I am curious to know how the figures in popular introductory physics/Engineering textbooks are made. As examples of what I mean, see the posted figures and my comments, all from various editions of the Physics book by Serway and Jewett book (I think).


Look at all of these color gradients throughout the metals, and the imitations of lighting on the spheres. Notice the relatively realistic nature of the force scale and pullies.


Notice here that we have proper, LaTeX-like font on the mathematical symbols.

(source: cbu.edu)

Wow. So many complex shapes, good water drawings, and the ability to annotate the drawing freely.


Lastly, we see more extremely complicated, realistic objects, like the ship and the mountain. But this isn't just pictures, it's clear that the software used has a very precise coordinate system in it, as evidenced by the kinematics drawings overlaid.

I am aware of other posts on Physics SE recommending drawing softwares such as PowerPoint, TiKZ, aymptote, mathematica, etc. But I highly doubt these figures were produced in any of these. My suspicion is that the publishers have some specialized software for this task. So what is that software? Does anyone know? The Physics SE did not have the answer...

It is important to realize the stipulation that one must be able to type properly formatted mathematics (using some manifestation LaTeX) into the figures. I say this because I intend to use such figures in a book, and the fonts must match.

  • 3
    I'm not sure about the others but these certainly could have been made in Inkscape. The last example looks at least partly hand drawn. It's also worth noting that you don't need LaTeX to type properly formatted mathematics. You can easily insert the correct symbols as in these diagrams in any design software.
    – Cai
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 22:34
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    Have you asked the author(s) of the book containing this images?
    – Mensch
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 22:47
  • I see, thanks for that. I didn't realize anything in this day age might be hand drawn... The requirement of LaTeX is more because I'm using these diagrams in a textbook that is written in LaTeX. Whenever I've tried using softwares that don't use LaTeX natively, there ends up being a discrepancy between the fonts. Perhaps I'm screwing something up... Commented May 17, 2016 at 22:50
  • 3
    They were most likely done by a illustrator with Adobe Illustrator. And yes, manually drawn on a computer is most likely answer. The thing is none of the images take very long to do. First image takes about as far as designing what the look and feel of the document should be.
    – joojaa
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 5:37
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    @Kurt I got a response from Randall Knight, author of Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach. He told me that the publisher makes his final drawings, and that they use illustrator. Commented May 18, 2016 at 17:54

2 Answers 2


They are most likely drawn by a human on a computer. Manually, with some definition of manual. It always strikes me a bit weird how people this day and age can not draw simple line drawings themselves. So to begin to answer this question I would ask you how long would it take for you to draw the following image with a pencil and paper?

triangle angle

Image 1: How long would it take for you to draw this neatly with a ruler, paper and a compass?

I actually timed it, it took me ~5 minutes to find the tools. Drawing it neatly took me ~3 minutes. Now for comparison I timed how long it took to draw this in illustrator and it took me a few seconds to start and ~2 minutes to draw it neatly with no hurry. Now having done this also in Mathematica takes about 12 minutes once I layout stuff properly*.

I could certainly do better if my drawing app would have a constraints based solver and I could easily drop the time to a minute. Unfortunately no constraints based app exists that would be as neat as illustrators output, so I'm ready to take a 50% hit on drawing if i dont need to use 200% extra time to make the output neat.

The reason is that the easiest way to describe the problem at hand to a computer is to in fact draw the image. CAD apps do have technology to make this even faster in more complex cases but they are not adept at the illustration part. Even in CAD apps technically you draw something topologically correct and input values. This is the fastest we have come up with to this date, if you can come up with something better then I'm pretty sure I could make you a millionaire with some effort, entire branches of engineering would turn on their heels.

Now once you have the basic shape in a computer app, moving to the designed style is not very hard.

enter image description here

Image 2: Applying style, takes about as long as deciding what the style is going to be.

I the end, with some liberal reuse of iconography and styles. Those images do not take very long for a experienced illustrator to draw. It takes far longer to decide what to draw and where to fit the image than actually drawing it. So in the end its more of eliminating one humans procrastination to another humans procrastination, at last until we have effective AI. Software could be slightly more optimal but not worth the effort for one book especially as you'd need to beat current crop of software on most fronts.

Some points:

  • You can embed latex typeset parts in illustrator (this isn't more tedious to manage than laying two windows next to each other). Not all parts of a image need to be made with one tool.
  • Not all images need to have been made with the same tool

* Mathematica would be great if its annotation tools just could snap to grid.

