Skills Earth Sciences

Creating figures and finalising graphs and maps

Vector graphics software is useful for editing and finalising graphs you produced in Excel or using a programming language; when you want to combine various figure types, e.g., data plots, photographs and schematics in one figure; and when you are making more extensive figures such as stratigraphic charts. Fine-tuning your graphs and maps will also be a lot easier and less time-consuming when you use a vector graphics editor.

Scientific figures can generally be separated into vector and raster/bitmap figures.

Vector images consist of mathematically defined lines and curves. Therefore, they these figures can be scaled unlimited without becoming blurred and losing their original colour and proportions. They are however not suitable for realistic drawing as they come across very clean and artificial.

Raster images on the other hand consist of pixels, I.e. coloured rectangular dots. At high resolutions, they look very realistic, and you can adapt colour and shape very detailed. However, their quality decreases when you edit/manipulate a raster image after creation. They cannot be scaled unlimitedly: When you enlarge them too much, they will become blurred and when you shrink them too much, the lines and colours will blur into each other.

For the creation of scientific figures in Earth Sciences, vectors are generally preferred. However, for photos, e.g. from a field site, raster images are more suitable.

Using vector graphics software has two main advantages. Firstly, it will keep the separate layers you add in your graph apart instead of flattening them into a collection of pixels23. In this way it is easier to keep editing/adapting your figure. Secondly, it will make sure your figures will have a good resolution and will not be pixelated in your end-product.

You can use vector graphics editors to:
Create schematic figures or infographics
Adjust graphs and maps (data visualisations) you made in other programs (Excel, Python, R, Matlab) easily
Add elements such as scale bars etc. to field or microscope photos
Adapt figures from scientific papers or your own work for presentations, e.g., removing superfluous elements
Produce scientific posters

Adobe Illustrator is a well-known and often-used program for creating and editing vector graphics. If you are already familiar with it, it is a great tool to use. However, adobe suite software is not open source. It is installed on all public UU student computers, but the UU does not offer a free download for your own computer. However, you can get a discount when you download it through SURFspot. If you want to use graphic design software on your own computer and are not yet familiar with Adobe Illustrator, it might be better to use open-source software which offer similar possibilities, e.g., Inkscape.

Inkscape is an open-source program for creating and editing vector graphics. This makes it specifically useful in creating schematic figures, e.g., infographics and process visualisations. It is also very suitable for editing and finalising graphs you made using other software and combining them to make complex and professional scientific figures.

Inkscape has similar functions to Adobe Illustrator but is free of charge and you do not have to sign up. If you are not yet familiar with Inkscape, it might take a bit of time to learn it due to the large number of functions the software contains. However, it has a user-friendly interface, so learning is easy. Moreover, it has many more functions than MS PowerPoint, resulting in better and more professional figures. Therefore, it is worth spending some time on learning Inkscape.

Many tutorials for Inkscape for beginners are available online. Inkscape also has various written and video tutorials available on their website.

PowerPoint is not primarily designed for designing and editing figures and therefore offers fewer possibilities than other vector graphics software. However, PowerPoint includes some shape tools that you can use to visualise processes or create infographics. You can also use it to edit or combine graphs you made in other programs, and to add lines and vectors to them. Similarly to more advanced vector graphic editors, PowerPoint is vector based, i.e. it keeps the layers/elements of your graph separated. This means you can move them independently and save your figures as in a vector (SVG) format as well. This makes it a much better alternative to Microsoft Paint. Thus, PowerPoint is a good alternative to Inkscape or Illustrator if you do not have the need to create very complex figures and do not have sufficient time to learn Inkscape or Illustrator.

MS Office (including PowerPoint) is not open source, but you can download and use the office 365 version for free with your Solis-id and password. Most students are already familiar with MS PowerPoint and creating/editing figures works quite intuitively.

GIMP is developed for editing raster images instead of vectors. It provides tools for high quality image manipulation. For Earth scientists, it is specifically useful to edit field or microscope photos, but not for editing or creating other scientific figures.

GIMP is open source. It also offers many free tutorials on its website.