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Top Tips for a Winning Grant Proposal

Join Dr. Matsushima and BioRender’s CEO, Shiz Aoki, for a jam-packed, updated webinar on how to create a winning grant proposal (and figures)!

Dr. Danielle Matsushima, Director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at Columbia University, has reviewed thousands of grant applications and will be sharing key criteria that reviewers look for. Shiz Aoki will also be sharing top design tips for grant figures after seeing common mistakes throughout her 15+ years helping scientists visually communicate their research. 

In the 45 minute session, you’ll gain insights into the following: 

Content tips from Dr. Matsushima: 

  • Understanding your audience
  • Best practices to display data
  • Common mistakes with grant figures

Design tips from Shiz: 

  • Create powerful visuals to enhance your story
  • Designing for clarity over beauty
  • Using color as a powerful tool

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So while we're getting settled in, why don't I do a quick introduction of Dr. Matsushima and then we'll dive into the content. We're really excited for you all to be joining us today. If you can't see the number of participants, it's very exciting that I think we had over 2000 folks sign up for this webinar. So you're in really good company and lots of people are probably feeling the same pain and same stresses as you. So we can all commiserate together and kind of support each other through this. What can be a stressful process of applying for grants and make it a little fun today with some tips. 

I've got myself, Shiz from BioRender. I'm one of the co-founders of BioRender and previously, and I guess I still am, a medical illustrator. I've got a fantastic team here with me helping out with the Zoom chat. So if you have any questions, feel free to use that, and then we will answer accordingly. Dr. Danielle Matsushima is joining me from Columbia University. She's been a long time friend and supporter of BioRender and an advocate of clear effective science communication, always extremely helpful in sharing her expertise in the field.

She's currently the director of research and strategic initiatives at the Medical Institute at Columbia University. And they facilitate the highest caliber of biomedical research among faculty, students, and staff. And her work helps both experienced PIs and first time applicants, you know, grad students or those of you with an upcoming grant deadline. Or even if you're just simply looking to improve your science communication, Danielle will be sharing some great tips throughout this webinar. So I'll pass it over to Danielle to kick us off here, and then I'll take over in the last half.

Dr. Danielle Matsushima’s Section

Thank you Shiz for that wonderful introduction.

I'm excited to co-present with you today so hopefully everyone can see my screen. Perfect. Today we're going to talk about top tips for a winning grant proposal. As Shiz said, I am Danielle Matsushima, I am Director of Research and Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Research at Columbia Medical School.

I just wanna start this talk by saying, I'm not a scientific illustrator, and Shiz brings a lot of that design expertise, but I do lead a team of research development professionals that help faculty with a strategy behind creating compelling grant proposals. And since 2016, we've helped our faculty and researchers get over $280 million in sponsor awards. So I've read through hundreds of applications by this point, and I'm really hoping to share some of the insights I've learned with you here today. What we'll cover today, I'm going to go over some concept tips. So understanding your audience, best practices for displaying data, common mistakes with grant figures. Shiz will dive into the design a little bit more. So using visuals to enhance your story clarity over beauty and using color as a powerful tool. So why are we all here today? Well, we really want to understand how we can make our grant proposals more compelling. So the ultimate goal of a grant is to convince reviewers and the funder that the project you're proposing is significant, is innovative, it's well planned out, and has the potential to greatly impact the field. And the people you have to convince in order to get your work funded are the reviewers. And these are extremely busy people. They're also very distracted sometimes. So they are scientists. They can also be clinician scientists and seeing patients. They might also be running their own startup in addition to their lab. They're writing their own grants and their own manuscripts. They could be parents, they've got their own hobbies, they're busy, busy people, right? And have very little time. And to add to the matter, we are in a digital age where every one of us is being inundated by consuming information, whether it's through the digital format or through the media. So we are kind of in an information overload period. And because they are busy distracting you, it's so important that the message we make in our grants is clear and concise as crystal clear as this mountain water here, right? And we wanna make sure that our grants and our figures are as, as pleasing as this mountain view. Okay?

And so one way in grants that we can make this happen and making sure the message is clear and reiterating our take home message is to include visuals to aid and reviewer understanding.

