Design for black-and-white printing

Colour figures in journal articles are common these days. Many of the people reading them, however, will print them in black and white. Consequently, when designing figures, we should ensure they remain meaningful if converted to grayscale. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

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Figure captions need not be half a page

Before leaving high school, every scientist should have learned  all the things a graph should contain: a descriptive title, labels for every axis, appropriately spaced tick marks, and a legend if necessary. All pretty straightforward, so you would think any figure published in a scientific journal would adhere to this as a minimum. But I’ve come across far too many figures breaking one or more of these rules. The problem is not that people are excluding the information, rather they are putting everything in the figure caption. Consequently, the figure caption ends up being long-winded, procedural, and not at all interesting. Fortunately, it is easy to make the caption succinct and descriptive with a few quick adjustments to the figure.

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Stop using rainbow colourmaps

Far too often in scientific publications, the choice of colourmap for a figure has been given no thought. How do I know? Because every colour in the rainbow has been used.

For some reason rainbow colourmaps are the default in many programs, despite them being inappropriate for countless situations. I am not the first to recommend never using the rainbow/jet/hsv/etc… colourmaps, but apparently it needs repeating. If I arbritrarily pick a journal and go to the most recent articles, I am bound to come across multiple instances of these awful colour schemes.

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