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research: explaining

Scientific graphical abstracts — design guidelines

science + communication
scientific poster design guidelines
Practical design guidelines for scientific posters and layouts on a large canvas.
Visit the Poster Hospital to see redesigns of real-world posters.

Effective graphical abstract design for science communication

Guidelines to get you started and keep you going

Download PDF template
v1.2 12 Nov 2020
Martin Krzywinski / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Guidelines for summarizing your research story with a graphical abstract—sober design, typography and data visualization tips all in one place with a minimum of fuss (v1.2 12 Nov 2020). (Download PDF template)


The graphical abstract guidelines build on my design guidelines for posters. Because their focus is on telling the essence of a story in a small space, I see them as much less negotiable than guidelines for posters, where the large canvas allows for more options.

See how the guidelines can be applied to graphical abstracts in the wild by visiting the graphical abstract hospital.

The Graphical abstract mindset

# 1
Pure story clearly told

The purpose of the graphical abstract is to quickly present the key findings of a paper in a way that closely matches the narrative of the paper. The graphical abstract should place all central terms in context and emphasize key relationships.


A graphical abstract is Figure 0.


Everything you learn about the design of graphical abstracts applies to the design of figures.


Everything you learn about the design of figures applies to the design of posters.

Identifying what to put in the graphical abstract cannot be answered by design alone. Design can help place and shape what you have chosen, but it cannot tell you what to chose — that's up to the science.

Graphical abstracts are typically small square bitmaps. Though individual journal requirements vary, this constraint on the size of the canvas places tremendous limits on the design and imposes more strict requirements than when designing for a larger space.


The graphical abstract is a tiny space that offers no quarter. A bad design decision cannot be mitigated by a good design decision downstream. There is no room for "style".


The graphical abstract is a visual elevator pitch. There is no room for visual garnish or embelishment of any kind.


The function of a graphical abstract comes from its form, which cues the nature of relationships in its story.

Many abstracts struggle to fit the path of the story into a small space. Individual scenes meander down the image, often snaking, as elements struggle for space and attention. Make it easy for the eye and guide it along simple paths.

# 2

The graphical abstract should never be designed with attracting the eye as the first priority. Rather, it's your first opportunity for engaging the reader's pre-attentive processing and to lay out a map of the story. Every part of the abstract should correspond to the beginning of important story arcs in the paper.


Strict control of color.


No gradients. There, I said it.


No elaborate three-dimensional representations. While well-drawn ones can be attractive, many distract the eye with too much detail and draw attention away from the story path.

Your paper is a mansion and the graphical abstract is a studio apartment — you cannot bring all the furniture. Too often, "style" is that credenza you've been lugging around everywhere. It's time to let it go.

# 3

Most graphical abstracts have poor top-level organization. In many, the wrong things are grouped and categories, such as experimental conditions, are not clearly demarcated. Opportunities for maintaining continuity between scenes of the story are often missed.


Understand and practise good Gestalt grouping principles. In a small space, color will group more powerfully than position and much more powerfully than shape.


Organize content in a way that reflects spatial or semantic hierarchy by making use of Gestalt figure-ground principles. These are very helpful in reinforcing inside vs. outside (e.g. cytosol vs. nucleus).


Tables are dead. Long live the table.

Typical graphical tropes, such as those used in figures and presentations, have no place in graphical abstracts. Everything must be distilled down to its core essence — this part is hard and requires that you pay attention to how graphical elements relate in shape and position and whether these relationships are unambiguous and speak to your story with specificity.

Many abstracts do not balance visual weight: they have too much detail in shapes and symbols and have too much variation in text size and line thickness.

In most abstracts, key aspects of the story are lost among too much variation due to loose design.


For every pair of things on the abstract, ask yourself: (1) can their graphical relationship be improved to better match their actual relationship? (2) does their graphical relationship imply something that isn't important or true? (3) am I repeating myself?


Are things of equal importance drawn with equal emphasis? How many different sizes of type are being used?


The abstract's grid layout should present a strong tabular feel. Can you draw a horizontal or vertical line across the abstract to divide its elements along thematic or categorical boundaries?

# 4
Leading the eye

Stick to straight paths for the eye: left-to-right, top-to-bottom, or top-left to bottom-right. Avoid requiring the reader to backtrack or turn sharply.


Align ruthlessly. In a small space even tiny misalignments become obvious and a barrier to assessing relationship between elements.


Encapsulate your story in a strong and obvious grid layout (1×2, 2×2, ...) and maintain symmetry in margins, padding and spacing between elements.


