Five steps to create an effective scientific illustration

Is your poster in need of an amazing scientific illustration to capture your audience’s attention? Or are you creating your best graphic to make your research proposal stand out? No matter the purpose, creating a compelling scientific graphic can be challenging. But don’t worry: in this article you will learn five easy steps to create an effective scientific illustration, or take your illustration to the next level.

Before you start, though, make sure your illustration is properly planned! Jumping into the creation phase without proper planning can lead to a confusing image. Luckily, you can find a guide to planning a successful scientific graphic in this post I made.

1. Composition

Alright, let’s get started. The first thing you should do is organize the structure of your image, deciding where all the different elements will be placed.

If you followed this guide I mentioned above, you should already know what you want your viewers to focus their attention on. This is a very good start: you can start by placing this element in a prominent position, such as at the top or in the center, and/or with a larger dimension. Then, you can arrange the secondary elements in a logical way. If you would like your audience to focus on the fact that what you show is a process, you should arrange the different phases to make it clear that it is a logical sequence. 

More in general, establish a relationship and/or a hierarchy among all the elements and show it as clearly as you can.

2. Abstraction

Once you establish the structure of your scientific illustration, it is time to define the essential qualities and meanings of your material. For example, you may need to show different types of molecules, various environmental conditions, or different materials.

You should then establish how you will represent these different qualities without overwhelming viewers with unnecessary information. Can some elements be simplified as basic shapes? Maybe you can represent different atoms by using balls of different sizes. Or could you create a 2D simplification of a 3D object?

Make sure you depict the necessary features and leave out all the unnecessary details. Make use of your viewers’ preexisting knowledge without being limited by it. For example, if a specific representation is very common in your field, you could try to use it as a starting point and then tweak it to suit your needs.

3. Color

Now you should start having a clear picture of how your graphic is going to look like. We can then add color, a very powerful aspect to any image. As such, it can be used in different ways.

  • To draw attention to your primary element. This is an excellent opportunity to add more importance to your primary element in case you weren’t completely satisfied with its prominence from the previous step. For example, you can make your focal point more saturated than its surroundings. A more brightly colored part among more muted colors will immediately catch the viewer’s eye. You can also use very different colors, such as complementary colors, to draw attention to a specific point.
  • To label. Does your image depict five different types of proteins, or three different samples or groups? These are perfect examples where you can use color to make a clear visual distinction between different elements or to visually group distinct elements.
  • To show relationships. Would you like your viewers to compare and contrast two elements in your illustration? You can use color to draw attention to similarities and differences. Or maybe you need to show that something is directly derived from something else? Use similar colors to indicate this relationship.
  • To indicate a visual scale of measure. Heat maps are the perfect example of this: they show temperature, or any other measure of interest, superimposed on a grid or image. This shows an additional measurement other than position, which can be read on the grid. If you need to show some spatial relationships with additional quantitative information, this is the way to do it.

4. Layering

Scientific graphics and illustrations also give you the unique opportunity to add more layers. Layers can be effectively used to overlap multiple variables to create a direct relationship in the physical space of the figure. For example, you can overlay arrows to indicate flows or outlines to better define shapes.

You can use layering to spatially correlate different types of data.. One example of layering applied to graphs is to align them in a column and using the same scale on the x-axis. This helps viewers understand the relationship among the variables that are presented in the different plots.

Layering can also be used to highlight the parts of a section you would like your viewers to focus on.

Layering is a very useful tool because it allows you to present information in a more compact way. However, you should always check that it doesn’t have a negative impact on your illustration’s clarity. If adding a new layer makes the image more confusing, consider eliminating more unnecessary information or even splitting it into two panels.

5. Refinement

Congratulations! You should now have a pretty solid figure to illustrate your science. There is just one last step that can help you perfect it: editing and simplifying. The following questions will help you determine whether your image is ready to go or it still has some room for improvement.

  • Is there anything distracting?
  • Does each element contribute enough to your goal to justify its presence?
  • Is there anything that could be represented more clearly?
  • Is something important missing?
  • Can I combine data from different parts of the figure to make everything even clearer?
  • Are all labels aligned?
  • Are all fonts consistent?

Conclusion: your effective scientific illustration

Great job, you made it! If you followed all these steps, you should now have a clear and compelling scientific graphic that will help you communicate your science. Let’s summarize the five steps to creating an effective scientific illustration!

  1. Composition – organize the different elements within your image, establishing the proper relationships among them;
  2. Abstraction – establish the essential qualities of your materials and represent them in a clear, concise way;
  3. Color – use different hues and saturations to attract attention, label elements, establish hierarchies, add a visual scale of measure, and more;
  4. Layering – superimpose layers to include additional information in a compact way;
  5. Refinement – eliminate unnecessary elements, clarify everything even more, and check the overall consistency of your graphic.

Do you have any questions? Feel free to leave a comment to let me know!

If you would like to have a professional help you with your scientific illustration or improve it, I would love to hear from you! You can contact me here.

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