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Designing Figures for Publications and Presentations

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By Barbara Gastel | March 4, 2018  |

Greetings again. I hope you’re doing well.

Recently I attended the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. In addition to sessions on science, the meeting included career development workshops on subjects such as communication.

One career development workshop that I attended was on designing illustrations and other figures for journal articles. Most of the advice that was given also applies to figures for other uses—for example, those in poster presentations and oral presentations.

Here are some main points from the workshop:

  • Start by defining the purpose and message of the figure. Then plan the figure accordingly.
  • Next sketch the figure. Perhaps sketch several versions and choose the best.
  • Show a colleague the sketch, to help see whether the figure will be easy to understand.
  • To draw attention to the most important items in a figure, make them large, put blank space around them, or use a color that stands out.
  • Group related items, for example by making them the same shape, putting them close together, connecting them with lines, or enclosing them in a box.
  • If figures will be in color, use a consistent, harmonious color scheme.
  • Align elements neatly, for example by using a grid.

The speakers emphasized that their main message was “Keep it simple.” They warned listeners not to include needless content (“noise”), which can distract readers.

Thus, much like the text of a journal article, the figures should be focused, concise, and logically structured. And planning, revision, and feedback help make each effective. Whether communication is verbal or visual, the principles are much the same.

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A few more words:

As some of you know, I've been writing for the AuthorAID blog since it began, about 10 years ago. For most of those years, I provided one or more posts per week. More recently, as embedding of AuthorAID in developing countries has progressed, my involvement has decreased to one post per month.  

AuthorAID continues to evolve, and the current post is my last monthly one. I look forward, however, to remaining part of the AuthorAID community, and I hope to provide posts from time to time. My thanks to those of you who have read my posts. I hope I have served you well. 

Wishing you all the best,



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