Use open form (elements extending beyond the image) to imply that the scene is a vignette of a larger scene or more complex process.


# 5
More color isn't the solution

The success of a graphical abstrat rests on how well it is organized and how well it represents important relationships. Color can be used to maintain a theme (e.g. health vs disease) but this effect is diluted by other colors.


Do not create too many color groups. Instead, group using space and shape.


Avoid strongly coloring elements that are drawn for context or are of secondary importance.


Avoid background color, which generally reduces contrast. If you cannot overcome your desire for a background gradient, make it as subtle as possible.


# 6
Tightly control font size and color

Well-chosen type placement and size goes a long way in alleviating tightness of a small space.


Have a modest type size ladder with no more than 3 sizes — for example, 4, 6, 8 pt.


Generally, do not apply color to text unless you're cuing the continuation of a theme. But do so carefully.


Use light and dark grey for text to indicate a hiearchy of importance.

# 7
Do not rely on a variety of type faces (bold, italic) or styling

On a large canvas, there is room for a fully type hierarchy (bold, small caps, italics, etc). In a small space, there isn't. Always evaluate the legibility of text on the final bitmap.


Do not outline or add styling to text, such as drop shadows or glow.


Apply bold and italics gently and do not combine them — too much variation in type will overwhelm the space.


Small italic labels make for great annotations.

Technical Considerations

# 8
Design with physical size in mind

Although the graphical abstract itself may never be printed, it's extremely helpful to design it to a specific physical size. You'll be able to standardize your design process for graphical abstracts, figures and posters.


Design on a 4" × 4" artboard and export at 300 dpi. Scale artboard size, not output resolution, to match journal requirements.


Use point units for sizing text in the range 6–10 pt. Limit yourself to Arial or one of the Helveticas. Avoid angled or vertical text.


Draw lines no thinner than 0.5 pt. Standardize line and arrow length and angle.


news + thoughts

Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines

Fri 13-11-2020

Clear, concise, legible and compelling.

Making a scientific graphical abstract? Refer to my practical design guidelines and redesign examples to improve organization, design and clarity of your graphical abstracts.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines — Clear, concise, legible and compelling.

"This data might give you a migrane"

Tue 06-10-2020

An in-depth look at my process of reacting to a bad figure — how I design a poster and tell data stories.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A poster of high BMI and obesity prevalence for 185 countries.

He said, he said — a word analysis of the 2020 Presidential Debates

Thu 01-10-2020

Building on the method I used to analyze the 2008, 2012 and 2016 U.S. Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, I explore word usagein the 2020 Debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Analysis of word usage by parts of speech for Trump and Biden reveals insight into each candidate.

Points of Significance celebrates 50th column

Mon 24-08-2020

We are celebrating the publication of our 50th column!

To all our coauthors — thank you and see you in the next column!

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance: Celebrating 50 columns of clear explanations of statistics. (read)

Uncertainty and the management of epidemics

Mon 24-08-2020

When modelling epidemics, some uncertainties matter more than others.

Public health policy is always hampered by uncertainty. During a novel outbreak, nearly everything will be uncertain: the mode of transmission, the duration and population variability of latency, infection and protective immunity and, critically, whether the outbreak will fade out or turn into a major epidemic.

The uncertainty may be structural (which model?), parametric (what is `R_0`?), and/or operational (how well do masks work?).

This month, we continue our exploration of epidemiological models and look at how uncertainty affects forecasts of disease dynamics and optimization of intervention strategies.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Uncertainty and the management of epidemics. (read)

We show how the impact of the uncertainty on any choice in strategy can be expressed using the Expected Value of Perfect Information (EVPI), which is the potential improvement in outcomes that could be obtained if the uncertainty is resolved before making a decision on the intervention strategy. In other words, by how much could we potentially increase effectiveness of our choice (e.g. lowering total disease burden) if we knew which model best reflects reality?

This column has an interactive supplemental component (download code) that allows you to explore the impact of uncertainty in `R_0` and immunity duration on timing and size of epidemic waves and the total burden of the outbreak and calculate EVPI for various outbreak models and scenarios.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Uncertainty and the management of epidemics. (Interactive supplemental materials)

Bjørnstad, O.N., Shea, K., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2020) Points of significance: Uncertainty and the management of epidemics. Nature Methods 17.

Background reading

Bjørnstad, O.N., Shea, K., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2020) Points of significance: Modeling infectious epidemics. Nature Methods 17:455–456.

Bjørnstad, O.N., Shea, K., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2020) Points of significance: The SEIRS model for infectious disease dynamics. Nature Methods 17:557–558.