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Designing graphical abstracts

Everything you need to know to design an effective graphical abstract to communicate your science story.


A graphical abstract is a single image that gives your reader the main message of your science story. In this video, we introduce the tips you need to make a better graphical abstract. Plan ahead: put pencil to paper and sketch out your story. Shiz shows us how to choose colors, contrast and saturation that enhance our illustrations. Consistency is key: unify arrow and line styles in your graphical abstract. De-clutter your figure to help readers know what’s new, exciting and novel about your research right away. Put these tips into action when you create your next graphical abstract!

Meet the expert: Shiz Aoki, CEO and co-founder of BioRender, shares her 10+ years of expertise as a distinguished science illustrator to help you bring your science to life - visually.

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For those that are brand new to BioRender here is a sneak peek into the platform. It's a beautiful drag and drop interface with thousands of vector based icons ready for you to use for your images. Today's focus will be graphical abstracts.

What is a graphical abstract? Let's start with the really simple definition so that we're all on the same page about what a graphical abstract is.

I think we all cover very different fields of life science and beyond, so examples I use in this webinar will skew a little heavy towards cell biology. But, the tips I'm covering will be very ubiquitous and totally applicable to any type of science figure you're making.

So a graphical abstract, in our simple terms, is a single image that is intended to give your reader an immediate understanding of the story or article's main message. Your graphical abstract should actually be distinct from figures or diagrams in the rest of the article itself. i.e. It should be an overview as opposed to one of those panel figures in the results section.

So I actually interviewed a Cell Press editor prior to this just to get a sense of what the common mistakes are that they see when they receive submissions for a graphical abstract. Cell Press has made the use of graphical abstracts very popular.

The advice was that the number of words used to describe the graphical abstract should actually be less than the number of words in the abstract. But suffice it to say that if you go the reverse order where you actually describe your graphical abstract in words, it should actually be less than the abstract.

Abstracts usually have a word limit (Ex. 300-500 words) however, graphical abstracts do not have a word limit nor does it have a content limit. That's where we get into a little bit of trouble here because people tend to cram everything that we weren't able to say in the abstract into the picture. And what this editor specifically found is that a lot of authors used it as an opportunity to cram in information that otherwise would not have fit in the word limit. It actually should be the opposite. It should be a lighter version of the abstract, perhaps take 70% of what was said and depict it in an illustration form.

These are the general categories that we're going to follow:

Layout and Story Flow

The first thing I like to highlight is layout and storyflow. We always recommend starting by sketching your story on paper, whether that's the back of an envelope or lined piece of paper, just something to get your thoughts down. We find that there really is no replacement for paper and pencil. Sometimes you can use a clean BioRender canvas and throw on a bunch of icons and maybe drag it around to get a general sense of composition. If you're good with Photoshop or Illustrator, you can also use that, but I find starting on paper to be the best.

We love to follow one or two of these simple compositions [shown at 10:25]. It's really hard to follow the content of a figure if things are flying around. Generally speaking, it should fall left to right or top to bottom (the direction of gravity). Naturally we like to read top to bottom. 

So the first tip regarding layout and story flow is treating our thought process or creating a diagram to something as silly as a ‘spot the difference’ game. When we were kids, you probably played the spot the difference game where you had to divert your eyes from left to right and look at the differences between the two images. That's actually pretty analogous to the way scientific figures are composed, especially when you have a disease state and a normal state, or a normal state and maybe a control and a variable. There tends to be a lot of visual comparisons.

When you do compose diagrams, we highly recommend making sure that things are generally aligned and similar in horizontal alignment. So, for example, you can create some alignment grid lines here. If the left and right are now aligned, it actually wouldn't read as well because the eye would have a little bit of trouble comparing left and right and seeing what has changed. I can kind of see it if I really strain my eye and read closely. It's a lot friendlier for your audience if you are doing a comparison of normal and abnormal, that these are exactly aligned left to right or top to bottom. 

You've probably been in a situation where you feel like you know, your figure feels cluttered and you don't know how to fix it. A lot of the time what's happened is that the reading order or the composition has gone a little bit astray. Try to track the reading order of your figure with a marker or your eyes. If it’s not consistent or clean, this may be what’s causing the confusion.

Sometimes it's frustrating because in design, there is no right or wrong answer. It actually takes a little bit of jigging around, nudging things left and right and creating a hierarchy of text or a hierarchy of arrows.

Color (association, temperature, contrast)


Whether you like it or not, if you start to color your diagram so that some elements match in color, your audience is going to automatically start to create associations simply because they are colored the same even if you didn't intend to.

Sometimes you run out of colors to use, but be careful with your color choice and color association. Along that same vein, color and shapes do get associated very closely. When in doubt, go with as simple a color as possible for something like text (ex. White and black).


Another thing is to really limit your color palette. This is something that I see quite often, and that's the desire to fill your image with color. I wouldn't come in and start to make the text all colorful, for example. That just starts to add unnecessary layers, complications and other dimensions into your diagram that are not necessary.

One little tip I like to always highlight here is to understand when to use cool colors versus warm colors. Stick with warm colors, for harmful things in the body Ex. bacterial infections, cancers, virions, pathogens, inflammation, etc. And then, something like a blue or a green (a cooler tone) for all the good guys in the story.


Probably the number one mistake we see in graphical abstracts is contrast. You hear us talk about this a lot in other webinars, but it is definitely worth repeating here. We often see middle toned colors on top of middle toned colors. That's where we're getting into trouble because those foreground elements or the items layered on top tend to disappear because they're too close in color value (the darkness or lightness of that color is too similar to the thing that it's layered on top of). And what happens is it totally disappears if you're color blind, if you had to print this in black and white, if you had a poor quality monitor at home, etc. 

A nice gut check is to use our preview in grayscale mode in BioRender. Another way to combat that contrast problem is to use our opacity slider. Don't be afraid to use different opacities when you're layering objects like this to make the point of your story really stand out.

Proper use of arrows

I'm just going to focus on how to label your diagram better because this is gonna save you a lot of clutter in your next diagram, hopefully. So instead of using a simple arrow, which I usually see when people label their diagrams and having an arrow just pointing to the thing, I would replace this arrow with a dot. It will give you a cleaner result and doesn’t give you this sort of dead spider look with the lines going in all directions. You can actually use a line that is parallel to the word that it's labeling.

And if you want to review, this is available in our worksheets category in the templates category as six different ways to create lines in the BioRender. [link to template]

Decluttering your figure (alignment and spacing)

A tip is to use the align function in BioRender for some of your labels and make sure that they're all horizontally aligned. Also, don't ignore the vertical alignment that can make figures that much cleaner. Sometimes what I see is that we ignore vertical alignment while the horizontal alignment is pretty well and good so what I like to do is create some gridlines to align your diagram a little bit better. 

If you go into a professional design studio, you'll probably see everyone's monitors covered in these guidelines, just something that designers notoriously love to use because they don't trust their eyes. And if they're available, why not use it? You can also hide the gridlines temporarily if it looks noisy and you can't see the rest of your figure. 

To clean up the diagram more, you can shrink down some things in your diagram that probably don't need that much real estate and get white space opened up in my diagram.

Due to continuous improvements in BioRender, the application may appear slightly different in some of our videos.
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