  • Useful response! In particular, I've noticed CAD software is quite good at quickly making precise geometry, so I thought of using it. But your experience that it is harder to illustrate it is quite useful... I've also had similar issues with Mathematica. I think I will look to using Inkscape or Illustrator for this purpose. One last question though, is Illustrator/Inkscape capable of graphing functions? To make images like my 4th one... As you say, I suppose you could in principle use multiple tools to do this, but it'd probably be a pain to align & match style. Commented May 18, 2016 at 17:43
  • A CAD software is acurate. So an Ilustration software.
    – Rafael
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 17:48
  • @Rafael CAD tools are much more accurate and easier to be accurate with. Not so much useful for illustrating though.
    – joojaa
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 18:45
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    @MaanDoabeDa yes inkscape has a graphing tool. And i have made a graphing tool for illustrator can be found here.
    – joojaa
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 18:46
  • JooJaa, that is my point. An ilustration software can be extremly acurate. The part "a CAD program is acurate" was just the start statement.
    – Rafael
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 19:03

I think the tool used is interdisciplinary effort, commonly known as Team Work.

If an ilustration is made to ilustrate, probably it is made by an ilustrator using a program made for ilustrations; Corel Draw, Ilustrator, Inkscape, Afinity Design.

You have the engenner, teacher or whatever making a base diagram and an ilustrator making ilustrations.

It is a pice of cake making formulas on an ilustration program by an ilustrator, so there is no need of LaTex, or Mathematica, etc.(1)

Take a look at this post. How can I make a shape look like it is made of glass?

(1) I am a Graphic Designer and I studied some years of Mechanical Engeneering. I understand the importance of the acuracy of the fórmula. But in diagrams like theese the formula is just one element in all the pedagogy of the ilustrations.

Do you remember how a concept was understood on the lab rather than the blackboard? An ilustration needs to combine both worlds.

I am adding this based on some portions of your comments. (This is probably a loooong comment)

Is Illustrator/Inkscape capable of graphing functions? To make images like my 4th one...

On the 4th image I do not see a graph, because we do not have a formula, or data. We have have an ilustration simulating a Graph, a parabolic trajectory, probably with a specific kind of curve that simulates a segment of a parable. There is a chance that that curve have a slight misaligment if we compare it with a real trajectory... but that does not matter.

Of course you see a graph, probably a marine will see a class M battlecruise and an historian will see an event of the battle of the pacific, and a student will see a deserted island with girls in bikini... (probably not).

What I mean with this is that the objetive of an ilustration is to have an abstraction of the situation, not phisical acuracy.

On this ilustrations the look is far more important than the total mathematical exactitude, inclusive logic, so use the right tool for that.

Another thing to consider.

The images most likely will be processed at some point by one of this Graphic Designers tools. Ilustrator, Corel or Indesign. So a good choice is to prepare them in a native format. Not preparing them in a CAD program, than later be needed to be exported, and re-processed... and sometimes re-made.

Apendix: Here are the links to this four programs:

Inkscape is free, and good enough. Sometimes it is a little clumsy but works. It is more offen used for web designers doing simple things, like icons.

There are some other programs. I am writing them here for reference. Amadine and Gravit Designer.

  • Indeed, teamwork would be the best solution. However the reality is that publishers do not always assist authors in creating their textbooks figures; the author must create them him/herself. And I emphasized the need for LaTeX style mathematics because, again, in a book, the font must match that of the rest of the document. I'll edit my original question to clarify this. Also great illustrations at that link! Commented May 18, 2016 at 17:51
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    "the author must create them him/herself." Probably, probably not. Do not colse your options. Have you checked if there is a student willing to do some social work? or academic practice? Some freelancer willing to do some crazy work because is a good project? Will the ilustrations take soo much of your time, which you could invest better in some other things?
    – Rafael
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 18:37
  • If you are doing them yourself, use the best tool you can for the ilustration project. "Not the one my colegs use", whom are not ilustrators.
    – Rafael
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 18:38
  • Yes, I've often thought that I might be able to hand off the work to someone under me/some interested student. But currently I am myself a 23 year old graduate student, so I can't do that yet... But I agree, one shouldn't just use what others in the field are using. It may not be the best tool for the job. That's why I came to this SE to figure out what others are using. Commented May 19, 2016 at 2:36
  • Give a try to the free ones Draw Plus and Inkscape. Corel and Ilustrator both have a trial period, but 30 days is not enough time to do your work. You can consider buying or renting thoose.
    – Rafael
    Commented May 19, 2016 at 3:14

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