Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers

Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers

by Felice C. Frankel

ISBN: 9780300176445

Publisher Yale University Press

Published in Science/Science for Kids, Science/History & Philosophy, Arts & Photography/Design & Decorative Arts, Professional & Technical/Engineering

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Sample Chapter




Graphics—visual representations of scientific data and concepts—are critical components of science and engineering research. Images engage us in ways that words cannot. Explanatory graphics can clarify or strengthen an argument by guiding us through data or concepts. Exploratory graphics draw us into the research process, allowing us to discover patterns and relationships ourselves.

Visual representations have long been a significant part of any scientist's and engineer's research. Until fairly recently it was standard practice for universities and research institutions to hire specialists to help researchers visually communicate their work. Now the research community is primarily responsible for crafting its own graphics—and yet the typical researcher's training rarely includes the development of such skills and sensibilities.

This guide will help you create more effective graphics to support your work. Together, we will explore specific examples from journal articles, presentations, grant submissions, and other scientific contexts. We will make practical suggestions, based on our work with science and engineering researchers, to help you answer the question, "What is the best graphic to communicate my work?"

It is important to remember that a visual representation of a scientific concept (or data) is a re-presentation, and not the thing itself—some interpretation or translation is always involved. There are many parallels between creating a graphic and writing an article. First, you must carefully plan what to "say," and in what order you will "say it." Then you must make judgments to determine a hierarchy of information—what must be included and what could be left out? The process of making a visual representation requires you to clarify your thinking and improve your ability to communicate with others. Furthermore, the process of making an effective graphic often leads to new insights into your work; when you make decisions about how to depict your data and underlying concepts, you must often clarify your basic assumptions.

What we provide in the pages of this guide is an approach: a set of strategies that are a distillation of what we have learned, both independently and in collaborative projects, over many years. We believe these strategies will help you create improved representations of your work. These strategies might even make you reconsider your discipline's classic visualizations and ask yourself, "How effectively do the standard approaches communicate?" Whether you are inventing a new representation or updating a classic, we encourage you to invest the time to create a good graphic. The best ones have the power to shape new thinking and approaches in your field.


We were privileged to work with designer Stefan Sagmeister for this guide. In many ways, good design is the kernel that began our thinking for this project. In addition to seeing his design on these pages, we wanted to bring you his voice.

FCF, AHD The fact that you decided to design our book is pretty remarkable for us, Stefan. Is science something you were always interested in?

SKS No, not at all, in fact I had little interest in science when I was in school, received average grades, and took science education for the most part as a necessary evil. I only developed an interest after going to TED and hearing from all these amazing people talking about all these amazing developments.

FCF, AHD We have always believed there has been a desperate need for talented graphic designers to participate in the process of communicating scientific data and concepts. Our readers might not immediately see the connection between your world and theirs. We wonder if you can help them think about it.

SKS During the last decade scientific research has made fantastic progress, but this has often been poorly communicated. This is true for communications between various scientific fields, science communications within peer reviewed media, as well as how science is treated in mass media.

FCF, AHD When you first saw some of the figures we were going to include, the "befores," did you see a visual thread of some sort in terms of the mistakes most researchers make?

SKS I was surprised to see a lot of very basic design mistakes. It seems many scientists creating complex visualizations are not aware of simple rules regarding color, form, or hierarchy. In numerous cases all it would take to fix this would be a design 101 course.

FCF, AHD That would be a fantastic idea, but realistically, in our experience, most researchers wouldn't give it the time. So, what would you think about the possibility of engaging more designers in the process? For example, do you think design schools might offer a specialized course for scientific graphics?

SKS Yes, I am convinced there is a tremendous interest among design students, specifically at the master's programs. Many are disillusioned with working for the commercial sector and would love the opportunity to sharpen their design skills dealing with content that engages their minds to the fullest.

FCF, AHD Do you think the design community would embrace the idea of working on material with which they are not familiar? Do you think it would be important for designers to understand the material?

