A simple strategy to bring focus to your scientific figures

highlight science figures

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Highlighting reduces extraneous cognitive load

A quick google search learns that the fluorescent marker was invented in 1963. It was produced by Carter’s Ink Company and got the brilliant name “Hi-Liter”. It is one of these objects that we all use, many of us daily. Students take the biggest market share… for obvious reasons. It is a very popular study aid that helps getting through the massive amount of course material. It is the number one method to mark the important text in the ocean of filler text. The act of highlighting what’s important gives clarity and structure, it categorises the text and gives a lot of support in the revision of the course material.

It works for students, it works for many other people in various professions. Highlighting is a very powerful technique to bring attention to what is important. However it is often a very personal and subjective method. Let’s take the fluorescent marker as an example once more, two different students will use it on different sections of the text. Each one highlighting what is important for her. If a third person sees both versions, he will be confused.

To avoid confusion many authors of educational books and websites already mark upfront what is more important and what the student should focus on. They use the highlighting strategy very effectively. Also in other disciplines highlighting is used productively. Take for example syntax highlighting in the code of computer programs. It displays the code in different colours and/or fonts and improves the readability tremendously.

Highlighting is not restricted to text only, it can definitely be used in figures as well. In our field of scientific publishing it can act as a very powerful method to draw people’s attention to what is the most important finding. Many scientists represent the data and nothing more. There is no map, no guidance, no clue of what is new, no indication of the important aspects. Many scientific figures are like textbooks for students without highlighting applied by the author. It is like the situation where everybody tries to find it’s own importance. Along goes the risk of missing the point the author wants to communicate. Moreover, figures without clear focus ask the reader to do the work, opposite of what effective communication should be about.

Highlighting can be done in many different ways, but to give you a head start for your next scientific figure I will go over some simple and easy to apply techniques that you can start using instantly:

  • Colour is the most powerful highlighting technique in scientific figures, but it should be used sparingly. The best way is to decide on a colour scheme with one or two highlighting colours first and then stick to it when you colour your design. A good way to start is one of these online tools to design colour schemes: Coolers or Adobe Color. Generally, shades of grey together with a bright colour work very well.
  • Boxing or encircling might work very good too, especially when you don’t have the option of using colours. But again, do it very consciously, ideally only one thing deserves to be inside the box.
  • Highlighting can be applied to the annotation of the scientific figure if appropriate. You can use bold, italics and underline. Bolding is recommended over all other techniques because it introduces the least amount of noise. Italics add minimal noise too, but it is more difficult to detect. Use underline sparingly or not at all.
  • Another effective method to highlight the annotation in scientific figures is varying the typeface. Uppercase works very well for short words. You could use it for labels and keywords.
  • Avoid the use of different fonts to highlight annotation. It is very challenging to find a font combination that works aesthetically well and at the same time is different enough to be detectable as highlight.
  • Never highlight more than 10% of the figure. A strong dilution of the focus effect will occur with every percentage of additional highlighting. This is actually a problem that is seen in many figures. Whenever you have the feeling to be as a kid in a toy store and not knowing where to look first, then you know you’ve overdone the effect. The most common mistake here is the use of too many colours.

Hope this article will help you to bring some focus to your scientific figures. Success!

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