Mike’s Tip List

I was asked to come up with a list of data presentation tips for scientists; here’s the result. Distilling one’s philosophy down to bullet points is an exercise I recommend. Not much of the following will be news to regular readers of this site, I suspect, but feel free to pass it on. Or draw up your own, and send me the link.


  • Sketch out ideas on paper first, before you turn on the computer. All graphics used to be drawn by hand. Software reduces creativity; good graphics are created despite your software.
  • People will look at your pictures before they read your text, if they read it at all. Graphics have to be self-contained. Put your conclusion right there in the caption.
  • The graphic has to tell a story (if it doesn’t, don’t use it) and your job is to keep redesigning it until the story is as clear as possible.
  • Show the actual data, as much as you can. People can deal with much greater information density than you think. Your job is to help them see the patterns in the data, but…
  • Show as little non-data stuff as you can. Remove boxes, lines, colored backgrounds, grids, shadows, and other decoration, except where it’s essential to understanding the data. If you can’t remove it, fade it out or make it smaller, thinner, or dotted.
  • Minimize the number of steps required to interpret your graphic. Don’t put required information in the text that could go in the caption, or in the caption if it could go in a key, or in a key if you could just label the points or lines directly.
  • Avoid color; it disappears on photocopying or printing. Use contrasting thicknesses, tints, line styles or shapes first, then color. Your graphic must work in black and white.
  • If you use color, use an intuitive scale that relates sensibly to your data, not all the colors of the rainbow. Make sure colors vary in intensity, not just hue, and remember some of your readers will be color-blind.
  • Provide context. Always use a scale and give sources. Six small, related graphs juxtaposed in the space we’d usually use for just one provide more than six times as much content.
  • Learn some basic typography, Illustrator, and Photoshop. It’s not hard to find tutorials, and they’re wonderful transferable skills.
  • Never print out your slides. Give people a handout with your contact details, a couple of graphics or tables (including any too detailed for a PowerPoint slide), your conclusions, and a bibliography.
  • Don’t make lists of bullet points, like this one. Show, not tell.

Manifestos are great for removing nuance and blurring away contention, aren’t they? That’s why they’re so satisfying to write.