So why should we use visuals in grants? It really enables the viewers to see what you're proposing. It helps increase understanding of scientific concepts or data. It demonstrates the feasibility of the project. It may promote favorable bias, it creates a good first impression, and it convinces the reviewer hopefully to fund your work. 

So when should you use a figure?

Use a figure but add value if it helps clarify understanding. And this could be if you have a complex conceptual model that you're proposing in your proposal. Have a diagram depicting that. It can show how proposal parts fit together, including a figure for showing the logical experimental design or the approach that you're proposing could be really helpful. Include a figure if it helps simplify text descriptions. So often if you're listing a lot of things, it might just be easier to include it in a table, take up less space, use a figure if it emphasizes novelty. Also for demonstrating feasibility. So preliminary data would be a good example of that. Use a figure if it highlights important objectives or if it illustrates complex team interactions and or stakeholder diversity.

So now that I told you the why and the when to use visuals, let's get into the how. So there's several ways to display concepts and data in a grant, and I'm sure many of you have used many of these different types of visuals before. They're conceptual diagrams, which is when you use words and visuals to convey an overall idea or concept. This is really, really good for that overview of your project. Maybe you put it on your specific aims page or in the background section can also show how different aims that you're proposing relate to one another for the overall goal of the project. A flow chart kind of shows a process that you're trying to demonstrate in organization charts. Similar type of visual shows the makeup of a team or how a hierarchy is organized. Interaction diagrams are good to show interactions between variables. Other types of common ones are a core diagram, a Venn diagram on it could be a node or an interaction network. Geospatial diagrams are good to show data oriented on a map and positioning charts or graphs, which a lot of you have probably worked with. They are great for presenting relational data along axes. So things like a bar graph, a pie chart, a line graph, a scatter histogram, etc. A table organizes data by various categories and you can actually use shading and formatting to highlight the different aspects of data that you want from the take home message you're trying to create by presenting that data in a table form. Timelines show progression of tasks, and a Gantt chart in particular can show those tasks or activities along time duration. And then images are a literal snapshot of something that you're trying to make a point of. And there's so many other ones that you can do. But here's just an example of some of the few that I've seen in grants that I've helped work on. 

To conclude, kind of like the background portion of this talk, I wanted to introduce some common design principles that I'm gonna integrate throughout the rest of the talk. So the first is color. I think we're all familiar with this since as toddlers we're taught what the different colors are. Color can be a tool to emphasize certain aspects of a figure. By drawing the eye, grouping things together, creating relationships between variables, it can help set the mood or tone and poorly chosen colors can actually distract from the overall message you're trying to convey. So really pay attention to the color choice. Alignment refers to how elements are arranged in relation to a visible grid on a page. So we are programmed to notice patterns, and so you would clearly notice if something's out of alignment such as the third dot represented here. Proximity. So proximity tends to assume that things that are grouped close to one another are related. So if you look at the group of shapes on the left, the triangle, the pentagon, the square and the circle, right? Like even though they're different shapes because they're physically located close to each other, you're gonna assume that they're grouped in some way. And balance is this idea that there's equal weight on either side of an axes. So if we were to draw a line between these two groups, you can see that even though the shapes on the left are different compared to the shapes on the right, there is balance or equal weight across that axis.

Contrast is how different things look. So contrast and tone can be preferred to black and white but you can also think of contrast of colors based on their position of the color. Contrast comes into play when you really wanna show a difference between two variables. It can also help create a cohesive visual by drawing attention to elements that you want to put emphasis on.

Negative space or white space allows the eye to breathe. So space is kind of divided into positive and negative aspects. So positive or occupied, where the space builds. So this circle here would be the positive space. The negative space is the white space around it. Okay? And that negative space helps create breathing room around the elements.

Emphasis is just a design element that occurs by combining some of the other principles such as contrast and color. And it really helps draw your eye to a certain area of the visual.

