Book Review – Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists & Engineers

Felice C Frankel and Angela H DePace. Design by Sagemeister Inc. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2012. 153 pages. ISBN: 978-030017644-5.

Visual Strategies is a stunning and thought-provoking book. The work of a visual-communication scholar, a basic medical scientist, and a graphic designer, it contains much to engage science editors and others wanting to facilitate effective communication of research. The book does not, however, provide the basic guidance that one might expect from the subtitle A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists & Engineers.

The book has four main sections: an introductory chapter that provides a framework for the remaining material, a set of chapters that analyze graphics according to their purposes, a chapter that presents case studies, and a chapter on interactive graphics. Throughout, striking examples of scientific graphics illustrate the text.

In the introductory chapter, the authors state that before developing a graphic, one should ask three questions:

  • Is the graphic explanatory (intended to convey a point or communicate patterns or concepts) or exploratory (intended to engage the viewer in discovery)?
  • How will the graphic be used (for example, in a journal article, a poster presentation, or a grant proposal)?
  • What is the first thing that the viewer should see?

Examples later in the book help show how the answers to such questions can guide one in designing or revising a scientific graphic.

The authors then introduce five concepts or tools from graphic design that one can use to “enhance the clarity . . . of science graphics”. These are compose (“organize the elements and establish their relationships”), abstract (“define and represent the essential qualities and/or meaning of the material”), color (use colors to attract attention, label, show relationships, or indicate a scale of measure), layer (add layers to show relationships), and refine (“edit and simplify”). Next come examples, mainly from journal articles, showing how each concept or tool can help graphics to communicate.

The next three chapters focus on three common functions of scientific graphics: to show form and structure, to depict processes, and to compare and contrast. These chapters present mainly “before” and “after” versions of graphics that were revised. For each pair, the authors address questions about the audience, intended use, and goal of the graphic; provide suggestions for refining it; and identify which of the five tools were used to improve it.

In the chapter that follows, “Case Studies”, researchers chronicle the evolution of graphics that they developed. Some of the case studies show how developing and refining graphics can increase researchers’ understanding of their own subject matter—much as writing and revising the text of a paper can. An interesting challenge discussed in one case study regarded conveying information to an audience whose members were in fields that had different conventions of visual presentation. In this chapter and elsewhere, some of the discussion is relatively dense and technical.

The final chapter regards interactive graphics—which, the authors indicate, scientific journals and other media are using increasingly. The authors emphasize that the principles of preparing static graphics also apply to interactive ones. Links to the interactive graphics discussed in the chapter appear in the Web site of the book (

Visual Strategies has some distinctive features. The cover—of finely ribbed plastic and constructed so that the image appears to change colors when viewed at different angles—heralds a book that will be visually engaging. Thumb tabs of different colors indicate the sections of the book. A conversation between the authors and the book designer precedes the main text. Near the end, the book includes what it terms a “visual index”: it displays miniature versions of the graphics shown in each chapter, cites their sources, and indicates the pages on which they appear.

The graphics, most of which are colored, come largely from high-profile scientific and medical journals. Some, however, are from books, presentations, or Web sites. Among the types of graphics shown are diagrams of various kinds and visuals based on outputs of imaging technologies. The graphics tend to be complex and impressive.

This book is not one in which to seek, for instance, basic examples of well-designed line graphs, bar graphs, and flow charts. And, despite its subtitle, the book would not guide new researchers in designing, producing, and submitting simple graphics of types common in journals; such readers are better served by the graphics chapters in some scientific-writing textbooks. But for readers who have a more advanced or more conceptual interest in graphic communication in science, the book can be a visual and intellectual treat. Science editors might enjoy noting the parallels between revising text to communicate more effectively and revising a graphic to do so. On a more practical level, learning from the book can help editors to guide authors in improving graphics.

Clearly the product of much long work by the authors, designer, and other contributors, this book merits more than a single reading. I look forward to viewing some of the images more carefully and reflecting more deeply on parts of the text. And I hope to use concepts from the book in my editing, peer reviewing, writing, and teaching.