Skills Earth Sciences

Common graph elements

Although each graph type has its own layout and elements, there are some common elements all graphs generally need to contain:

  • Axis labels including units
  • A legend or labelled curves when there are multiple datasets or variables plotted12
  • A legible font size12
  • A figure caption at the bottom of the graph

Additionally, graphs may contain other elements, such as tick marks, labels, and grid lines. The exact layout of your graph depends on the purpose of your figure and the message you want to convey. Do not automatically use the default settings of your plotting library or software as they are not fine-tuned for a specific plot-type. Instead, think carefully about wat your graph needs to include and what will work best to convey your message13. For example, in scientific papers, graphs are often used to show relationships instead of details about individual data points12. If you only want to show a trend in your data, gridlines are superfluous and may make your graph look more cluttered. Therefore, you can often exclude elements such as gridlines from your figure. However, if your audience needs to be able to read exact values from your figures, you will need to include them.