Flow is the order of information that is assimilated or processed. And a visual hierarchy is arranging elements to show their order of importance. It helps with navigation in the plain order in a visual. So this thick line at the top, you can automatically assume that it's more important or higher in the hierarchy than that thin line at the bottom. Now that I've gone through some background, I'm gonna present six tips for incorporating these design principles into scientific visuals. The first tip is color can be used to explain relationships.

I'm sure you all learned about the color wheel in elementary school. So this is the color wheel of different colors positioned around the circle. Um, and we can use colors positioned in different locations to explain relationships between variables. So for instance here, blue and orange on either side of this line aren't opposite sides of the color wheel. And we can use those colors to suggest an imposing relationship between two variables as an example. So this is a BioRender template of a viral lifecycle. And here the virus is orange and the host cell is blue. And just by color coding those two entities in contrasting colors, it seems like the viral particle is invading the host cell, right? So we're showing kind of an opposing relationship here.

We can also use color to group and to separate. So in this template there are three sling pathways, PI3kinase,  and jak stat. Rather than using two colors on opposite sides, we can actually use a triad of colors or three colors that are equidistant on the color rails. So in this case, this is purple, green, and orange secondary colors. And we can distinguish the three different pathways that way. But there's also other design principles that are happening here. So within a pathway, let's say let's focus on the purple pathway. All of the proteins are in a similar shade of purple. They're also close proximity to one another and aligned with a flow of arrows going between them. And because of all those elements, it demonstrates that these proteins are part of one pathway. We can also use this triad scheme of colors in our data as well.

In this bar graph, you may assume that the three bars have almost no relationship to one another because of the color choice we used, right? Using those three opposite colors from on the color wheel. So this could be maybe they are completely different or measurements from completely different model organisms. Whereas if we were to change the bars to a shade of a similar color blue, you now assume that there's some sort of relationship between these three bars. So maybe they are different concentrations of a drug that you're adding into cell culture. Maybe they are subpopulations of an organ, right? And you're making a count there. Okay?

We often like to advise to use color consistently and for emphasis. This is a paper from Minta lab at Columbia looking at circadian regulation of mitochondrial uncoupling and the lifespan. In this panel you can see that she has a diagram of the clock and cycle proteins, and how they regulate timeless and period in a negative feedback loop. And so actually what she's also done is she related clock and cycle, these two proteins in warm colors, orange and yellow for the ones that are highly expressed during the day when it's the temperature's warmer. And then at night she uses cool colors, green and blue, to say which proteins are upregulated then as well or expressed them. She also carried this color scheme throughout the rest of the figure. So these are survival curves of mutant flies compared to control with these four different genes here. By doing that, it's really, really easy for you to say, okay, well the cycle is yellow. So this must be the survival plot of cycle compared to control.

What she also did is she made the control survival curve line black, right? That's kind of like the neutral point, the starting point. And so it's really easy to see whether or not that curve has shifted left or shifted right in the mutant compared to control. And so that take home message is very clear and very easy to see.

Color can also be a hindrance or a tool. Many of you recognize this as a heat map where gene expressions are represented by the intensity of color. So red here is upregulated and green is downregulated. However, if you're red-green colorblind, you have no idea which sections of the map I'm referring to. Okay? So that color and information gets lost. If we change the color scheme to a muted red, yellow, or blue. If I were to draw a uniform gray line between all the subpanels and remove it, creating more negative space or blank space that allows your eye to focus on a subpanel, figure out what's going on in the subpanel, and then understand the message that the author is trying to convey.

The third tip or another tip is to position information in logical order. So this is a figure of a large complex grant that Stephanie Makinson and Claudia Constantino from my team made for Dr. Ani here at Columbia. In this grant, this is a complex grant proposal. There were four cores. So an administrative core, a biospecimen core, a biological analysis core, and a data analysis core. And we really wanted to demonstrate the flow of specimens and data throughout this core. And so in the western world, we tend to read from left to right and from top to bottom we also tend to see, or we're used to seeing like a clock and going around a clockwise rotation, right? So these are common paths we're used to navigating in order to obtain information. And you can see with the arrows here, we used that commonality to depict the flow of information. Figures such as these are really helpful to reviewers. So we actually got this comment. Figure one is especially helpful in highlighting the vital interactions with the diverse elements of the overall research effort as well as the NIH and the larger research community. So this is a great comment for us to get, you know, it didn't take as much time to put this together and it clearly demonstrated what was going on and what we were proposing in that grant.

