“ A brief guide to designing effective figures for the scientific paper ” by Marco Rolandi, Karen Cheng and former UW faculty member Sarah Perez-Kriz
Some of the figures scientists create are stunning. Others are not – mismatched fonts, poorly aligned tables, clashing colors. Many fall somewhere in between. A deluge of data presents a challenge to amateur designers, often resulting in a cluttered presentation that can crowd out the figure’s main message.
A group of University of Washington researchers has launched a unique experiment matching science students with those in design. The new Design Help Desk , similar to a writing help desk, offers scientists a chance to meet with someone who can help them create more effective figures, tables and graphs.
“In modern publications, up to half of the space can be taken up by figures,” said principal investigator Marco Rolandi , a UW assistant professor of materials science and engineering. His group studies materials at the nanometer scale, and much of the data is ultimately contained in microscope images.
“As a new faculty member, I was spending a lot of time teaching my students how to make figures for publications, even though I myself didn’t have any formal training,” Rolandi said.
It was a case of the blind leading the blind, he said. Rolandi sought out collaborators on campus, and eventually funding from the National Science Foundation, to create support that until now didn’t exist – and to study how well it works.
The free service runs Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Center for Nanotechnology offices in Fluke Hall. It’s primarily aimed at graduate students in science and engineering, but is open to anybody at the UW who needs help with graphs, figures or other material that conveys complex information.
“We are becoming a more visual culture,” says Karen Cheng , a UW associate professor of design (who also completed a bachelor’s in chemical engineering). Still, most science visuals “could use significant improvement from a visual point of view,” she said. “It’s just not a field where design has been part of the training.”
This hasn’t always been the case. In Galileo’s time, scientists were also trained in art. These days, scientists often produce a graph using Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint’s default settings – which might look fine to them, but may have fundamental design problems.
Meanwhile, even journals are focusing on the importance of figures, often asking authors to improve them before publication.
“It’s not just about looking pretty. It’s about conveying complex information in a clear way,” Cheng said.