In my field of study (Physics), we mainly use EPS/PDF/PNG for figures in scientific publications, which are typically published embedded in text on a PDF of 1 or 2 columns, typically generated by LaTeX.

Specifically, we typically use an option in LaTeX to shrink the figure to fit the column.

To give you some context, a figure typically includes some or all of the following:

  • Drawings (circles, squares, arrows, etc)
  • Plots (axes, legends, lines, points, labels, etc.)
  • Symbols (Greek letters, math symbols, etc.)
  • Text (i.e. from a font)

Every time I start a new figure, I struggle (e.g. Illustrator) when it asks me for the figure size and aspect ratio. Here is why: when it contains text I frequently end up having to scale up/down any text/symbols until they are readable on the final publication, which I find a waste of my time.

Given my lack of knowledge on this subject, I'm asking this community for help:

  1. Is there a natural figure size that I should use for this situation in such a way that the text that I see in the editor is the same as I see it in the figure embedded?

  2. Is there any default aspect ratio that I should use? I read somewhere that the golden ratio is often used, but I didn't found any reference supporting why.

If it helps, as an example, I'm asking how should I fill this window enter image description here

  • More importantly tough what do you primarily use to generate the data
    – joojaa
    Jun 17, 2015 at 9:37
  • 1
    @joojaa, what do you mean? Jun 17, 2015 at 12:50

3 Answers 3


While this not directly answers your questions, here is what I do (except for well-justified exceptions):

  • Always work in the target journal’s style.
  • For pure plots:

    For the first plot:

    1. Decide whether it should be a one-column or two-column plot.
    2. Adjust the height of what is plotted such that the information I want to convey is best visible and I also do not waste too much space – because journal space is unfortunately still valuable and journal typesetters tend to want to squeeze plots more than good anyway.
    3. Adjust the font sizes by using the embedded plot for reference. Usually I match the font size to that of the figure caption. In most cases, you should not need more than one font size.

    For every subsequent plot, I use the same widths (or matching values when switching between one-column and two-column) and font sizes. Most plots should not require you to use a graphics program.

  • For pure illustrations:

    1. Always use vector graphics.
    2. Do the graphical part of the illustration first, keeping roughly in mind where text should go and leave room for it.
    3. When I am happy with the illustration, crop the canvas to it (leaving slight borders if required for the text or if the figure would look too crammed otherwise). Making the illustration useful, concise and space-economic usually poses sufficient constraints that I do not get to choose an aspect ratio.
    4. Decide whether I need one or two columns.
    5. Create some text and adjust the font size using the embedded plot for reference. Again, I usually match the font size to the figure caption. Use the same font size for all remaining text or if that is not possible good, use as few font sizes as possible.

    The main point here is that you do not start by saying: “I want to make an illustration with proportions 5×3”, but rather say: “I want to illustrate this and this“, and the proportions are a consequence. The same goes for text size: When I start making an illustration, I do not really know how large (in comparison to the illustration’s size) the elements I am drawing will end up, so I cannot tell what text size will be a good match. That’s why I do texts at the end.

  • Unless you have a very good reason for it, do not make figures that are some plots and illustrations next to each other, as those are almost always unnecessary and confusing. Use separate figures instead. If you combine plots and illustrations, usually one is embedded into the other, i.e., you have a plot as part of a bigger illustration or an illustration embedded in a plot. In this case the main component dictates the process. Note that I regard a set of plots with shared axis as one plot for these purposes.


There is no typical answer for your question, there is no rule, however you can follow you own methodology for the work, working with a template and graphic, text and paragraph style to ensure a consistency and unity for your work.

For the aspect ratio: you should gather all your illustration graph and plots and find the best way to present it preserving the text size in XY axes and legends. and try to classify all of those illustrations into categories depending on their layout ratio 1:1 1:1.5 1:2 1:3 and vice versa.


For the layout: does all the plots and illustration are text wrapped? or not? there is some plots that it should be drawn completely in one page or more? do you have any folded plots? try to answer all those questions and classify your illustration according the layout.

here is some layout idea for one column width and 2/3 column width

enter image description here

In both methods you have to make all your illustration in one drawing style defining text, paragraph and graphics style to apply to any object you will draw or write so when the time comes to exports those plots it will be the same in text size and the same in line weights and colors.


If I understand your question well, you'd like to be able to easily have all your graphic elements all balanced and easy to insert in your main layout.

First, know that it's way easier to plan ahead if you already have all your text and know what you're going to use. That gives you already good clues.

For example... if you plan to always insert your graphics in a column that is about 3" width, you should try working with an Illustrator window at this format.

Then you should draw 2 tests that are complete graphics to test your dimensions and elements; What I suggest you to use as your "test" samples is the widest graphic and the smallest one. OR the one with almost no elements and the one with the most elements in it. You should start with the biggest one. If you can put graphics on 3 columns, then use a width that will fit these 3 columns perfectly for your biggest graphic (image 3 on the example). Your smallest graphic should fit in a one-column wide (image 1 on the example). I hope I make sense.

The reason for this is that you'll be planning your future graphics based on the 2 worst case scenarios. So find your 2 worst case scenarios and work on this as a starting point. Then insert them in your layout text file, and print your results.

If you're satisfied with the font size and how the graphics are, you got some template to follow for the next ones. You'll know you can always use that same font size, the same size of circles, the same width for your Illustration files, etc.

If you ever need to do a graphic that needs more room, you can try to increase the size of your Illustrator file vertically instead of horizontally when possible. It will be easier to fit in your columns. And if you really need to have it horizontal, use the size of 2 columns including the gap between the columns, or double of the other graphic, and follow that kind of rule. It's going to be easy to place within your text and it will look symmetrical.

I don't know if you can place graphic on 2-3 columns horizontally in the software you'll use but that should already help a bit at least to choose what size should be your fonts and how big should be your graphics. In worst case you'll need to work by expanding your graphic vertically instead of horizontally. This is how it's done for newspapers layout design, eg. classified ads sections.

I attached a screenshot to give you a visual example of what I mean. It's in QuarkXpress but it's still columns and the same principle anyway.

Example how to build balanced design and insert graphics into columns

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