Elegant scientific graphs: Learning from examples

Scientific graphics are key to understanding complex data. In addition to graphing data, it is important that the graphics are clean, elegant and visually stunning. This post explores examples of attractive graphs from popular magazines and news websites.

Scientific graphs are key in science to presenting usually complex data in an attractive and concise manner. Scientific graphs are supposed to be a visually summary of your data.

Data collection > Data analysis > Data visualisation

The most important part of a plot is of course its content. Once you have good content/data, you need to think about how to represent this data. Which sort of plot to use. How to best convey this information. See this article for most common types of data visualisation. Some of the popular programming environments for plotting include R and Python with Julia being the latest addition. Other options include Excel, Tableau, Plotly and more. R is a great tool for graphics as evident from the numerous images, blogs and publications over the past years. There are several resources that can help you find code to create all sorts of graphs in R.

But, just managing to create a graph is not sufficient in my opinion. The graphic has to be beautiful, elegant, user-friendly and attractive. Getting from data to a plot is one thing, but creating a high-quality, publishable and professional looking figure is a different story. A Basic plot is the initial basic output figure from any plotting software. This uses the default setting and default looks. Most people stop at this point because they have gone through considerable effort to get the data, analyse it and finally figure out the code to plot it. But a basic plot is usually not going to look professional or elegant. It will need some level of customisation to make it attractive. The ggplot2 plotting package in R, for example, produces a pretty decent default output, but they are overused and the graphics are not unique or catchy. I haven’t come across many sources that go into the fine details of the making a professional looking graph.  We will go into plot customisation in R in a future post, but, in this post, we explore some examples of customised plots.

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