaly, untill, recieve, preceed, immitate, and aquire are all misspelt, yet you know exactly what I mean.
I’m still unsure what causes ugly figures
This post is all speculation. My hope was that putting words on a screen would lead to some kind of revelation that answered my titular question about the underlying cause of ugly scientific figures. That has not been the case.
Part of the problem is that scientific figure design is rarely discussed. Consider scientific writing and talks by comparison. These engender all sorts of strong opinions. For writing, scientists will happily argue over how much jargon to use, the level of methodological detail to give, and why active voice is better than passive. As for talks: whether to read off your slides or not, whether to use humour, how to dress, how much text to include, and what body language to use.
Where are the same strong opinions about scientific figures?