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visualization: beautiful

EMBO Practical Course: Bioinformatics and Genome Analysis, 5–17 June 2017.

visualization + design

Getting into Visualization of Large Biological Data Sets

The 20 imperatives of information design

Martin Krzywinski, Inanc Birol, Steven Jones, Marco Marra

Presented at Biovis 2012 (Visweek 2012). Content is drawn from my book chapter Visualization Principles for Scientific Communication (Martin Krzywinski & Jonathan Corum) in the upcoming open access Cambridge Press book Visualizing biological data - a practical guide (Seán I. O'Donoghue, James B. Procter, Kate Patterson, eds.), a survey of best practices and unsolved problems in biological visualization. This book project was conceptualized and initiated at the Vizbi 2011 conference.

If you are interested in guidelines for data encoding and visualization in biology, see our Visualization Principles Vizbi 2012 Tutorial and Nature Methods Points of View column by Bang Wong.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Getting into Visualization of Large Biological Data Sets. M Krzywinski, I Birol, S Jones, M Marra (poster presentation) (PDF, Illustrator)

The 20 imperatives of information design


Create legible visualizations with a strong message. Make elements large enough to be resolved comfortably. Bin dense data to avoid sacrificing clarity.

Distinguish between exploration and communication.

Use exploratory tools (e.g. genome browsers) to discover patterns and validate hypotheses. Avoid using screenshots from these applications for communication – they are typically too complex and cluttered with navigational elements to be an effective static figure.

Do not exceed resolution of visual acuity.

Our acuity is ~50 cycles/degree or about 1/200 (0.3 pt) at 10 inches. Ensure the reader can comfortably see detail by limiting resolution to no more than 50% of acuity. Where possible, elements that require visual separation should be at least 1 pt part.

Use no more than ~500 scale intervals.

Ensure data elements are at least 1 pt on a two-column Nature figure (6.22 in), 4 pixels on a 1920 horizontal resolution display, or 2 pixels on a typical LCD projector. These restrictions become challenges for large genomes.

Show variation with statistics.

Data on large genomes must be downsampled. Depict variation with min/max plots and consider hiding it when it is within noise levels. Help the reader notice significant outliers.

Do not draw small elements to scale.

Map size of elements onto clearly legible symbols. Legibility and clarity are more important than precise positioning and sizing. Discretize sizes and positions to facilitate making meaningful comparisons.

Aggregate data for focused theme.

A strong visual message has no uncertainty in its interpretation. Focus on a single theme by aggregating unnecessary detail.

Show density maps and outliers.

Establishing context is helpful when emergent patterns in the data provide a useful perspective on the message. When data sets are large, it is difficult to maintain detail in the context layer because the density of points can visually overwhelm the area of interest. In this case, consider showing only the outliers in the data set.

Consider whether showing the full data set is useful.

The reader’s attention can be focused by increasing the salience of interesting patterns. Other complex data sets, such as networks, are shown more effectively when context is carefully edited or even removed.


Match the visual encoding to the hypothesis. Use encodings specific and sensitive to important patterns. Dense annotations should be independent of the core data in distinct visual layers.

Use the simplest encoding.

Choose concise encodings over elaborate ones.

Help the reader judge accurately.

Accuracy and speed in detecting differences in visual forms depends on how information is presented. We judge relative lengths more accurately than areas, particularly when elements are aligned and adjacent. Our judgment of area is poor because we use length as a proxy, which causes us to systematically underestimate.

Use encodings that are robust and comparable.

In addition to being transparent and predictable, visualizations must be robust with respect to the data. Changes in the data set should be reflected by proportionate changes in the visualization. Be wary of force-directed network layouts, which have low spatial autocorrelation. In general, these are neither sensitive nor specific to patterns of interest.

Crop scale to reveal fine structure in data.

Biological data sets are typically high-resolution (changes at base pair level can meaningful), sparse (distances between changes are orders of magnitude greater than the affected areas) and connect distant regions by adjacency relationships (gene fusions and other rearrangements). It is difficult to take these properties into account on a fixed linear scale, the kind used by traditional genome browsers. To mitigate this, crop and order axis segments arbitrarily and apply a scale adjustment to a segment or portion thereof.

Use perceptual palettes.

Selecting perceptually favorable colors is difficult because most software does not support the required color spaces. Brewer palettes exist for the full range of colors to help us make useful choices. Qualitative palettes have no perceived order of importance. Sequential palettes are suitable for heat maps because they have a natural order and the perceived difference between adjacent colors is constant. Twin hue diverging palettes, are useful for two-sided quantitative encodings, such as immunofluorescence and copy number.

Never use hue to encode magnitude.

Hue does not communicate relative change in values because we perceive hue categorically (blue, green, yellow, etc). Changes within one category have less perceptual impact than transitions between categories. For example, variations across the green/yellow boundary are perceived to be larger than variations across the same sized hue interval in other parts of the spectrum.


