Skills Earth Sciences

General guidelines for creating figures

Once you have determined the type of figure that best fits your data and message, you can start to design it. One good way to start is to first draft your figure using pen and paper. After this, you can use the software of your choice (see Tools for creating figures) to make the actual graph. Adapting your figures is time-consuming, so designing your figure before creating it will save you time in the end.  Additionally, in this way, your figure design will not be limited by your skills with certain software.

Figures often are the first part of a text or presentation that draws the attention of an audience. In fact, many readers of scientific texts jump to look at the figures in a published article before reading other parts of the text. Therefore, the message you convey with your figure needs to be as clear as a stand-alone component of your presentation (whether written or oral). All information must be incorporated in the colour use, symbology, line- or polygon features, in annotations and within the figure caption. The message must be clear from the figure and its caption without reading your accompanying text.

Try to show the data points behind your graph or map as much as possible, especially when you are first presenting your data. This means, for example, that you do not only show average values of measurements, but also show the datapoints on which the averages are based. This creates more transparency in what the data is behind your interpretations.

Check your figures for errors as these might completely change the interpretation of your data10. This is important when you are communicating to an audience, but even more so when you are making graphs to analyse your data.