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December 03, 2009

Figure Construction: Resisting the Urge to Obscure

Daisiesby Stefanie

The best figures make complex results understandable at a glance. Sometimes a procedure that would have taken three pages to describe can be illustrated in one well-designed chart.

The principles of figure construction are described on pp. 150–167 of the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. I urge you to study these pages carefully. Figure construction is a creative art that is deceptively complicated.

Study and practice will help you resist the following “figure don’ts.” Every writer has fallen at least once into the abyss described below—you know, the one that makes instructors cringe and stalwart editors shudder.


  1. Variety is the spice of fonts. See how many different typefaces and font sizes you can put into one figure! Test readers’ eyesight with tiny, intricate fonts, but also include large, bold typefaces as a consolation prize.

  2. COLOR! Everything looks better in color, right? Fluorescent yellow will make your data POP!

  3. Touch of gray. The bars on your graph are artistic, subtle graduations of gray or gently differing patterns. Readers will be able to tell the difference if they look closely—or if they invest in a good pair of magnifying readers.

  4. Your cup runneth over. Every detail and nuance of your data can be incorporated into one figure if you use enough dimensions, descriptions, and axes. So what if your reader needs a PhD in psychology and mechanical engineering as well as a guidebook to fully appreciate the brilliant visual representation you have concocted? Who cares if not all the data are relevant? We must love all of our data equally.

  5. Too cool to cut. Even if the figure is redundant or not necessary for understanding the article, include it. That figure looks good.

  6. Proportion control? Your figure’s not dieting. Have two elements within your figure that need to be compared? Or maybe two separate but similar figures that you want to contrast? Do not worry about matching their proportions. Your reader can make the mental adjustment. The construct of depression can be a small dot (∙) or a big black box (█), depending on your mood.

  7. A rose by any other name does not smell as sweet. Forget abbreviations, acronyms, or otherwise shortened labels for elements within a figure. Nothing but the full and formal name should be used, even if it has to be squeezed onto the figure. After all, who reads the figure caption?

  8. Roses, Part 2: The thorns. Forget the previous admonition: Use abbreviations exclusively, whether or not they are needed. Make them ANANAP,1 forcing the reader to the caption to UAAF.2 By golly, if you have to write a caption, the reader should have to read it, repeatedly!
    1 ANANAP = as nonintuitive and numerous as possible.
    2 UAAF = understand any aspect of the figure.

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