Well-designed figures illustrate complex concepts and patterns that may be difficult to express concisely in words. Figures that are clear, concise and attractive are effective – they form a strong connection with the reader and communicate with immediacy. These qualities can be achieved with methods of graphic design, which are based on theories of how we perceive, interpret and organize visual information.

Reduce unnecessary variation.

The reader does not know what is important in a figure and will assume that any spatial or color variation is meaningful. The figure’s variation should come solely from data or act to organize information.

Encapsulate details.

Including details not relevant to the core message of the figure can create confusion. Encapsulation should be done to the same level of detail and to the simplest visual form. Duplication in labels should be avoided.

Use consistent alignment. Center on theme.

Establish equivalence using consistent alignment. Awkward callouts can be avoided if elements are logically placed.

Respect natural hierarchies.

When the data set embodies a natural hierarchy, use an encoding that emphasizes it clearly and memorably. The use hierarchy in layout (e.g. tabular form) and encoding can significantly improve a muddled figure.

Palette for color blindness / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
This 15-color palette provides good discrimination for common color blindness types. Individuals with tritanopia cannot distinguish colors marked with ● and ◥. (hires)

Be aware of the luminance effect.

Color is a useful encoding – the eye can distinguish about 450 levels of gray, 150 hues, and 10-60 levels of saturation, depending on the color – but our ability to perceive differences varies with context. Adjacent tones with different luminance values can interfere with discrimination, in interaction known as the luminance effect.

Be aware of color blindness.

In an audience of 8 men and 8 women, chances are 50% that at least one has some degree of color blindness. Use a palette that is color-blind safe. In the palette below the 15 colors appear as 5-color tone progressions to those with color blindness. Additional encodings can be achieved with symbols or line thickness.

I have designed 15-color palettes for color blindess for each of the three common types of color blindness.


news + thoughts

Personal Oncogenomics Program 5 Year Anniversary Art

Wed 26-07-2017

The artwork was created in collaboration with my colleagues at the Genome Sciences Center to celebrate the 5 year anniversary of the Personalized Oncogenomics Program (POG).

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
5 Years of Personalized Oncogenomics Program at Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre. The poster shows 545 cancer cases. (left) Cases ordered chronologically by case number. (right) Cases grouped by diagnosis (tissue type) and then by similarity within group.

The Personal Oncogenomics Program (POG) is a collaborative research study including many BC Cancer Agency oncologists, pathologists and other clinicians along with Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre with support from BC Cancer Foundation.

The aim of the program is to sequence, analyze and compare the genome of each patient's cancer—the entire DNA and RNA inside tumor cells— in order to understand what is enabling it to identify less toxic and more effective treatment options.

Principal component analysis

Thu 06-07-2017
PCA helps you interpret your data, but it will not always find the important patterns.

Principal component analysis (PCA) simplifies the complexity in high-dimensional data by reducing its number of dimensions.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Principal component analysis. (read)

To retain trend and patterns in the reduced representation, PCA finds linear combinations of canonical dimensions that maximize the variance of the projection of the data.

PCA is helpful in visualizing high-dimensional data and scatter plots based on 2-dimensional PCA can reveal clusters.

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2017) Points of Significance: Principal component analysis. Nature Methods 14:641–642.

Background reading

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2017) Points of Significance: Clustering. Nature Methods 14:545–546.

...more about the Points of Significance column

`k` index: a weightlighting and Crossfit performance measure

Wed 07-06-2017

Similar to the `h` index in publishing, the `k` index is a measure of fitness performance.

To achieve a `k` index for a movement you must perform `k` unbroken reps at `k`% 1RM.

The expected value for the `k` index is probably somewhere in the range of `k = 26` to `k=35`, with higher values progressively more difficult to achieve.

In my `k` index introduction article I provide detailed explanation, rep scheme table and WOD example.

Dark Matter of the English Language—the unwords

Wed 07-06-2017

I've applied the char-rnn recurrent neural network to generate new words, names of drugs and countries.

The effect is intriguing and facetious—yes, those are real words.

But these are not: necronology, abobionalism, gabdologist, and nonerify.

These places only exist in the mind: Conchar and Pobacia, Hzuuland, New Kain, Rabibus and Megee Islands, Sentip and Sitina, Sinistan and Urzenia.

And these are the imaginary afflictions of the imagination: ictophobia, myconomascophobia, and talmatomania.

And these, of the body: ophalosis, icabulosis, mediatopathy and bellotalgia.

Want to name your baby? Or someone else's baby? Try Ginavietta Xilly Anganelel or Ferandulde Hommanloco Kictortick.

When taking new therapeutics, never mix salivac and labromine. And don't forget that abadarone is best taken on an empty stomach.

And nothing increases the chance of getting that grant funded than proposing the study of a new –ome! We really need someone to looking into the femome and manome.

Dark Matter of the Genome—the nullomers

Wed 31-05-2017

An exploration of things that are missing in the human genome. The nullomers.

Julia Herold, Stefan Kurtz and Robert Giegerich. Efficient computation of absent words in genomic sequences. BMC Bioinformatics (2008) 9:167