My fourth tip is to declutter as much as possible. How many of you have seen a bench like this in your labs, right? It's super crowded, it's hard to find what you need. There are extra bottles, there are tubes. It's just very, very cluttered if you were to tidy it up, get rid of all of the bottles and racks and things that you don't need. The bench is much cleaner and it's easier to find your pipette or the different things that you need. The same is true in figures, right? So simplify as much as possible to reduce the cognitive load and the strain you're putting on reviewers to try to understand what the visual is saying.

In this figure, there's a lot going on. Your eyes bouncing around between the contrasting colors of red and blue. There's extra lines. So stroke lines are the lines around the bars. These black lines, we don't actually need that.

That's not telling us information, it's just inundating our eyes with useless information. The legend is not up where you're looking at the data and actually the orientation of the x-axis, it's hard to read, right? It's not from left to right, it's a little bit diagonal. If we were to clean that up, change the control color to black and make it clear between what's control and what's knockout. Clean up the stroke lines, get rid of them, change the orientation of the writing, move the legend up to where your eye is actually looking at the data. It's much easier to understand the relationship between the control and hypothetical conditional knockout in these conditions.

My fifth tip is maximize figure titles. Remember, our reviewers are busy, busy people. And so to make their lives easier, make sure you state the takeaway in the figure title. So this is the same figure I showed earlier. It's at the full figure this time. And here's an example of a title that doesn't really tell you anything, right? It just tells you that this is a diagram of this circadian clock transcriptional feedback group and survival curves compare and control and conditional clock release, right? The takeaway is not there, but what she actually published was this loss of the repressive arm. The transcriptional circadian clock extends male lifespan, right? That take home message is there. So the reviewers are gonna read that, go through the data and say, Hey, as I go through this data, I should confirm that this statement is true and they're gonna retain that overall message.

My last tip is that font choice sends a message. The font you choose matters. The font you choose matters. The font you choose matters, right? So here's a clear example that by choosing bold in certain areas and caps in certain areas, the font you choose really clearly affects legibility. It affects tone and it affects the level of professionalism. So this slide was taken from a book designing science presentations and it's ordering legible writing at the top versus illegible at the bottom. And so I just wanted to quickly go through and show that the tops bold is good for emphasis. Where is that? Just plain text is good for the body. Um, all caps in bold are good for headers. And then at the very bottom right, things that you can't see are hard where you just don't use that. Okay? And you can apply this text hierarchy navigation for emphasis.

So here's an example of a lot of formatting. You don't know what to concentrate on. Here's an example where we've cleaned up, gotten rid of the formatting, not needed, only put in bold, the takeaway sentence and your eye is automatically drawn to that, okay? You can also use text hierarchy for navigation and emphasis. So again, same figure that we had before, but in the different cores, administrative core, biospecimen core, we've used the same bold less important the activities going on into each of the cores. That is a normal text. And then we used italics to show an action that was happening.

So to wrap up my session, I want to leave you with some tips of things not to do and some takeaways from this talk. So when it comes to data, make sure you're not including too much data. The reviewers will get lost if you include too much data and the message will not be clear. But make sure you're including enough because if you're not including enough, feasibility is not demonstrated.

Make sure the data and the figure is where you discuss it in the text. When it comes to figures and captions, often it's too small. So we recommend the size nine font. Make sure your figures have high resolution and then make sure that in all of your editing, the numbering of the figures is in order throughout the application.

When it comes to forwarding, we always see too much. So make sure that you are only including bold and italics where needed, and make sure that it's consistent usage throughout. All headers and all subheaders are consistently the same. So for the main takeaways, coordinate colors throughout the proposal, allocate space for figures and use blank space and figures, position information in logical order, declutter visuals, highlight the conclusion. And figure titles use consistent formatting and ultimately your proposals are your brand. So the choices you make, whether to include color or visuals, negative space, they really impact the message and what you're trying to communicate in the proposal. So hopefully by these choices you're helping, um, to convince reviewers that your project's significant and defend your work.

