Fancy Diagrams

At a recent meeting I noted that a few PIs have started to incorporate “professional-style” graphics into their talks. By professional-style graphics I mean the sort of graphics that you have come to expect in such publications as Nature Reviews. These graphics are colorful, eye-catching, and often look like something you would expect to see in an advertisement in a magazine or on a billboard. At the time, I suspected that these graphics were done by a professional graphics artist, but I didn’t know for sure so I asked. Nope, they were done by students in the lab who had experience with Adobe Illustrator or other such programs. It would appear that some of the young’ins are getting training in graphic design (or devoting their own time to the cause) allowing them to make diagrams of the science in these talks that are truly awe-inspiring. When I say awe-inspiring I am being quite serious. You could here gasps of amazement (or shall I say jealousy) among the audience when these diagrams were presented. I was among the gaspers. I was jealous.

Never one to be outdone, I decided that it would be to my young lab’s advantage to spend some time getting to know how to use Adobe Illustrator. Lucky for me, my institution has a site license for Illustrator so it didn’t cost me half an arm. I have now spent the better part of the past week getting to know the program and I am happy to report (perhaps naively) that the program is quite easy to use and I’m churning out all sorts of gorgeous diagrams to replace the old stick-figure type diagrams that used to populate my grants, papers and talks. I plugged one of these diagrams into a collaborative grant that we are currently getting ready to submit and let’s just say that my colleagues are very pleased.

So what is the point of writing a blog post on this?

I suppose the main point is to ask you, dear reader, if you feel that this sort of thing makes a difference. I have to admit that before I became a PI I was a bit oblivious to the art of self promotion. Sure, I wanted to do a good job in all of my presentations, etc., but I didn’t spend alot of time making sure that my hypothesis and summary diagrams were aesthetically pleasing (or of professional quality). While I don’t think that this hurt me, I now think that I likely missed some opportunities to make the best possible impression by not learning to make these types of professional quality diagrams earlier. I realize that this may seem to be much ado about nothing, but, aesthetics matter. As scientists, most of us are attracted to fancy experiments that include new and innovative technologies even though there may be more traditional (and easier) ways to get at these problems. I cannot help but think that this is somewhat related to our generalized love for aesthetics. Either way, we’re going to see how this little experiment works out for me quite soon. I am giving a talk on Friday which includes many of my new, professional quality (think Nature Reviews looking) diagrams. I’m hoping for some gasps of aesthetic joy (and jealousy) from the audience :-). Actually I’m hoping these new diagrams will help me get my point across more forcefully and that they will reflect a level of professionalism in my young lab that will communicate something that I cannot express in words to my colleagues.


13 responses to “Fancy Diagrams

  1. Hey, congratulations on getting some nice looking diagrams! A friend and I were discussing this just yesterday–he claimed that at a particular research institute, there are in fact professional graphic designers to make your graphs for publication as well as help with your talks. I didn’t totally believe him, but perhaps it’s true….

  2. It definitely makes a difference! Scientists are no different from everyone else, and are impressed–even if only subconsciously–by fancy shiny marketing shit.

  3. I think I’m one of those grad students who like to make their own figures. I don’t like using figures from other papers, mostly because they convey the information from the point of that paper’s authors. So I make up my own figures, and Illustrator together with Photoshop come in very handy. Maybe there should be a blog about tutorials on how to make figures. Hmmm…

  4. I started using illustrator a year ago, I love it.

  5. I love a flashy image of a methodology or a conceptual framework/hypothesis as much as the next guy, as long as it’s accompanied by concrete data. I can’t stand to see sexy stuff in a scientific article with scant or overly-complex data. Just give me some straightforward bar graphs, micrographs and spike traces and I’ll figure it out for myself.

  6. I do think it’s important to have high quality diagrams/figures–people are always impressed by pretty pictures (something cell biologists have always known). Marketing is important, no matter how much we try to deny it.

    That said, there’s got to be some magic formula for calculating how many pretty pictures you can get away with before people think that’s all you’ve got. If you’re not backing up the superficial with solid data and creative thinking, it’s not going to get you anywhere. It can also be dangerous in that you can spend a lot of time in programs like Illustrator that might be better spent on your actual work. Think about talks you’ve been in where someone has lots of bells & whistles in their Powerpoint presentation, but doesn’t really have anything to say. You never want to be that guy.

  7. While I know Illustrator is über-powerful. If you are on a mac, another alternative you (or someone who hasn’t invested in Illustrator yet) is to look at OmniGraffle. It’s pretty sweet, and a bit simpler to grok:


  8. A friend and I were discussing this just yesterday–he claimed that at a particular research institute, there are in fact professional graphic designers to make your graphs for publication as well as help with your talks. I didn’t totally believe him, but perhaps it’s true….

    It’s true. And furthermore it is not out of the question for a PI at, say, a University that does not have such expertise, to hire an individual who works in, say, a nearby particular research institute’s graphics department on a private contractor basis, to create figures for all of the lab’s submissions.

    /making assumptions about what institutions anyone may or may not be referring to

  9. Cool! Can you post pretty pictures to your blog? Can you tell us what the trickiest part of learning to use the program is, or whether you bothered with any help file type things?

    I feel like this post is a marketing gimic tease!

  10. Can you post pretty pictures to your blog

    Well, if I did that you would know what I was working on and I don’t think I would like that very much. Moreover, who would pay to come to my talks if I gave it away for free :-)

    Can you tell us what the trickiest part of learning to use the program is

    This I can do. I found most of the drawing tools and other aspects of the program to be very intuitive and easy, yet powerful. I had a very hard time figuring out how to use the live paint tool. Now that I understand a bit better what it does it is not so hard to use but I cannot help but think that the old paint bucket was a bit easier. On the other hand, if you bring in a bitmap image and try to color (or recolor) it yourself, the live paint tool is the bomb. The other functions I have used have been quite easy. The grouping tool has become a favorite and is saving me a ton of time in making progressive diagrams for talks. How’s that?

  11. I grew up in a house with journalist/graphic designer parents, so I have been using Photoshop, Illustrator and QuarkXpress since I was 10 and they were on those old box Macs that people make into fishbowls. I LOVE making pretty pictures to convey my concepts and results. Mostly concepts though, the results I just clean up the actual data.

    Aesthetic responses are biological, it’s highly effective to give someone some endorphinal or whatever reason to have an underlying good feeling about you. It will make them want to believe what you say, and if your data lives up to that they will love you even more.

  12. Wow, see, this is where I wonder why it always seems like I live on a different planet.

    We’ve been making these kinds of figures in my field for the last 10+ years. They are standard. I have never seen a thesis talk without them, much less a faculty position offered to someone who lacked these sorts of bells and whistles.

    So, good on you. Your field isn’t completely appearance-oriented yet- but it will be soon.

  13. Wow, see, this is where I wonder why it always seems like I live on a different planet.

    One of the best parts of the science blogosphere dealio is that it can break people out of these assumptions that the tradition in which they have been trained is the only kind of science out there. This has all sorts of benefits.

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