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When writing a manuscript, I generally feel like my plots follow a good balance of visibility and informational portrayal. Once in a awhile, I need to create a figure where something is shown "schematically". Though drawn in Inkscape or Illustrator, these drawings often look like word art. Is there a way to improve the visual design of simple scientific schematic figures like the one shown below?

enter image description here

  • @Wrzlprmft yes, though I'm not sure what alternative you are suggesting. – Hooked Sep 15 '14 at 19:52
  • Another question: Is that really the actual figure you are using? If yes: Even without knowing what it is about, I am pretty certain that I would critise it for containing too little information and being replacable by two sentences as a reviewer or editor. There is no legend, no indicators of relevant aspects, etc. If no: You will almost certainly get better answers by showing a figure that you would actually use (maybe with the text replaced by nonsense). – Wrzlprmft Sep 15 '14 at 22:55
  • @Wrzlprmft You're right, there isn't any information, labeling or scale on this picture. I wanted to concentrate the question on the visual design as this is the focus of this particular site. In the spirit of Stack Exchange I tried to create a minimal working example. It may be, as you indicate, too minimal. – Hooked Sep 16 '14 at 2:17
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Well, not a really easy question since there are no "correct answers".

First, I would stay away from using maxed black colors (that is a color that appears to be 100% black, 100/100/100/100 in CMYK for example) since that looks unnatural. When you see black in real life, it's not complete black - it's a shade. This applies to texts as well as to outlines. I used 80% K in CMYK on the outlines and the texts.

Use subtle gradients on the background and on each figure to make them look a bit friendlier, and also more natural. I used round gradients in my example.

Use standard sans serif fonts, like Helvetica, as a safe bet for typing.

enter image description here

  • In Illustrator - if you wish to copy the looks of one object to another, use the eyedropper tool (keyboard shortcut "i"). Double click the eyedropper icon and check all checkboxes in the settings panel to make sure it captures the entire appearance of the object. Another smart way of doing this is to create a Symbol of each object. When you update the symbol, all object on your art boards will be updated. – Henrik Ekblom Sep 15 '14 at 15:21
  • Thanks for the tips, the drawings look better already! I use Inkscape, but I'm sure there is an equivalent method to copy a look. – Hooked Sep 15 '14 at 15:44
  • (I assume, we are talking about a paper.) Unfortunately this will look much worse than the original figure on most monochrome laser printers, which you can bet to be used by a large portion of the readers. Also, the typesetters of most journals will reject the figure for wasting space. – Wrzlprmft Sep 15 '14 at 19:42
  • @Wrzlprmft The tips (gentle shading, stay away from 100% black) were useful for a graphic design novice like myself even if the final product doesn't quite look like Henrik's example. – Hooked Sep 16 '14 at 2:18
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Whether you like it or not, a lot of design choices will be dictated to you by the constraints of the medium:

  • You have to expect that a relevant amount of the readers will print your paper on a typical monochrome laser printer, which should largely predetermine your colour choices:

    • You have to expect that there are only four colours that are reasonably distinguishable in the printout: black, light grey, dark grey and black. Any other colour will either default to one of these colours, be indistinguishable from them or have undefined behaviour. Therefore, the only safe thing is to resort to these four colours (or colours who are mapped onto them by greyscale conversion).
    • You have to expect dark grey texts to be more difficult to read and anything lighter to be unreadable. You have to expect lines in light grey to be invisible.
    • You have to expect that the exact position of borders between areas coloured anything other than black and white cannot be clearly made out. If this is relevant, draw a black or white line in between.
    • Non-greyscale colours can only be used as a bonus to increase differentiability for those viewing the figure on screen or in colour print, but you cannot rely on them.
    • Dark backgrounds will not work out.
    • Gradients will not work out.
  • Your figures are expected not to waste much space. Therefore you cannot leave large parts of the figure empty and in particular you have to expect that the figure will be cropped to its relevant contents in printout. The printing department might even butcher your figure to make it smaller.
  • Some publishers have instructions regarding which font to use in figures. As these fonts are usually only available to users of a certain operating system, I assume that this is mainly to avoid people using Comic Sans and similar – but you never know. It is not unlikely though that some publisher is adamant regarding serif and sans-serif.

Regarding your example figure, I noticed the following things (mind though, that I am not a professional graphics designer):

  • If I assume this figure to be scaled to column width in a two-column layout, the lines are rather thin.
  • Consider using completely black shapes and white shapes with black border only. (But this really depends on what the figure is about.)
  • If the light grey fill will not be practically white in print, it has a good chance to look ugly or to be (slightly) confusing as it only differs from the background at third glance. Therefore either make it darker or plain white.
  • One of the circles is closer to the pill than stroke width. Unless this one is special, it unnecessarily attracts the attention of the viewer.
  • The pill’s diameter is slightly larger than the circles’ one. This unnecessarily irritates the viewer.

Finally, some general advice that does not apply to your example:

  • Avoid using more than one font size.
  • Avoid using more than one stroke width.
  • Align components to each other if necessary.
  • Prefer simple geometric shapes and angles.
  • Use vector graphics.

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