Points of view: Elements of visual style

Journal name:
Nature Methods
Volume:
10,
Page:
371
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nmeth.2444
Published online

Translate the principles of effective writing to the process of figure design.

At a glance

Figures

  1. A flood of identical symbols triggers semantic satiation, a phenomenon in which overwhelming repetition results in loss of meaning.
    Figure 1: A flood of identical symbols triggers semantic satiation, a phenomenon in which overwhelming repetition results in loss of meaning.

    As an accurate but visually unparsable representation of a breakpoint graph5, the figure breaks Strunk and White's rule “Do not explain too much.”1

  2. Use the simplest visual representation for objects and [ldquo]omit needless words[rdquo].
    Figure 2: Use the simplest visual representation6 for objects and “omit needless words”1.

    (a) Visually garnished elements shout at the reader, who is at a loss to determine what is important. If you wouldn't write it this way, don't draw it either. (b) Simple shapes provide an elegant presentation. Complex shapes may carry unintended meaning (such as unduplicated versus duplicated chromosomes). In schematics, reserve the use of color for emphasis, where possible.

  3. Objects that interact or share common meaning should be formatted in a similar way that appeals to intuition.
    Figure 3: Objects that interact or share common meaning should be formatted in a similar way that appeals to intuition.

    (a) Venn diagram colors should be selected to naturally communicate overlap. This can be automated by using blend modes in applications such as Illustrator or Inkscape. (b) Entity similarities in pathway diagrams are hard to identify when diverse icons are used. When only tone varies, FOSL1 immediately stands out from the FOX gene family. (c) Symbols in a series should reflect the concept of progression as naturally as possible. For example, immune cells aren't actually a different shape, and it is not intuitive that pink cells should give rise to red cells.

References

  1. Strunk, W. Jr. & White, E.B. The Elements of Style 4th edn., Ch. 2, 2126; Ch. 5, 7075 (Longman, 1999.)
  2. Pinker, S. The Language Instinct (W. Morrow, New York, 1994).
  3. Tufte, E.R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information 2nd edn., 107121 (Graphic Press, Cheshire, Connecticut, USA, 2001).
  4. Corneille, P. Horace (http://openlibrary.org/books/OL6939036M/Corneille's_Horace/) line 1648 (Heath, 1904).
  5. Alekseyev, M.A. & Pevzner, P.A. Genome Res. 19, 943957 (2009).
  6. Wong, B. Nat. Methods 8, 611 (2011).

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Martin Krzywinski is a staff scientist at Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre.

Competing financial interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

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