4 tips to make your science figures more accessible

Easy tips to make your science figures more accessible

© markrubens – Fotolia.com

Your readers will thank you for your barrier free designed figures

Did you know that willpower is a limited resource? You can envision it as a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse. Most of us use already quite a bit of willpower just to get out of bed in the morning. Part of the reservoir for the day is already taken while none of the important work has yet begun.

I think you get the idea and see where I’m heading. If you could make your articles so easily accessible that it requires little willpower of your reader to absorb the content, you are a rockstar. A big part of this exercise goes to effective writing, but don’t underestimate the role of figures in this context. A reader that’s already on low willpower-fuel will more likely look to the figures before reading any of the text. It creates once more an opportunity for you to engage your reader with your figures and get your important science message across.

In this post I’ll give you a far from exhaustive list of some easy tips you can immediately apply to your science figures to enhance accessibility.


1. Color contrast

This is a no-brainer. The contrast of your figures should be high enough to enhance readability. But that is a vague statement and not very useful. Even that you will have the contrast right, more often than not, just by eyeballing it. However, there are guidelines for good contrast that will rule out the guess-work.

It is advised to have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for good readability. You can check it with this web based application. It is a great help in situations of doubt. Just enter your foreground and background color and you will get a “yes” or “no” immediately. No willpower required.

One misconception that many of us have is that the contrast should be as high as possible, especially for text. In practice that is black on white. The contrary, black on white is actually very tiring for the eye. A better option is to go for very dark grey on white. Just have a look at any respected website, like Google for example, it will be hard to find black font. These websites don’t want to fatigue you and make you leave their sites. You don’t want to step into this easy avoidable pitfall for your figures for publication and presentation, right?


2. Color blindness

Barrier free designed figures asserts that the figure should be readable by people of diverse abilities, without special adaptation or modification. I can assure you that many of your readers are color-blind (5-8% of the male population). If you don’t want them to stop reading your paper, you should design your figures accordingly. Often, just having the contrast right will be enough, but again I’d like to advice you some kind of measurement to be sure. Personally I use the free application Color Oracle. You can simulate how your figure will be seen by a color-blind person (see screenshot). Very useful, also when you are preparing a scientific presentation.

how a non colour-blind person sees colours

Original colors

how a color-blind person sees colors

How a color-blind person sees it (deuteranopia)

3. Text size

For printed text this is easy. Standard 9- to 12-point type is optimal. You can break this rule for specific cases like titles and sometimes annotation.

For projected text (like in a scientific seminar), it’s a bit more tricky. There are 2 variables that make it more complex. The distance to the screen and the size of the screen. If you know these variables, you can design your slides or figures accordingly. If you don’t, you need to opt for an estimated guess. Here is an easy matrix that will give you comfortable viewing distances for different font sizes.


4. Text blocks

If you ever use text blocks in your figures of more than 3 lines, don’t center the text. If your text block starts looking like a Christmas tree, you know that you are not making your figure more accessible. The reason is simple. Changing lines forces the reader’s eyes to find the beginning of the line again. This requires more effort if the beginning is always located somewhere else. Consequently, it reduces your reader’s willpower.

As said, this is a non-exhaustive list. It gives you something to start with and will especially help you to make barrier free figures. Your reader will thank you for not draining their valuable willpower!

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  • I am really amazed to know the astonishing facts.

    Great that you put all these facts under a single portal.

    Best Wishes……

  • Matthias says:

    Thanks for the focus on color blinds. Even though I tell all my students that I am color blind, they have no insight what it means. (How could they?) Hence they continue to misuse colors. With your blog, I can point them to the experience of being color blind.
    (Actually, I have a hard time to see the difference between the two graphical representations …)