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How to make good figures

What makes a good figure?

Generally, we have a feel for which figures are good and which ones are bad, but it can be hard to describe what makes them good or bad. In my opinion a good figure satisfies these conditions:

  • It is useful. It helps to explain something that cannot be described easily using text alone.
  • It doesn’t try to explain too many things at once.
  • It communicates the idea as effectively as possible
    • It uses a good provision of detail, extraneous details are left out so that the diagram is not too complex
    • It focuses attention on the key features that are important
    • It is visually appealing

Next time you are reading papers or making your own figures think about how well they satisfy these conditions. Check out the figure before and after below.

Example of improvements to: provision of detail, focus and visual appeal for a figure. The main change is lightening and thinning the contour lines and rivers so the geology shows up more prominently.

The concept stage

The first step is to ask yourself what are the key concept/s?. The next stage is to draw some sketches by hand, trying out various approaches to communicating the concepts (use literature as a source of ideas, but don’t be tied down with tired old conventions). Show someone your sketch and see if they understand it. Remember other people aren’t as familiar with your subject as you are.

TRY THIS: Without looking at literature, sketch a figure demonstrating a key concept in your field of study. Assess your figure or get someone else to assess it against the criteria above for “What makes a good figure or diagram?”

Why sketch by hand first?

There are various reasons why sketching by hand first is better than straight onto a computer:

  • it’s quicker for concepts.
  • ideas in our head don’t always transform smoothly into figures on a page, sketching by hand saves time on bad ideas.
  • if you can’t draw a concept by hand you won’t be able to on a computer, but you will know that a lot faster!
  • drawing by hand requires that you add detail bit by bit which usually results in a good provision of detail. Whereas starting with existing figures and data, that usually have too much detail, will need to be reduced. Adding items to make a good figure usually works better than removing items.