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science: communication



Scientific graphical abstracts — design guidelines


science + communication
scientific graphical abstract design guidelines
Practical design guidelines for graphical abstracts and small figures.
Visit the Graphical Abstract Hospital to see redesigns of real-world abstracts.

Effective poster design for science communication

Guidelines to get you started and keep you going

Watch webinar
cases from the poster hospital
Download PDF template
v1.4 14 Jul 2020
Martin Krzywinski / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Guidelines for telling your research story—sober design, typography and data visualization tips all in one place with a minimum of fuss (v1.4 14 Jul 2020). (Download PDF template)

The poster hospital is a place where posters get a prescription and are sent home to convalesce on their own. Here, you will find an à la carte offering of their symptoms and corresponding cures.

MY REDESIGN PROCESS

Scientific communication must present the story clearly and concisely: honor content, maintain connections between themes and avoid undue focus on relationships that are less important or imply ones that do not exist. This truism is often not true of talks, posters and publications.

Each redesign focuses on illustrating effective ways to use color, typography, alignment, tables, and data visualization. The redesigns are sketches and teaching tools—most redesigns have placeholder text and use original figures or approximate the original data.

I am grateful to the original authors who participated in my workshops and submitted their work for redesigns. The redesigns sample across a wide range of disciplines and make absolutely no statement about the science.

Click on an image to zoom.

I'm currently updating poster comments (10 July 2020).

CASE STUDY # 1
Dedicate ample space for experimental setups and custom-built equipment and refer to key parts with color.

The poster is about an experimental apparatus and, specifically, the inertia block and pneumatic isolators. The redesign has both of these items as very first thing (top left) the readers sees—get to the point as fast as possible.

A

A color theme is quickly established: the block is green and the isolators are magenta—notice how the block is also green in the spring diagram. These are the only colors on the poster (except the rainbow encoding of acoustic waves, which I've tucked away at the bottom).

B

Diagrams are labeled intuitively (e.g. B = block, F = foundation) and called out in the body of the text. Avoid cramming labels in a diagram where routing callout lines is complex. Yellow is excellent for labels like this—the color stands out and does not interfere with the green/magenta scheme.

C

Graphs are aligned in a single column and axes are not shown in favour of emphasis on the data. Arrangement of text around the plots establishes a grid layout, so further containing the plots is not necessary—negative space and groupings implied by alignment are doing this job.

There is no heading for conclusion or observations. Instead, right far right of the poster serves to present these in a slightly larger text.

D

The main conclusion is treated as a heading and separated from individual conclusions with a double line.

E

Text dividers do not need to span the full length of a line.

F

Avoid bullet points or numbering of sentences—these are almost always superfluous and merely add clutter.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Sail effect in an ultra-low-vibration facility for STM. Day, J. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 2
Limit superfluous color in diagrams and bar charts. Treat everything as data and use color as data encodings.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Homeostatic synaptic plasticity deregulation in the ALS cortex. Franquin, M. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A closer look.

CASE STUDY # 3
Arrange images on a grid within their own section and standardize the format of labels across images.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Titanium nanopillars: a platform for stem cell differentiation for cell therapies. Das Ghosh, L. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 4
Size text consistently and avoid backgrounds with color, patterns or images.

Background color is distracting and reduces the salience of colors used to cue themes or highlights.

A

Background images are nearly always a bad idea—they're a giant distraction (literally) and rarely available at sufficiently high resolution at the size of a full poster.

B

Background colors can shift the perception of color palettes used for data. This is the Chubb effect.

C

Background colors disrupt flow between plots and images with a white background. Notice how in the original poster plots that are next to each other in a section, and therefore related, are forced apart by strips of background color between them.

This poster uses text boxes with auto-size text, which breaks any attempts at creating an information hierarchy. Almost every title is a different size.

D

Use a modular sizing scale for type, such as one based on the Golden Ratio (5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 pt).

E

Avoid boxes around text and headings—these rarely add to the organization and often merely add clutter.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A resource of healthy iPSC cell lines derived from the Personal Genome Project. Hildebrandt, M. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 5
Avoid redundancy in pathway diagrams and choose the most minimal and effective data encodings.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
ATAC-Seq reveals differential chromatin landscape in dystrophin-deficient muscle stem cells. Saber, J. & Rudnicki, M.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 6
Avoid dense and ink-heavy layouts—space not only helps the reader catch a breath but powerfully establishes the boundaries between stories.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Molecular regulation of satellite cell fate switching. Feige, P. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 7
No pie charts.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Advanced age impairs self-renewal and biases fate choice of hair follicle dermal stem cells. Shin, W. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 8
No colored boxes.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
The role of mitochondrial OPA1 in satellite stem cell function and skeletal muscle regeneration. Baker, N. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 9
Pad text with sufficient space between and within columns.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
In vitro matured ESC-derived cardiomycytes electrically couple and form improved intra-cardiac grafts in injured guinea pig hearts. Dhahri, W. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 10
Combine figures that share an axis into a single panel.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
The use of liquid epoxy as a corrosion-resistant pipeline field joint coating for three-layer polyolefin mainline coating. Azimi, Y. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 11
Use the full extent of the canvas for detailed data plots.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Wireless respiratory effort and body position monitoring system. Ezequiel, J. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 12
Use titles that are explanations.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Role of saltbush on free range layer farms. de Koning, C. & Singh, M.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 13
Turn tables into graphics.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Feed refusal of laying hens — a case report. Ruhnke, I. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 14
Illustrate experimental design.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Ascaridia galli infection lowers egg production and mass but not quality. Sharma, N. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 15
Give attention to the layout of complex experimental or computational protocols.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Are poultry exhibitors at risk of Avian influenza introduction? Hernandez-Jover, M. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 16
Tell the story in a series of episodes.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Temperature distribution in Lake Kilpisjärvi, Finland. Graves, K.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 17
Relieve density.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
TET2/3-dependence of vitamin C-induced epigenomic alterations in acute myeloid leukemia. Wong, J. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 18
You don't need figures to communicate effectively.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Childcare provider characteristics and structural support are key drivers in implementing active play standards in child care. Buckler, E.J. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 19
Seek contrast.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Examining school hour diet quality among Canadian children. Tugault-Lafleur, C.N. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 20
Establish themes.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Qualitative and quantitative Cdk control of the budding yeast cell cycle. Ercan, D.P. & Uhlmann, F.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A closer look.

