Monday 23 July 2012

Visualisation masterclass

One of my favourite columns in any scientific journal is Nature Methods “Points of View” by Bang Wong. The column is focused on visualisation and presentation of scientific data and I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t already seen it.

Here is a link to Nature Methods and also a public Mendeley group (please feel free to join) so you can access the papers, Bang Wong's points of view. I'd be very interested in a hard-copy version, perhaps the articles expanded and collected into a book?

Data visualisation is improving all the time: In the March 2010 issue of Nature Methods the Creative Director of the Broad Institute, Bang Wong, was senior author on a paper highlighting some of the challenges we face in visualising complex data sets. The paper presents some of the developments over the past twenty years that today allow almost anyone to; create a phylogenetic tree, a complex pathway diagram or a transcriptome heat map. We are generating huge amounts of data and visual tools for interpretation are vital. Fortunately there are lots of people working on this.

Circos plots: I am always struck by how much data is conveyed in a circus plot, and these are becoming more complex as data sets grow. Can you imagine how many slides you would have needed to use just three or four years ago? The Circos tool was published in Genome Research in 2009. There is a Circos website and the New York Times had a great feature way back in 2007 highlighting what was possible with this new visualisation tool.

Points of view: The column covers many aspects of data visualisation and presentation. Some highlights for me are:

Colour: Spiralling through the colour wheel when choosing colours to use in figures can allow the same visual impact in both colour and black-and-white print. Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop allow you to simulate what Red:Green colour-blindness will do to your figures, and replacing red with magenta makes images accessible for all. Colour can be misleading and sometimes a simple black line will do.

Whitespace: Absence of colour is important. Many scientific presentations and posters covey too much information and don’t have enough empty page to allow readers to see how the text should flow.

Typeface: The reason we use serif typeface in text is because the ‘feet’ help us follow the line of the text. A generalisation is that serif fonts should be used for large blocks of text (posters and papers) and sans serif fonts for smaller strings of text (presentation slides). Spacing of words and paragraphs can have a dramatic impact on the readability of a document.

Simplification: If your data is easy to read then people will read it. Sounds simple, but I am sure many of us have prepared posters with far too much information, that need lots of explanation, yet we get less than one minute with people in the poster session. Identifying your most important idea and focusing on that can help.

I’d also recommend Bang’s website which has links to lots of interesting visualisation and scientific art as well. Enjoy.

PS: If the posts on my blog are not taking all this into account, or if you see a poster or presentation of mine that could be improved then let me know. Remember that feedback has to be constructve!


  1. All excellent pieces of advice. Although I would note that your blog itself is rendering in Trebuchet or Verdana (depending on the browser), both of which are sans-serif. :)

  2. How does everyone prefer Times? I need to go back to HTML school as Blogger does not give many options for layout and design.

  3. Wow that's a wonderfull blog having all details & helpful.Facility Master Class


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