If you take away these 4 tips and apply it in your day to day figure making, you'll actually improve across the board for any other figure types, not just grants.
For grants specifically, there are some certain restrictions and guidelines, which I'll try to sprinkle in as we go. But luckily, again, these tips are pretty ubiquitous.
The 4 key things are:
Clarity over beauty. Really optimizing for communication and not just a pretty figure. It would be detrimental to just optimize for something that is beautiful. In fact, there is beauty in clarity, so it's not like they're opposing forces.
Color (a powerful tool). So we'll talk a little bit about how to use it to your advantage and not let it break your figure because it really can make or break an image.
Arrows (use sparingly). Arrows are also a special thing that are seemingly innocuous or innocent, but they actually can also make or break your figure. And we also don't put much thought into it. We slap it in at the very last minute thinking that the more arrows are better to direct the eye, and that's not the case.
Context (audience-appropriate). Know your audience if you can, and know the final format or output in which you're making your figure for. Don't just slap your publication figure into your grant or your grant figures into your presentation or your thesis or your poster. There's a little bit of tweaking that you have to do for specific purposes.
So those are the 4 main things. And I would say, we didn't just pull these out of thin air. They're really the things that we find as being the most common mistakes in figure making today, particularly with grant figures.
Clarity over beauty
What comes to mind for me is IKEA. IKEA is like, whether intentionally or unintentionally, trailblazers in sort of universal approachable design. If you look at the famous Billy bookcase, I'm sure you've all put one together before in your lifetime.
But it's so beautiful because it is so complicated. What they're communicating is basically how to assemble a piece of furniture on a single sheet. So they're limited by paper because they don't want to print 3 sheets.
That's 3 times more expensive than 1 sheet per object or per product. It's black and white, so it saves on color. But actually, in doing so, it's more clear. A lack of color makes it more clear, isn't that crazy? We think that we just add color and it adds to it. It actually detracts because color is so hard to do well.
Also, talking about arrows, there's actually no arrows in the diagram whatsoever except in very specific areas where they're telling us to spin the screwdriver or slide in the backing, etc. The limited number of arrows reminds me so much of a successful science figure. They've got their really nicely laid out legend. And, a lack of words, which is crazy. There's literally no words in here except the name of the product, it really makes language agnostic. So I think the summary is really let's aim to be like an IKEA instruction manual.
I know it sounds silly, but there's so much creative invention happening. Even with callouts, you can't see what's happening at a microscopic level. The little callouts zoom into certain areas without losing context. They still have that whole bookshelf there, so you know where they're pointing to.
I did a little fun exercise and threw some colors in photoshop. What we see very often with science figures is just sort of random placement of color where it really detracts from the story. So I know it sounds boring, but when in doubt, don't use color.
Another example was an illustration that I was fortunate to work on while I was at Hopkins. And you can see the inspiration of IKEA in my surgical illustrations is if it had color in it, it would have distracted from an already complicated image. This image is talking about how if you have damage to the tendon for your thumb. You can actually use 1 of the 2 tendons of your index finger, reroute it and then have a functioning thumb again. I think the one successful part of this was this weave technique. Sometimes it's required as a little callout on the side. When I was working at National Geographic, we had a lot of beautifully illustrated sort of mammals and dissections and then in the corner, we'd have a little simple call out of what the summary of the story is. And sometimes that's what's needed. It's just a simple schematic of a more complicated diagram.
Here's an example of misuse of color. One thing that I would immediately do when I see diagrams like this is to really subdue the saturation. And that's really easy, of course, using BioRender here. We have a saturation slider. Now black and white, you know, it's a little boring, I admit. So sometimes adding a little bit of color is nice. But desaturated as much as possible. So something like this shade, you'd be surprised how dull of a color you can get away with. And maybe if the point of your story is that this dendritic cell is the most important player in this process, then maybe that's where you add the saturation of color, that pop of color.
Otherwise, color is again a powerful tool. But if you highlight everything, then you've highlighted nothing because it's just too overwhelming. So take this as an example of the dendritic cell being the most important piece. Let's highlight that, maybe even give it a glow. Everything has their own identity, but they're not standing out or yelling at me for attention and that's the important thing to keep in mind here. What’s really cool, by the way, is you can overlay any color in BioRender on icons. This is how you'd play around with color. Use it to your advantage. Don't let it overtake your figure.
To take us a step further, and this is an important thing to keep in mind through every type of figure you make, is that color represents certain concepts like antagonists or protagonists. The villain versus the hero of your story. Every science story, I believe, I haven't come across ones that really disproves this. In some cases, if it's an autoimmune disease, your immune system is the villain. In some cases, the cancer cell is the villain. Sometimes both of them are villains in your story, but it's really important to communicate who you're identifying as the villain.
I guess the takeaway here is that cool colors tend to denote or communicate the protagonist or heroes of the story. Hospital walls are blue. They're soothing. Red denotes inflammation or danger. And so we really want to make sure that those color concepts are carried through in your diagram. I know it seems frivolous, but it actually says so much without really any text. So cool colors are protagonists, or heroes. Warm colors, like reds and oranges, reserve these for villains of the story. Or maybe just like the highlight of your story. The most important part of your story is, like, the brightest, more saturated object.
