Four basic design principles for effective scientific figures

Have you created a scientific figure to illustrate your research results, but are unsure how to make it look nice and professional? Scientific illustrations are a great way to make science more memorable and easy to understand; if done wrong, though, they can end up just being confusing. Also, you don’t want to present a graphic that looks amateur for publication, in a poster or in an oral presentation.

Don’t worry! In this article, we will go over four basic design principles that you can apply to your scientific figure and instantly improve it. If you follow these rules, your graphic or illustration will look better and communicate your message more effectively. So let’s get started!


The first design principle that you should keep in mind while creating a scientific figure is contrast. The essence of this rule is that you should avoid elements that are very similar, although not identical. If two elements are different, make them very different!

Let’s clarify what this means with an example. Let’s say you are designing an illustration showing two different types of proteins: it may be a good idea to use different colors for them. However, please don’t just make them two different shades of orange! Instead, use two colors that are easy to distinguish. You can even use complementary colors to make the distinction as obvious as possible.

Let’s see another example. Maybe you are creating a poster for a conference presentation; your poster may include some headings and some regular text. It’s not a good idea to use Arial 14pt for your headings and Arial 12pt for your text. Why? They look way too similar, while they serve two very different purposes! Don’t be shy, and make those headings larger or those texts smaller. Differentiating the font between headings and text in some other way can also be very helpful. Although in a scientific context it may not be appropriate to play around with different fonts, you can always change the font weight, for example by making the headings bold.

One important aspect of this principle is that, if your figure includes a central element that should grab the viewer’s attention, you need to make sure it contrasts with the rest of the graphic in a very obvious way. For example, you can make it very big; this creates visual interest in the piece and makes people look at it in the first place.

When there is contrast in a graphic, the communication instantly becomes clearer and the viewer can easily recognize the hierarchy between different elements.


Our second design principle is repetition. This means that you should repeat some visual elements within your graphic in order to create a sense of organization and strengthen its unity.

What are those visual elements that you can repeat? Here are a few: colors, shapes, sizes, and fonts.

Let’s see a real-life application of this principle. Let’s say you are creating a poster or presentation that includes multiple bulleted lists. Well, you should use the same type of bullet points for all the lists. This makes it clear that all the lists are a part of the same thing.

Another very obvious example is text labels. How often have you seen a scientific figure where, for some reason, the font changes from one text label to another? This creates a sense of confusion for the viewer: why are those labels somewhat different? Is there something I’m not getting? In general, avoid using different fonts for different labels: they’re all labels, after all. If you really need to differentiate them, use color or a bold weight, which are much easier to tell apart than fonts.


The next basic design principle is alignment: every element on the graphic should have some visual connection to at least one other element. This visual connection is realized by aligning every element to some other element. Nothing should be placed in the figure at random.

Let’s see what this means with a simple example. If you are presenting a plot with a title on top of it, you should align the title either to the left edge, to the right edge or to the center of the plot. Most graphic software includes “snap to” options, which help you align one element to another.

If you have a legend on the right of the plot, make sure to align everything to the left, so that you create a strong vertical line with the edges of the text and symbols.

For small text paragraphs, it is often best to align the text either to the left or the right. Centered layouts are more difficult to read, because the edges of the lines are not aligned, so it’s not easy to go from one line to the the next.

Alignment between the different elements that make up a figure help create a sense of unity in the piece, and makes the viewer’s eye easily flow from one part to the next without getting confused.


Our last design principle for scientific figures is proximity. This principle states that if two elements are related, they should appear near each other in the graphic; conversely, if two elements are not directly related, they should be apart from one another.

For example, if you are creating a poster with different sections, make sure to put enough space between the different sections! We often get caught up cramming as much information as possible into our graphic, so that the different sections end up not being properly separated. This makes the piece appear as a single, unorganized body of information, which people won’t be attracted to read.

Also make sure that the different parts of a single section are close enough to each other, so that it is clear that they belong together.

Bonus tip: don’t be afraid of white space! Don’t scatter stuff all over the places just to fill that empty corner. Instead, keep things simple and organized.

If you follow this principle, you will automatically create figures that are more organized, less cluttered and in which the viewers immediately recognize a clear structure.


Let’s summarize the four basic design principles that will help you create more effective scientific figures:

  1. Contrast: avoid elements that are very similar, although not identical. If two elements are different, make them easily distinguishable!
  2. Repetition: repeat some visual elements within your graphic (such as colors, shapes, sizes or fonts) in order to create a sense of unity.
  3. Alignment: every element on your graphic should be aligned to some other element; don’t place anything at random.
  4. Proximity: if two elements are related, put them near each other on the graphic; conversely, if two elements are not directly related, place them apart from one another.

There you have it! Are you ready to create more structured and impactful scientific visualizations?

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!

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