Draw your own figures for papers

Graphic design guide for scientists

For those who want to make their own figures. We have prepared a small getting started guide on how to make them. Writing a guide for graphic designers to design figures for scientific publications would be a much harder task to undertake.

1) Microsoft Powerpoint or Visio

By far the most widespread method among scientists is to use Microsoft Powerpoint (and Visio) to produce figures. It is easy to use and fast but lacks in customizability and end result quality.

Pros: i) most of you have already bought Microsoft Powerpoint ii) easy to use iii) make your figures in a matter of minutes iv) ready to use built-in shapes (boxes, arrows, e.t.c.), v) ready to use built-in styles (especially in the latest versions of Microsoft Office).

Cons: i) lack of customizability, ii) The end result is amateur-like.

2) Specialized software for designing molecular pathways and other figures.

There have been attempts to produce software solutions to design scientific figures in a simple manner. On the bright side when purchasing one of these programs you get a vast array of templates for your figures including more designs than just molecular pathways. Moreover they have a moderate ease of use. On the other hand you have limited options for specialized molecules and complex ideas.

3) Vector Graphics Design

Do it like us! Vector Graphics (definition in Wikipedia) software provides absolute freedom for your designs with the only exception the limited support for 3D graphics. One of its main characteristics is that it is resolution independent (example). Using vectors allows you to scale your figures from a paper publication to a highway advertizing sign with no loss in quality. Furthermore you can reuse concepts and portions of your designs since objects remain layered. Most publishing houses use this kind of illustrations for their books and magazines. But keep in mind that it has a rather steep learning curve and that designing a figure for publication from scratch can take up to 10 hours of hard work. You will need specialized software (full list in Wikipedia) to do that:

Our Picks:

  • Adobe Illustrator: (Price US$599 - Retrieved 2011-11-9 - if you opt for Adobe Illustrator consider buying Adobe Creative Suite Design Standard $1299 and also get Photoshop, InDesign and Acrobat Pro). There is also a 30-day, fully functional trial version to see if it fits your needs.
  • CorelDRAW: (Price US$399 - Retrieved 2011-11-9). There is also a 30-day, fully functional trial version to see if it fits your needs.

Free alternatives (our recommendation):

  • Incsape (free and open source): Excellent user interface, impressive tutorials help wean the user away from the world of digital images to the nodes, lines, curves and shapes that form the basis of vector editing. Very mature product with lots of features. Can do most things commercial packages can.

4) 3D Design

3D Design is the Holy Grail of graphics design but not for scientific publications. The restrictions of the A4 publication size and the lack of rich content support in PDF documents from publication houses limit the usefulness of 3D designs to designing surfaces, some molecules and 3D area graphs for complex concept representation. There is also a debate that 3D objects may not be proper for scientific papers since they "assume too much" engraving a possibly false image in the scientist's head. Keep in mind that 3D designs scale well (3D vectors with surfaces) but require more space to be clear and have an even steeper learning curve and are more time-consuming. For all the reasons above they are mainly used in educational and commercial animations and commercial advertising of biological agents.

It is however a viable option for educational purposes, below you can see a powerful example of 3D animation.

Our picks:

  • 3ds MAX (Autodesk)
  • Lightwave 3D (NewTek)

Free alternatives (our recommendation):


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