The beauty in a scientific figure

February 6, 2017 Academic 5 Comments

Everyone knows the cliché ‘a picture is worth a 1000 words’. Is it also worth 1000 numbers? For sure if not more so.

Most of us don’t speak in numbers, which is why it’s often hard to innately grasp what they mean. It’s hard to see the patterns in a column of numbers, especially when there might be many columns. Our brains aren’t designed to compute just by sight on that kind of data, but certainly we do recognize patterns, especially with the help of computers, and once we do, we can reveal them to others as images that help distill complex information into easily understood concepts.


Our brains are very visual. We see meaning in numbers when they are transformed into lines, shapes and colours. We absorb visual patterns easily. We understand things like ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘more’ or ‘less’ as well as getting a sense of ‘what’s normal’ and ‘what’s an outlier’.

This places figures at the heart of scientific communication. Figures are not only an essential way of conveying information they are also largely language-independent. Except for the legends, scientific figures look the same across all languages.

The language of math is universal. In any language symbols like +/- mean the same thing even if the words for ‘addition’ and ‘subtraction’ are different. The same goes for visual conventions of representing data, for example as a pie chart, histogram or XY plot.

This is part of why infographics have taken off. With few written words, they better speak the universal language of visual information representation and processing than long tracts of text which are completely language-dependent.

Getting your figures right is essential for great science communication, whether it’s a formal scientific paper or a presentation before a government panel.

One of the best examples of the power of visualization to bring meaning to data is in the work of David McCandless in “Information is Beautiful”. As he describes himself on his website, he is a:

“…London-based author, writer and designer. I’ve written for The Guardian, Wired and others. I’m into anything strange and interesting. These days I’m an independent data journalist and information designer.”

In other words, McCandless has made an entire career out of transforming stacks of data into what many call art.

There is a growing trend towards data journalism, a special kind of science communication. This is in recognition of the value of global information stores and the need to morph numbers into units of meaning for public consumption.

Are you good at seeing patterns in the raw data? Super, you might lean towards pure science and love statistics and analysis. If you have a great eye and can design graphics, you might lean towards finding new ways to visually represent those patterns.

If, like McCandless you can do all of this, and write too, you might help pioneer a whole new field.