Life advice (part 1) – graphically coloured

Hello! Welcome friend. Pull up a rocking chair and sit down. I am yet another person who wants to tell you what to do and how to do it. But bear with me here – what follows is not your ordinary life advice. It is ‘Claire Murray Life Advice™ (It isn’t really trademarked. It just sounds better and more official if I pretend it is.).

We need to talk about axes. Not what you might imagine is a raging hotbed for discussion in academia, but it is actually something that really matters. You are going to spend ages working on a critical experiment, toiling over the tiny details of every molecule, cell, differential equation or laser pulse. You will subsequently agonise over the colour of lines, the error bars, the words for the axes titles, the symbols for your points and the background colours of a graph to show off these results. Therefore this is not just any old graph. This is THE graph we are talking about. The graph that your entire contribution to your field hinges on. The graph that you are ridiculously proud of and will show every person who asks (and even the ones who don’t). You are likely to get your PhD because of this graph and you are so excited you head out into the big bad world to shout about it at conferences.

I now have the awful and very awkward responsibility of telling you that all your good work and hours spent making said graph are likely to be wasted. Harsh right? Well, the world-leading academics that you want to see your work have spent their lives peering at presentations and dissecting their data. They have squinted at square roots, pored over papers and gazed at quite a few graphs. Let’s be realistic here, the odds are high that they are unlikely to have 20/20 vision. Additionally, the odds are high that your talk is likely to either be first thing in the morning or right after lunch, at which point said academic is probably still half asleep because they haven’t had coffee yet plus the venue is likely to have dodgy projectors. Therefore your high resolution and high impact graph very quickly degrades into a blur. Critically this means your ground-breaking results will be completely missed simply because people cannot read your axes. Think about that. Weeks, months or years of work (and more importantly your life!) will be completely overlooked by the leading researchers in your field who could be the key connection for your next career move. Talk about missed opportunities for a five second fix.


Maybe you think I’m overselling this? Next time you go to a talk, look closely at the graph axes. Test yourself. How many could you easily read? How many of your colleagues were able to read the axes without having to focus really hard? More importantly – how many could you and they remember reading? This is incredibly important because the graph axes render the entire dataset meaningful. If you can’t remember what they were then the whole point of using them is useless. Having sat through lots of conferences and seen enough presentations and posters myself, I’m telling you that the issue of the ridiculously small graph axes is sadly endemic throughout academia and beyond.

Please don’t let this madness continue. Adapting your axes (and more generally your graphs and all of your slides) to be easily readable not only helps aging academics but also people who are visually impaired, so it is a win-win situation. You make your incredible result stand out even more and people don’t have to work so hard to see whether your results are in minutes or milliseconds. Speaking of readability, it is a great idea to consider colours when plotting graphs. Green and red are not the best choice when plotting two datasets as they can be very difficult for people who are colourblind to distinguish between. Having different icons can aid in differentiating between two datasets if you want to stick to a single colour scheme or if you absolutely must use green and red in a graph. A great general overview of good practice is available here from the World Blind Union

Making good graphs and good slides will make your results stand out and shine, making you more popular all round and also making you a much more considerate human being.

Claire Murray

Claire Murray

I am Irish scientist working for Diamond Light Source who lovee tea, travelling and the science

One thought on “Life advice (part 1) – graphically coloured

  • June 26, 2018 at 16:03

    Completely agree with this. I once sat through a presentation that was about various emission wavelengths of stars. I’m not even kidding when I say that the graph had the colour red for the yellow wavelength, yellow for the red wavelength, and other madness!

    The person hasn’t thought about it beforehand, but it became super confusing for all of us in the audience. Colours matter.


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