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.
Create legible visualizations with a strong message. Make elements large enough to be resolved comfortably. Bin dense data to avoid sacrificing clarity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A strong visual message has no uncertainty in its interpretation. Focus on a single theme by aggregating unnecessary detail.
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.
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.
Choose concise encodings over elaborate ones.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The presence of constraints in experiments, such as sample size restrictions, awkward blocking or disallowed treatment combinations may make using classical designs very difficult or impossible.
Optimal design is a powerful, general purpose alternative for high quality, statistically grounded designs under nonstandard conditions.
We discuss two types of optimal designs (D-optimal and I-optimal) and show how it can be applied to a scenario with sample size and blocking constraints.
Smucker, B., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2018) Points of significance: Optimal experimental design Nature Methods 15:599–600.
Krzywinski, M., Altman, N. (2014) Points of significance: Two factor designs. Nature Methods 11:1187–1188.
Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of significance: Analysis of variance (ANOVA) and blocking. Nature Methods 11:699–700.
Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2014) Points of significance: Designing comparative experiments. Nature Methods 11:597–598.
An illustration of the Tree of Life, showing some of the key branches.
The tree is drawn as a DNA double helix, with bases colored to encode ribosomal RNA genes from various organisms on the tree.
All living things on earth descended from a single organism called LUCA (last universal common ancestor) and inherited LUCA’s genetic code for basic biological functions, such as translating DNA and creating proteins. Constant genetic mutations shuffled and altered this inheritance and added new genetic material—a process that created the diversity of life we see today. The “tree of life” organizes all organisms based on the extent of shuffling and alteration between them. The full tree has millions of branches and every living organism has its own place at one of the leaves in the tree. The simplified tree shown here depicts all three kingdoms of life: bacteria, archaebacteria and eukaryota. For some organisms a grey bar shows when they first appeared in the tree in millions of years (Ma). The double helix winding around the tree encodes highly conserved ribosomal RNA genes from various organisms.
Johnson, H.L. (2018) The Whole Earth Cataloguer, Sactown, Jun/Jul, p. 89
An article about keyboard layouts and the history and persistence of QWERTY.
McDonald, T. (2018) Why we can't give up this odd way of typing, BBC, 25 May 2018.
I've previously taken a more fine-art approach to cover design, such for those of Nature, Genome Research and Trends in Genetics. I've used microscopy images to create a cover for PNAS—the one that made biology look like astrophysics—and thought that this is kind of material I'd start with for the MCS cover.