Grey and one other colour: a foolproof colour scheme for scientists

How many colours do you need to visualise data scored on a five-point scale?


Data from here.

If you went with the obvious answer of five colours, here’s what you get:


The green and grey figure wins in two ways. First, it tells a story: about a third of respondents view Wikipedia favourably. (Although there are other interpretations of the data shown, a good figure emphasises a single message.) Second, the grey and green version just looks better.

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Embracing minimalism when presenting science

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler said Einstein. Except, he didn’t. His version of the quote was four times longer.

I’m not surprised that it took a non scientist to paraphrase and create the short, popular version. As scientists, we are not accustomed to brevity. We want to provide every detail. We read papers filled with columns of 10pt text. We construct figures with dozens of lines and colours. We spare no bit of white space when we design posters. And don’t get me started on logos for scientific campaigns (long story short: too many elements, too many colours, and too literal).

We lack minimalism.

You may argue that detail, nuance, and chains of logic—hallmarks of science—are not easily reduced to 280 characters or a sexy soundbite. I don’t disagree. But there are still aspects of minimalism we should embrace.

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What can the fields of UI/UX teach scientists?

Web developers and programmers have a lot riding on the quality of their product. If it behaves in an unusual manner, it’ll frustrate users. If it’s unattractive, it won’t attract users. If it’s no good, it will lose users. Users are the primary concern. Consequently, there are fields dedicated to this concern: User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX).

Because web developers and programmers have a much wider potential audience than scientists, they have a better handle on the importance and behaviour of the end user. Scientists could learn a thing or two about UI/UX.

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Scientific software skills make up for minimal artistic talent

A computer is a better artist than I am. If I can tell it what to draw, it will produce attractive results. To make a nice schematic, the hardest part is to tell the computer what I want to draw. Fortunately for us so-called left-brain types prevalent throughout the sciences, a familiarity with scientific software can overcome a lack of artistic talent, allow rapid iteration of a design, and even provide creative inspiration.

Invoking my scientific software skills, I am able to produce elegant figures:

From Evolution of the velocity structure in the diurnal warm layer

Now, compare that with my initial sketch…


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The formatting of Nature, Cell and Science papers improves their readability

My favourite aspect of a Nature paper is the figure captions. Not the paper’s innovative science. Not the paper’s succinct length. The figure captions. Why? Because the journal’s simple act of bolding the first sentence of a figure caption can force authors to clarify the purpose of the figure. This is one of several seemingly minor formatting issues that ultimately improves a paper’s readibility.

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Organise scripts and figures easily with Jupyter Notebooks

Keeping track of scripts used to generate figures is difficult. Before realising that Jupyter Notebooks could solve most of my problems, I would have directories with dozens of scripts with filenames of varying levels of ambiguity. Names that probably meant something to me at the time, but are hardly descriptive months or years later. Names like  ISW_plume_plots.m, new_ISW_model_plots.m, and plot_model_behaviour.m. A certain PhD comic springs to mind.

Regardless of whether its Python, R, Julia, Matlab, or pretty much any other type of code, Jupyter Notebooks solve the problem. For example, I use a single notebook to archive the code for all figures in a paper and, more importantly, I can associate each set of code with the figure it generates. Rather than trying to remember what file I want, I need only remember which figure I want. (I say archive because I much prefer to do the bulk of my exploratory analysis in an editor. Alternatively, JupyterLab may work better for you.)

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To make a good schematic, copy, adapt, and refine

Scientific papers are built by taking existing ideas, applying them in new ways, adapting them to fit new situations, and improving them over time. Yet when it comes to drawing a schematic, many people start from scratch or never even start. Instead, start with an image search, let Inkscape do the hard work, and refine the best parts of other schematics.

I will use a figure of mine as a case study:

This schematic encapsulates the oceanographic processes that I examine in my PhD. I use it in many presentations, my thesis, and my personal website.

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Remove redundant labels on multi-panel plots

Scientific figures are usually messy enough, there’s no need to aggravate the problem by including redundant labels. As with figure captions, problems arise with multi-panel plots. If the panels share axes, there’s no need to label each one.

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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.

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Design using HSL colour space

When designing any figure with colour, consider the Hue-Saturation-Lightness (HSL) colour space. It is the most intuitive and simplest colour space to work with. For examples of why it is well suited to scientific figures, skip to the bottom. To learn the details, read on.

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