And, um, this is amazing because you've set up my side of the talk very nicely and some of it will be going into the deeper theories that you've spoken about here. 

Shiz Aoki’s Section

So I'm going to go ahead and share my screen and of course I'm gonna be using BioRender, but this could be  anywhere PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator. Some of the tips I'll be covering are really app agnostic. So that's kind of the point of this, is that you're going to be taking away design tips you can use, not just even in grants, beyond grants, you know, presentations, posters, your thesis, pitch decks, what have you.

And we also have a presentation mode, but I think what I'll do is, maybe go through this way. Alright, hopefully you can see my screen and my audio's coming in.

Okay, great. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention, we are doing a little bit of a contest, so, it doesn't have to be right away, but by the end of today, we're giving out these really snazzy t-shirts. If you would like to tweet or post on LinkedIn your favorite tip that you learned today, we'll draw three to five names by the end of the day. And then there's a few other ways you can win a shirt, and I'll tell you by the end of this webinar. Just keep your eyes peeled, I guess, for any tips that you find helpful. 

Okay, let's get deeper on some design tips for grant figures. And again, this is really great because Dr. Matsushima Set it up very nicely for me. These are gonna be my five tips I'll go through. They'll surround the topic of clarity versus quote unquote beauty as if those two were, you know, mutually exclusive. Think IKEA manual. And I'll go into why number two is to think about simple layouts and rating order, very important. Number three, think of color as a highlighter. Again, Dr. Matsuhima had just beautifully described. Four really quick touches on arrows and using them sparingly and consistently, I should have put them consistently there. And then five is context, making sure your content is context-appropriate or audience-appropriate. And some of these tips, you know, we've talked about before in other webinars, but again, I think they're so important and we continue to see them as one of the biggest design mistakes being made still in grant figures and publications. And we hear these firsthand from editors and reviewers. So we're here to share with you how to not make these mistakes. 

Clarity over beauty

The first tip I'll go into a little bit of detail on is clarity over beauty, quote unquote. Although we think being clear is beautiful, but, think IKEA manual. Here's an image that I created several years ago for a surgical textbook. I was so proud of it. You know, I got all the textures in there and sort of the anatomy of the hand. I was working with a plastic surgeon out in the University of Maryland, and I thought, okay, this piece is great, you know, it's gonna be published and it's gonna be informative. Now thinking back, you know, this was my early days of trying to train up to be a medical illustrator, and I was trying to flex all my design skills. It actually turned out that maybe this would've been a better description. So my ego took a hit, but you know, sometimes a simpler image is more descriptive. I think this was good to explore, you know, again, textures and how to draw with the pen and ink and all of that. But maybe it could have been almost like an insight at the beginning of this to say like, here's the before and after. 

Usually Ikea manuals show that, you know, you're building a bookshelf and it'll show the finished bookshelf and then it'll go into steps 1, 2, 3. So think about that. Let's take our egos and our conceptions of what beautiful is and really put the clarity before, I guess again, beauty or decorative I guess if you want to call that. Because in this case it really was just about transferring a tendon from the finger to the thumb. Cause your index finger happens to have two redundant tendons.

So if your thumb is not working, you can actually transfer the tendon over. I don't know if that was clear in my first image, but clear in this one. So that's kind of a point I wanna draw home. Here's one of the most beautiful illustrations you can think of. Again, it's odd to think that IKEA drawings are beautiful, but in the design world it's the pinnacle of description.

It kind of touches on everything that Dr. Matsushima said on proximity hierarchy, color or lack thereof, using it sparingly, you know, reading order. We can learn a lot from an IKEA manual. I know it sounds silly, it's like looking at photos versus actually learning how to do the thing via, you know, very clear didactic visuals. Even the number of screws and all of that could be thought of as like the legends that you use. If you want to describe, you know, here is a cell type or here is a liquid that you'll be using, you know, kind of follows all of those. Great hierarchical rules for design.