SKS Yes and yes. Designers work with unfamiliar material all the time; learning about a new sector, business, or scientific process is a very integral part of the job (and I'd say one part that makes that job rather enjoyable). And yes, they had better understand the material; otherwise, innovative thinking or focused visualization will be impossible.

FCF, AHD And specifically addressing Visual Strategies, if you remember our meeting on that hot NYC day on your office terrace, your request to place a subtle 5% yellow background behind all the images was a concern for the two of us. We were worried, as most scientists tend to be, that we were changing the data in a way—that we were augmenting the original content. However, you made the case that the design of the book warranted the change. We are sure our readers will have their own opinions about that matter. They will have the opportunity to discuss the issue with us on our online Visual Strategies forum [see Appendix]. Can you clarify how a change like that benefits the design, and, more important, in general, what is your advice on design changes to a figure in science?

SKS This is a wonderful question: whether a visualization should be more "objective" or "subjective" comes up in various ways on almost every single job. Are we communicating more effectively by placing more value on the overall form or are we better off sticking to the process in a literal way? Will more people understand if we use a sexy visual conceit or are we better off sticking to established modernism?

Does the colorization undermine or promote understanding? In the case of the cream backgrounds within this book, I myself don't see a problem at all. They simply are a more orderly way of organizing the graphics on the page, a more sophisticated alternative to the black hairline.

FCF, AHD Thanks so much, Stefan. The process of working with you has inspired us to think differently about creating scientific graphics. Let's hope that more scientists and engineers will have the opportunity to closely collaborate with designers.


In 2003, after the two of us serendipitously met at a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on visualization in science and education, one of us wrote to the other, "One way to emphasize common ground and to begin to define a vocabulary of visual solutions would be to organize the discussion around categories of visual solutions rather than around the specific concepts being represented." And so, without knowing it at the time, we began work on this guide. We are grateful to the GRC for creating an environment where exciting collaborative ideas are encouraged to take root.

We first worked together on the Image and Meaning conferences and workshops at MIT ( We extend our deepest thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding those national participatory workshops at which scores of researchers and graphic designers came together to investigate new approaches to the development of scientific graphics. We are grateful to all the Image and Meaning participants and workshop leaders, with a special thanks to Rebecca Perry and Rosalind Reid, who were also instrumental in the development of this guide.

Visual Strategies would have never been possible without the generosity of all the contributors whose exemplary work is displayed in the pages of this guide, along with their names and affiliations. We are indebted to them all for their patience and responsiveness.

We are grateful to the journals and researchers who granted us permission to use their figures for our discussions. We would like to specifically thank the illustrators at Annual Reviews (AR), including Doug Beckner, Glenda Mahoney, Fiona Martin, and Eliza Jewett-Hall, for not only sharing their own work, but also for diligently searching through the issues of AR for relevant graphics. Our deepest gratitude is extended to the editors of AR: Ike Burke, Veronica Padilla, and Jennifer Jongsma, for their enthusiasm and support for this project.

Thanks to the DePace lab and Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School for cheerfully providing critical feedback on the guide's usefulness for practicing scientists, and to Robin Heyden, Rachael Brady, and Rebecca Ward for their additional comments and guidance.

Our deepest thanks go to Karen Gulliver for her expertise in editing our sometimes-not-so-readable prose; to Teddy Blanks of CHIPS, a NYC-based design studio, for his outstanding efforts in implementing and augmenting Stefan's design; to Michelle Suave, who helped with initial layouts; and to Jean Thomson Black at Yale University Press for her years of experience and savvy in shepherding projects through all the systems.

And finally, creative work is never possible without the continued patience and support of our friends and family, who we simply cannot thank enough.

— Felice Frankel and Angela DePace, Boston 2011



Form and Structure, Process and Time, Compare and Contrast

The first three chapters will help you define the purpose of your graphic. We identify three major types of scientific graphics: those that illustrate form and structure; those that illustrate processes over space and time; and those that encourage readers to compare and contrast. We explore examples of each of these types used in current research; we define the purpose of the graphic, suggest improvements, and present a revised version. You might note that some of the examples could comfortably reside in more than one chapter, which points to interesting overlaps in concepts and principles.

