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A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words – Making Diagrams Simple

Figures play a central role in science not just as a way of displaying results, although this is obviously important, but also as a way of getting across complicated theories and processes in a relatively simple and direct manner.  I’m a firm believe in the power of putting ideas into diagrams and spent a considerable portion of my thesis write-up creating bespoke diagrams.

I want to share the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years for creating attractive and informative diagrams.

Software

The vast majority of people I know use Microsoft’s PowerPoint to create diagrams and there are obvious benefits for using this software – it’s easy to include in presentations, many people already have access to this software and the array of pre-set shapes allows fairly rapid generation of diagrams. There are also several free programs available that are similar in features to PowerPoint, such as OpenOffice.org Draw and LibreOffice Draw.

While these programs are completely suitable for the task at hand, they are limited in several ways – they don’t allow easy export of figures into a variety of formats, the pre-set shapes are limited, and personally I feel they result in rather generic looking diagrams.

If you want to spice up your drawings and make them more individual, you want to use a vector-based graphics program. The premium programs out there (e.g.  Adobe illustrator and Coral Draw) are excellent but they are likely to cost you a fair bit out of pocket (Coral Draw retails at about £400 while Adobe Illustrator costs around £28 per month). My personal favourite, however, is Inkscape, and it won’t cost you a penny, as it is freeware.

Figure 1 is an example of a diagram I included in my thesis, to show you the sorts of things you can create with just a bit of time and effort using a more tailored graphics program (in my case Inkscape). I am certainly not an expert in graphic design (as you might be able to tell) but I taught myself Inkscape and was able to create drawings like this relatively speedily.

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Figure 1: Phases of mitosis, created using Inkscape.

 

Get drawing!

Don’t wait until you are under the gun to learn how to make figures!  The more complicated vector-based graphics software will take a bit of time to get used to if you haven’t used them before. My advice would be just to have a mess about on the sofa while watching T.V. – learn by doing.  The internet is also a vast resource and many tutorials exist to help you get the basics (Inkscape actually provides a list of both official and unofficial tutorials which is very handy!).

Keep it simple

Science is complicated, but one of the reasons to use diagrams is to simplify complex ideas. Therefore try to keep your drawings as simple as possible. One great way to do this is remove parts and see if it affects the idea or process you’re trying to get across – if it doesn’t, leave it out!

Keep it fun

Science doesn’t have to be dry and I would argue that you are more likely to switch off your audience if you use boring diagrams. I like to create drawings that have quite a cartoony feel, making them simple and fun to look at while also being informative. Just remember though that you can take fun too far; you still want to be professional.

Be original

Don’t just simply use or redraw diagrams created by other people. For one, this practice has issues in terms of copyright and plagiarism, but also it limits the impact of your drawings as they haven’t been tailored for the exact purpose you are using them.  Also have you ever been to a conference just to see the exact same image used by several people? It can be quite repetitive and is a sure way to make people stop listening. It is fine to use such images for the purpose of inspiration, just remember to modify them for your particular purpose and stamp your own style on them.

Be time savvy

There is of course a certain amount of time that will be eaten away when creating your own diagrams, but once you get going there are plenty of ways to minimise the time spent creating your mini-masterpieces. I have an Inkscape file where I store all my individual pieces for building diagrams, such as the shapes for particular proteins, cells, mitochondria etc. Having this allows me to quickly create new diagrams by copying the individual parts into a new file, and also provide consistency throughout all my drawings.

Hopefully these hints will help you create diagrams that will wow your audience and aid you in expressing your research and ideas.

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