How to plan an effective scientific graphic by answering 4 key questions

So, you’ve decided to create a beautiful figure to better illustrate your scientific article or presentation? That’s great! Images make a bigger impact on the viewer than plain text, and can help you communicate scientific concepts more effectively.

But what if the graphic turns out to be just confusing to the viewer? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered! In this article you will learn how to plan an effective scientific graphic by answering 4 key questions before you begin. This will help you get started on a solid base, so that the final figure will be clear and effective.

But first, what is a scientific graphic?

A scientific graphic or visualization is any visual representation of a scientific concept or scientific data. It can be in the form of a picture, a diagram, a graph, and much more. Creative mixes of different techniques, if correctly organized, can produce great effects, too.

Scientific visualizations are often used to complement written or oral science communication. This is because they help the audience grasp the most important concepts and they add a visual component to their memory.

This is why the correct execution of scientific graphics can make or break an effective communication. So here are four questions that will help you lay a solid foundation to create the perfect visualization.

Question 1: Who should the graphic speak to?

Your target audience should always be the first thing you establish. Always keep it in mind while you create the graphic: what type of language speaks to them? What visual elements do they prefer or find more attractive?

For example, if you are talking to a group of researchers in your field, you should consider using precise terminology to help them understand the full scope of your work. They could also appreciate a sober color scheme, without flashy elements, and you can present diagrams that are somewhat complex.

The story will change if the scientists you are speaking to are not from your own field of research. They will need to get acquainted with your particular methodology and jargon before they can understand the details of your work.

On the other hand, if your audience is made of young students, you should use a simpler and more colloquial language. You should focus on highlighting the essential elements without overwhelming them with detailed information.

So, remember to speak your audience’s language. You cannot talk Portuguese to a French woman and expect her to understand your every word. The same works for scientific graphics.

Question 2: How will the graphic be used?

The context in which you will present your graphic is also essential. Let’s come back to the oral communication analogy: the language you will speak at a business lunch with a potential client is not the same language you speak while hanging out with your friends on a Saturday night, even though you are speaking English on both occasions.

If you’re using a scientific graphic in an oral presentation, your audience won’t have much time to contemplate it, so you should focus on making your point quickly. Remove all unnecessary elements and labels, since people won’t be able to focus on them while also listening to you.

An image that accompanies an article, on the other hand, can be more detailed, because the readers can take their time to look at it and understand its different parts.

Question 3: Will the graphic be explanatory or exploratory?

Sorry for throwing these fancy terms at you. Let’s clarify what they mean.

An explanatory graphic is used to communicate a point or call attention to certain patterns or concepts. It can be used as evidence or proof in research, or as a teaching tool for students or colleagues.

An exploratory graphic, instead, invites the viewer to discover information by himself. It is most often used to visualize scientific data, so that viewers can discover trends and key insights. The term visualization tends to refer, more specifically, to this type of graphic.

In summary: does your image just need to show a concept or should the viewer be able to discover additional information by looking at it? If you only want to display something, then you should focus on drawing attention to your main point. For an exploratory graphic, on the other hand, you should help your viewer discover the information contained in it without being obtrusive. We will clarify this point in the next question.

Question 4: What is the first thing you want your viewers to see in your scientific graphic?

Now that we have established the general characteristics of your figure, it’s time to start considering how to structure it. Having a clear idea of an image’s global structure before starting to work on it will help you not lose sight of your goal, as well as present information in a consistent way.

You will first need to guide your viewer’s eye to the most important element of your graphic. There are several ways to do this, including placement, size, or color contrast. However, you can consider this more precisely once you start creating the figure; for now, just focus on getting your main point crystal clear.

After the main point, you should guide your viewers to “read” the secondary elements of the graphic in a logical order. This progression can be outlined using colors or arrows, for example. So start asking yourself: how can I draw attention to the main point of my graphic and then make the viewers naturally flow to the secondary parts?

If you’re working on an explanatory graphic, then this is basically all you need to worry about. If you are creating an exploratory graphic, however, you will want to be a bit more careful. First, you should make sure to guide the viewer to understand the overall concept of your visualization, so that he has the basic knowledge needed to understand the data. Only after this is done, you can move on to guiding him to discover the details that can be found in the image.

Conclusion

Let’s summarize how to plan an effective scientific graphic by answering 4 key questions:

  1. Who should this graphic speak to? Use visual language that speaks to your target audience and appeals to them. An image aimed at fellow researchers should be very different than one aimed at high schoolers.
  2. How will the graphic be used? Consider the context you will be using your graphic in, and adapt the detail level accordingly. People will have less time to contemplate an image in an oral presentation than a figure in an article.
  3. Will the graphic be explanatory or exploratory? In other words, do I just need to show something, or do I also want my viewers to discover information on their own?
  4. What is the first thing that you want your viewers to see? Focus on drawing attention to your main point, then draw the viewer’s eye to less important information in a logical way.

There you have it! Are you ready to start planning your next successful scientific visualization?


If you find these tips helpful, please share your creations with me on Instagram by tagging @tales_of_science!

If you feel a bit overwhelmed and would like me to help you with your scientific graphic, just drop me a line! I’ll be happy to help you!

5 thoughts on “How to plan an effective scientific graphic by answering 4 key questions”

  1. Deepthy │ the contemplative elf

    Wonderfully insightful article! I’ve been trying to get into scientific art so I found this super helpful, especially the point about evaluating whether we want our art to be explanatory or exploratory. Thanks for the great share!

  2. שירותי ליווי באילת

    I was pretty pleased to uncover this great site. I want to to thank you for your time just for this wonderful read!! I definitely liked every little bit of it and i also have you book marked to look at new information in your blog.

    1. MartinaPepiciello

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you found this helpful, and I definitely plan to publish more blog posts 😀

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