Case Studies

In this chapter, we explore selected works by researchers and designers in depth, written in their own words. Along with the "before" and "after" figures, the text describes the process and includes the "in-betweens," with explanations of their decisions. The stories describe the evolution of selected figures and animations—and how the researchers' thinking shaped the process.

Interactive Graphics

In this chapter we take a closer look at interactive graphics. Some are explanatory animations. Some are exploratory graphics, sometimes called data visualizations. In both cases, we describe what the interactivity brings to the graphic. The lessons learned about static graphics in the first four chapters will also apply to these interactive examples. The principles are the same. The strategies in this book are fundamental to any form of visual expression and will always provide a solid starting point for thinking about your visual expression, regardless of its final form.

Visual Index

Here you will find a grid of images relevant to each example in the guide and citations for each for quick visual reference.


The Appendix contains a brief description of the website associated with this book and suggested further readings.


The design of this guide reflects the way in which we hope you will use it: as a source of inspiration and as a workbook to refine your critical thinking skills regarding graphics. We present a great variety of examples because we think that the best way to learn how to make effective graphics is by dissecting why some graphics are effective and others are not—and determining how they can be improved. We also present the strategies used to create each graphic in a succinct visual format, to allow you to quickly see how these strategies are applied in multiple contexts.

Show by Example

Throughout these pages, we explore different types of graphics to illustrate how they were imagined, created, and refined. We encourage you to consider all of the examples—static images and animations—because it is our belief that the challenges in making good graphics are consistent across different disciplines and all types of representations. Many examples are displayed on two-page spreads to demonstrate how a figure can be improved, represented by a "before" (on the left) and an "after" (on the right) version. A caption provides a brief description of the image and its reference (see the example above). We offer brief answers to the following questions: Who is the audience? For whom is your figure intended? How will it be used? In what format will the graphic appear, e.g., a journal article, textbook, grant submission, presentation? What is the goal? What do you want the viewer to see? What is the challenge? What is difficult about achieving that goal?

We then offer suggestions for improving the graphic—suggestions made either by us or by the researcher or designer credited in the caption. There is, of course, not a single correct way to visually represent data or concepts. In fact, you might disagree with how we arrived at a particular "after" representation—or you may have additional ideas for improving an illustration. We welcome those conversations and invite you to share them on our website forum (see Appendix). We hope that these examples will encourage debate and help you develop an analytical approach to creating graphics—just as scientists do in their research.


The colored tabs on the right edge of the pages identify the chapters of the guide. We included tabs to visually separate the different sections, and to allow you to easily find a section that interests you. Form and Structure, Process and Time, and Compare and Contrast, marked with orange tabs, identify simple concepts that can be tackled in preparing graphics. In Case Studies (with a yellow-orange tab) and Interactive Graphics (a chartreuse tab), these concepts are explored in more depth.

Graphical Tools Grid

On the bottom right of each two-page spread you will find a grid to help you quickly identify which graphical tools were used in each example to achieve the goals of the adjoining graphic. Dots indicate which tools are used in the figure: Gray dots indicate tools that were used in the original graphic, and remain unchanged. Orange dots indicate tools that were used to improve the figure.


1. Is the graphic explanatory or exploratory (perhaps even interactive)?

Explanatory graphics are used to communicate a point or call attention to patterns and concepts. Explanatory graphics can be used as evidence or proof in research, and can be teaching tools for colleagues and students. They can also be powerful teaching tools for you, the person creating them. The process of planning a graphic requires you to first clarify the primary point of the graphic—what the figure should include. Explanatory graphics can also be interactive, such as animated images that the viewer can play, pause, and reverse. Static explanatory graphics are considered in Form and Structure, Process and Time, Compare and Contrast, and Case Studies. Interactive explanatory graphics are considered in Interactive Graphics.

Excerpted from "Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers" by Felice C. Frankel. Copyright © 2013 by Felice C. Frankel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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