CASE STUDY # 21
Place paragraphs on a grid.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Engineering a specific antibody for Usutu virus. Schoenenwald, A.K. & Skern, T.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A closer look.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A closer look.

CASE STUDY # 22
Make visual stories large and structure layout around them.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Structural studies of the putative ergosterol transporter NCR1. Winkler, M.B.L. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 23
Leave room for figures.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Phenylalanine hydroxylase regulation in health and disease. Flydal. M.I. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 24
Align all related structures and distinguish foreground and background in figures with distinct elements.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Microstructural analysis of the protein-DNA interactions at the emergence of the spontaneous point mutations in DNA. Brovarets' O.O. & Hovorun D.M.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A closer look.

CASE STUDY # 25
Do not be bullied by text, axes or boxes. Layout diagrams and plots first before placing text.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Sequence determinants of secondary nucleation. Kalyani, S. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 26
Do not set type too losely.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Real-time imaging of live cell membrane using laser trapping, reflectance confocal microscopy, and multiphoton fluorescence microscopy. Tian, Y. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 27
Guidelines.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Characterization of alternative 3'UTR mRNA polyadenylation site-selection in human cancer. Tortora, D. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 28
Identify the main theme and assign it to a color.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Phenotype-driven analysis of human phosphoproteomes. Needham, E.J. et al.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

CASE STUDY # 29
White background.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Are butterfly communities becoming more generalist? Lewthwaite, J. & Moores, A.Ø.
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Redesign.

VIEW ALL

news + thoughts

Music for the Moon: Flunk's 'Down Here / Moon Above'

Sat 29-05-2021

The Sanctuary Project is a Lunar vault of science and art. It includes two fully sequenced human genomes, sequenced and assembled by us at Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre.

The first disc includes a song composed by Flunk for the (eventual) trip to the Moon.

But how do you send sound to space? I describe the inspiration, process and art behind the work.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
The song 'Down Here / Moon Above' from Flunk's new album History of Everything Ever is our song for space. It appears on the Sanctuary genome discs, which aim to send two fully sequenced human genomes to the Moon. (more)

Browse the genome discs.

Happy 2021 `\pi` Day—
A forest of digits

Sun 14-03-2021

Celebrate `\pi` Day (March 14th) and finally see the digits through the forest.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
The 26th tree in the digit forest of `\pi`. Why is there a flower on the ground?. (details)

This year is full of botanical whimsy. A Lindenmayer system forest – deterministic but always changing. Feel free to stop and pick the flowers from the ground.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
The first 46 digits of `\pi` in 8 trees. There are so many more. (details)

And things can get crazy in the forest.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
A forest of the digits of '\pi`, by ecosystem. (details)

Check out art from previous years: 2013 `\pi` Day and 2014 `\pi` Day, 2015 `\pi` Day, 2016 `\pi` Day, 2017 `\pi` Day, 2018 `\pi` Day and 2019 `\pi` Day.

Testing for rare conditions

Sun 30-05-2021

All that glitters is not gold. —W. Shakespeare

The sensitivity and specificity of a test do not necessarily correspond to its error rate. This becomes critically important when testing for a rare condition — a test with 99% sensitivity and specificity has an even chance of being wrong when the condition prevalence is 1%.

We discuss the positive predictive value (PPV) and how practices such as screen can increase it.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Testing for rare conditions. (read)

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2021) Points of significance: Testing for rare conditions. Nature Methods 18:224–225.

Standardization fallacy

Tue 09-02-2021

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! —D. Adams

A popular notion about experiments is that it's good to keep variability in subjects low to limit the influence of confounding factors. This is called standardization.

Unfortunately, although standardization increases power, it can induce unrealistically low variability and lead to results that do not generalize to the population of interest. And, in fact, may be irreproducible.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Standardization fallacy. (read)

Not paying attention to these details and thinking (or hoping) that standardization is always good is the "standardization fallacy". In this column, we look at how standardization can be balanced with heterogenization to avoid this thorny issue.

Voelkl, B., Würbel, H., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2021) Points of significance: Standardization fallacy. Nature Methods 18:5–6.

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 mkweb.bcgsc.ca
Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines — Clear, concise, legible and compelling.