Do the graphs in your research paper tell a compelling story?
Writing a research paper is no mean feat. Researchers have to explain complex ideas in the simplest possible manner. In short, researchers have to be great storytellers in every sense of the term. With every last section you write, what you're really trying to do is present a central idea or narrative to your audience in a way that is easy to digest and even easier to identify with.
This is especially true when you're presenting graphs in your research paper. Graphs are an important aspect of a research paper. They help you present complex information in a visual way and enable your readers to process your findings. Consider this – great graphs will create a positive impression on journal editors, reviewers, and readers! It’s a win-win! In this post, I’d like to talk about some of the aspects you need to be mindful of to create powerful graphs that help you tell a compelling story of your research. This is because, as is true with all visual information, the story at the heart of a graph (or an Infographic or a video) is literally all that matters. Anything that distracts from that story or gets in the way is something that you absolutely cannot afford - the story must be protected at all costs.
Here are a few things to remember when creating graphs for your research paper:
1. Stick to the story: Yes, the visual element of your graph is important - after all, graphs are heavily visual in nature, to begin with. You shouldn't need to look at a graph, read 500 words of text and then look at the graph again to get the full story that you're trying to tell. The graph - and the data being visualized - should tell the complete story, or as close to "complete" as you can possibly get.
2. Make every visual choice a conscious one: Every visual choice you make should be purpose-driven. You shouldn't include the color red just because you like it - you should include it because it's a visual way to make a statement, underline a point, highlight a relationship, emphasize an idea, etc. You shouldn't make one node on your graph bigger than another because it looks cooler - you should do so because it draws the reader's attention to one particular piece of data at precisely the right moment in their journey.
3. Find ways to complement the story: Find ways to use the principles of modern design to compliment the information whenever possible. This includes tools that help you design graphs and other visual elements. For example, when you use a tool like Visme to create something like a scatter plot, think about all the ways that you can add to the experience that your readers are having with the tools you now have available to you.
To continue with the scatter plot example, consider letting your users actually interact with each data point. You can have icons, animations, tool tips, and other things play when a reader clicks on each point - thus emphasizing and contextualizing particular ideas, creating a more engaging experience that relies on self-discovery and offering a totally unique user interface and experience at the exact same time.
But again, just because you have access to these types of tools doesn't mean you should use them. The story has to demand their inclusion. Any features like this should also be used sparingly because if you over-do it, you run the risk of creating a noisy, confusing experience that will send the exact opposite message from the one you actually want.
4. Avoid the perils of too much design and overdesigning: One of the biggest traps that you need to avoid at all costs involves over-designing your graph. That is to say, you spend so much time including as many colors, shapes and different elements as possible that none of it is complimenting the story and it's all serving as a distraction - a lot of noise that gets in the way of the central narrative that you're trying to get across.
Finally, know what purpose every design element serves. "Design for the sake of it" is always a bad idea, but it's especially so when you're talking about a format like graphs that rely so heavily on visuals, to begin with. If you can't look at a particular visual design choice and completely justify its existence - meaning you can't say to someone "here is why I did this and here is what it gets me" - it absolutely has no place in your graph. Period.
The story is all that matters
Any visual design element that you choose to include should complement the story that is trying to be told - not take away from it. "Short, sweet, and to the point" are the three major qualities that you're always trying to hit. So long as you've taken care of those three things, try not to overthink everything else. The tips mentioned above should help you adopt the right mindset to start designing graphs for your research paper.