How to Design Effective Figures for Journal Articles

graphsGraphics and figures we design are the first thing editors and other readers look at when browsing through our paper. Hence, it is prominent to be efficient in conveying complex information so the included data would be more concise and clear than the descriptive text itself. If you do it right, not only your chances for publication will increase, but it will as well help your audience to understand your ideas, objectives and results in a better way. So, in short, keep them interested. Want to know how to do it? I bet that the answer is yes. So, follow me

Is it possible to find any tips which could help us to create better tables and figures? Of course. Here are few simple steps one should follow, outlined below (Rolandi, Cheng, & Perez-Kriz, 2011).

1. The figures you design are not only for you, but also for the audience you aim at.

Remember that your audience does not have your knowledge. In order to be successful in processing information, have in mind that you will create different graphics for a specialized journal and different ones for a broader audience. So, take into account people’s possible level of knowledge about the subject, background and how presented material could be useful for them. However, keep in mind that every field of study has its own standards and norms that one should follow. Hence, before you will start to create graphics for your article check and follow the listed requirements of a journal first.

2. Focus on the most relevant issues.

Think what you would include and where in the text before you will start to write it. Articles usually have a limited space. Therefore, the number of figures / tables also has its constraints. So, before you start to design them, have in mind that you need to identify your storyline first (how each graphic will contribute to the text).  After you have done that, establish a key message for each figure. Moreover, every part of it should contribute to the message that you would like you convey.

3. Don’t forget to keep things simple and easy to read.

Graphics you create should guide the reader and allow him following given information in a logical sequence. What they should be able to do after browsing through your text? Only few things actually, which are: 1) to remember that most of us start to view a document from the top left to the lower right corner. So, you should make it as easy as possible for the audience to enter all of the outlined information taking into account this natural entry point, 2) Be specific. Present only the most important issues and have in mind that most of the readers expect left- to –right / top – to- bottom movement when reading something. Create your graphs taking into account the importance of this prominent perception pattern when planning your document. 3) Do not forget to organize your figures /tables. This could be helpful for your readers to integrate the facts. Which tool can help you out? Grids. They can aid to divide disparate elements into visual groups which are easier to follow. However, do not forget about instructions on how a table should look like (as determined by the style you are supposed to use within your discipline or as they are outlined by the magazine itself).

Hence, one can find multiple solutions on how to format their figures and tables. Take note that the final look will mostly depend on the content of the graph, number of its parts and how they relate to each other in a bigger picture.

4. The visual structure of your figures should be as clear as possible, but the usage of visual contrast is still acceptable.

Remember to keep the key message of the figure visually prominent and highlight the most important information (by changing size, orientation, position, shape, colour). Usually things that are made brighter, larger or darker are more noticeable by the reader. However, limit yourself to only one type of contrast. This means that only varying the shape or colour may suffice. If you use too much contrast, you will create visual chaos and no possibility to distinguish what is more relevant for the reader. What is more, do not use too many colours and consider using a black and white pattern instead. Grey, black, or white colour may be more readable and distinguishable for a reader than a wide palette of vivid ones. You can also consider using a variety of thicknesses, shades, shapes, and patterns in your figures. However, remove all the additions that are not having a communicative function (i.e. gradients, 3D shadows). Be sure that gridlines are going well with the data and support it. But, most of all, pay attention to the overall visual structure of your content and how you present the data to the reader.

5. Typography should be legible and readable.

The text enclosed in your figures should be as clear as possible. How can we enhance readability? Quite easily.

  1. Fonts that are sans-serif (i.e. Arial of Helvetica) are usually more readable and legible when set to small sizes than serif ones. Though most of publications are following the latter it is useful to use sans-serif fonts as it will provide contrast and make the content more accessible and readable;
  2. Remember to set a contrast to type and background of your table. If you will use complementary colours, a contrast vibration will emerge and cause confusion among readers. What also can make your figure or table text illegible is placing it over a patterned background or vivid photographs;
  3. The importance of figure’s direct labelling of the content. Even though it is desirable it is, unfortunately, not always possible. Why? Because of space constraints and overlap issues. However, if you will be able, try to apply it as it will make your figure more accessible. It will also prevent a feeling of disturbance among your readers as they will not have to do the back-and-forth consultation with the figure’s legend all the time.