Here's an example, also where color can come back to bite you. That is very deceiving. Yes, we have a beautifully colored purple DNA on top of this blue nucleus, which is 2 very different colors. But keep in mind, we've got a lot of color blind folks in the audience. Your grant reviewer might be color blind. They might print your proposal. I went to a grant conference a couple years back and there were hundreds of grant reviewers and I went around and asked them what's the most painful part about reviewing grants. A lot of it was clarity of communication. After the hundredth grant they're reviewing, sadly, some of them stopped reading the text and they jump to the figure and they determine whether they can communicate based on the image.
Next, really sad, and I've seen this before with people who read publications and go to the graphical abstract first or the figures. I'm sure if you're shifting through hundreds of articles, you don't read the discussion section in detail. And color can again come back to bite you if this is viewed in black and white as if it's printed in black and white. So we've included this little contrast checker in BioRender that is this little sunset looking icon where it previews our canvas in grayscale so you can see whether you've lost any detail. The second something disappears in black and white mode, that's telling you immediately to fix that. Because there is not enough contrast in that section. So if I go from color to black and white, let's check all the places that disappear.
So go back and improve the contrast by making either the background or the foreground more extreme in lightness or darkness. In a black and white world, it stands out. So just a little trick here. This is not just like a fancy nice to have. As a side design group, inside BioRender, we make the templates that show up in your template gallery.
We use black and white mode all the time just to make sure we're including enough contrast. I would say this is probably the top 1 or 2 mistakes I still see in journal figures, grant figures and science figures in general. And it's so easy to avoid. Just slap a gray scale on it. If you're in Photoshop, there's a grayscale mode as well.
Another way color is deceiving is it can lead the eye and focus the eye where it's the highest saturation and highest contrast. So what do I mean by that? Here's an image that is colored sort of half haphazardly. Look what happens when I really focus the color on just one area. Exact same image, but now the color and the contrast is focused in 1 area. Maybe this is the focus of my research, and I really want that to be highlighted. Or maybe it's more in the proteins inside the cell, see how the focus now goes intracellular. So you can really play with that. Maybe I'll make it more of a neutral color and maybe the proteins inside the cell are more important. My eye focused into the nucleus and you can let the rest of the image just fade into the background.
If I read the image caption, I don't have to look around to see where the author is meant for me to look. It's very obvious based on the color. So it's a little bit of an advanced technique, but play around with that. I guess the takeaway here is sort of remove all the color if you can from your diagram, and then just add it back sparingly, like seasoning for your food.
Use arrows sparingly. Again, it couldn't make or break a diagram. I'm not gonna go into detail here, but we do have this really neat worksheet in BioRender called arrows.
If you wanna look for it, just go to the BioRender templates gallery and search for arrows and this will pop up. It's basically trying to communicate that there are many ways to use lines and arrows properly and only one of the examples is denoting movement.
So this arrow here is showing something going from point A to point B but there's a lot of other ways arrows can be used. It could be used to show cut lines or an arrow as a dotted line. A cut line, maybe a growing or shrinking of a tumor, labeling a diagram. We recommend using this little elbow hinge with this dot at the end because if it was an arrow, I'll show you what that will look like. It actually looks like something's either moving into the cell or the vesicles. Again, it sort of communicates movement.
So if you're not communicating movement, try to just align with the arrow at the end. Or, you know the little square brackets that also kind of communicate that you're labeling something. Also, the intensity and the thickness of an arrow can communicate volume pressure, strength, the amount of blood going from the portal vein, etc. I think the takeaway here without overwhelming you too much on how to use the right arrows is just to use arrows sparingly. Again, think back to the IKEA drawing where there were literally arrows in only very few places.
You can replace arrows with numbers with a circle around it to show step 1, step 2, step 3 instead of always showing the next arrow to go to the next stage. There's always a way to make it work. I know it feels impossible sometimes, but if you get a little bit creative, you think about general rules of reading left to right up to down. We try to do that. So left to right, up to down. That means you have to start at the left side of your page, maybe a little bit higher up if you can.
At least the general, you know, gravitational pull is sort of a cyclical story. So really keep that in mind. Less arrows is more and be selective about where you're adding them. And there's always a way to rearrange. It's like cleaning up your room, you know, just put things in the right place, in the right order. Sometimes easier said than done, but I promise you give it a go, you know, try a couple of formations, you'll be able to get there.
This one's pretty simple. Know your audience. If your grant reviewer is likely to be more science savvy, you might not need all those extra labels like cell membrane or cytosol or nucleus. You could probably get away with maybe a smaller font in some places, maybe a lighter colored font, let it sort of drop into the background. Almost to say that if they missed it or if they printed this sheet and it didn't show up, it's okay.
If they walk away with just understanding this process, and they're likely to know where the cytosol is, then you can knock those back, even remove it completely. Remember, we don't have a lot of real estate to work with, so be very selective about the information you're adding in. If you know your audience, they may not need to see all the background context.
And last topic on context: always put your figure into its final layout even if it's fake. I grabbed this from Google. It has nothing to do with the figure. Just a bunch of text. I suspect, and I've read in some grant requirements or specifications that you have, like, 3 inch by 2 inch, sometimes to work with, or small little business card size, which is very different from if you're presenting at a conference, you have a huge screen to go to to rely on. So when you shrink it down, You've lost a lot of information sometimes. The font will be too small. The strokes will be too thin. There'll be too many elements to differentiate from each other. And if you do this at the 25th hour, right before you submit, it's really stressful because now you're going back in and you're trying to tweak everything to make sure it's legible. So really do it as early in the design process as possible. You've got a sketch. You think it's gonna work for your grant. Throw it into this fake mock up layout, and see if it holds up.