Do not forget the importance of sharing experience. Not only activating your creative process is vital for good figure creation, but as well consultation with more experienced writers (Rolandi, Cheng, & Perez-Kriz, 2011).

Most of all, remember that the tables and figures you create are a story! What is the difference between them? Well, tables usually focus on a bigger number of precise values. As far as figures are concerned, they give us the possibility to highlight particular outcomes, create a visual impact, and show some kind of patterns or trends. How can we be efficient here? Let’s focus on tables first. At the beginning, we should identify the main topic of the table and then outline key terms which would be used not only in the title, but as well in column headings and the text of our article. Keep your figure as brief as possible. Do not forget footnotes. They are quite important in explaining abbreviations, experimental details, or differences that are statistically significant.  Keep in mind that you should not invent new style of tables.  Model them from already published ones or publication guides, but more importantly follow your target journal guidelines. It should be outlined here that most of journals follow a simple pattern of table creation based on three horizontal lines (above and below column headings and below the data; also: remember to remove grid lines after you finish adjusting the columns!). It is prominent to omit unnecessary columns and use a limited number of values – presenting the most important ones for our story. Moreover, make sure that your graphs look professional as tables and figures are the first stop for a reviewer when browsing through your text and usually influence their decision considerably on whether a paper should be forwarded for a peer review or not (Sainani, 2012).

Let’s re-direct our attention to figures now. How many types can we outline? The most prominent ones are: primary evidence (i.e. gels, photographs), graphs (line and bar graphs, scatter plots, histograms, etc.), and diagrams/drawings. Try to make your figures as readable as possible – make it simple, focus on telling a quick, visual story and make it easy for your reader to distinguish value groups within it. Remember that if a figure looks too complicated, it probably should be changed for a table (Sainani, 2012).

Moreover, The Eight-Fold Way of creating effective graphics outlined by Kosslyn (2006) should be mentioned here as well. It is based on psychological principles (i.e. perceptual organisation, appropriate knowledge of the field of study and direct audience) deriving from cognitive and neuropsychology findings. It may help you to understand how we can articulate and perceive graphics and convey our message to others. Those principles are grouped in three main goals that should be accomplished by the writer – connecting with your audience effectively, directing your reader’s attention via the display, and enhancing one’s memory and understanding.

And, of course, don’t forget to make sure that your paper follows the APA format.

Having all of this in mind, the only thing left is to start to create your story now. The best thing one can do at the moment is to start to consider where, how many, and what type of graphs a text should contain.

Think carefully as your audience is waiting.

Useful tips.

  • Approach your text as a story you would like to tell the others and consider at first where exactly your figures/tables would best fit in
  • Make sure your readers have sufficient background knowledge to understand your message
  • Follow journal requirements/publication guides
  • Do your best for your figures to look professional – simple, on topic and readable!
  • Share experiences with other writers


Kosslyn , S. M. (2006). Graph design for the eye and mind , Oxford University Press , New York.

Rolandi, M., Cheng, K. & Perez-Kriz, S. (2011). A brief guide to designing effective figures for the scientific paper. Advanced Materials, 10, 1-4.

Sainani, K. (2012). Writing in the Sciences. Stanford University. Retrieved from

Magdalena Kossowska

Magdalena Kossowska

Magdalena Eliza Kossowska is a Psychologist, Project Manager, and Recruiter. She has volunteered for various NGOs (including EFPSA, AEGEE, Polish Psychologists Association), and participated in scholarships in Prague, Czech Republic; Tromso, Norway; and London, United Kingdom. She is interested in organisational, cross cultural, as well as cognitive psychology.

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