So I'll go into more detail in the following slides, but just think about clarity and moving towards communication or that IKEA manual concept versus too much decoration. 

Simple layout and reading order

That kind of draws into my next point around simple layout and reading order. If we were to look at the different rules, I think I was already mentioned as I talked about, but if we were to kind of trace, you know, the, the most successful types of figures, they usually have a reading order of, again, left to right and then, you know, up to down. For grants specifically, we usually see these two reading orders because it kind of talks about either one experiment coming up with two specific aims. So we do see those bottom two types of formats quite common in grant images. But not to say that that's the only design type. These two are crossed out because they're a little bit more for publications or maybe posters. Posters have that general m shape reading order. Here's an example of an image that was bravely volunteered and we have used this image before, but I just love this as an example because it's a beautiful diagram made in BioRender. And there were some things that we could have done differently, which is, you know, one is the reading order. So if I were to follow the flow of information, it actually kind of meanders a little bit and even forks in the road at the bottom so it doesn't follow their general reading order rules of, you know, left to right up to down. It's not quite simple, it almost combines too many of them. So what we did was we also moved it so that, you know, the descriptions, you see how it kind of toggles up and down, left to right of the image. You kind of wanna make sure that the descriptions are all consistently either above the images or the iconography or below. So I think consistency is a key here really, that we want you to take home.

So what we did was, here's the before, here's the after. And again, if we were to kind of follow the reading order, it's nice and clean now it's sort of that z formation. A lot of complex processes if you're showing a protocol or something like that requires quite a few steps. So usually the Z formation is good. Um, and then we numbered them. I think you can never, you know, hit people over the head too hard with, you know, reading order. So again, that Ikea drawing IKEA building manual you can think of as you know, step 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and we were actually able to tuck away one of the steps into one of the steps here. It was actually more of an appendage than a main fork in the road. So that's another thing there. 

Next topic. Oh yeah, this is another really great example of reading order and maybe how we could have minimized the number of decorations and number of types of arrows to better communicate reading flow. Um, here would've been if I again follow, uh, if you follow my retina around, you could see that I would start here at number one 'cause that's where my eye's gonna look for number one just to anchor. And then I'm gonna go down to number two. Up to number three. These arrows speak really strongly. So I'm going to follow those instead of looking for the next number because I'm a little distracted and I'm gonna end up here. Then there's also another arrow that comes out this way. So it's a little bit like a combination of different flows of information. And what we did was, this was the before and, and we helped this individual out by basically rotating everything 90 degrees and then putting a little bit of a cleaner reading order. And it wasn't that much work. I know it looks like it, but we kind of removed all the arrows, all the colors, eliminated the decoration and just simplified the message as much as possible. So hopefully you can see my pen here, but starting from the top down left to right, because again, that's the reading order generally. So left to right, up to down or cyclical, which is the case here. We did kind of follow that rule. So we started at one, put the blood vessel up here 'cause that's where our story started instead of down below I think it was.

And then it goes 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. And then there were some kind of off-shoot stories happening here. But you know, the arrows are smaller or the inhibitor lines are a little bit smaller to de-emphasize that. But the general gravitational pull is around the cyclical motion. So much cleaner to read. 

Think of color as a highlighter. 

Now this is really, really important, and was previously mentioned already as, in Dr. Matsushima’s section. I think we have a tendency or a need to want to color everything like a coloring book, but you should really think of color as something used very sparingly. You should be very stingy with the use of color. For example, I don't know if you were all, I'm sure you're all straight A students here, and if you were anything like me that wanted to just color everything and highlight everything, if we do that, if we highlight everything, then nothing is important. So think of that when you're creating illustrations or visuals and figures, you really want to save the colors for the most important parts of your story. And to win is absolutely necessary. Here's an image that we created with our art team at Nat Geo. This was several, several years ago now but when we had selectively added color, it compared quite complex structures, which is the dolphin brain and the human brain. But we wanted to show the comparison of different cortical regions and the morphology and how it related. And if we had put too much color everywhere, you would be distracted. So we really emphasized certain areas with really three colors. The corpus callosum was purple. This superior area on the dolphin was pink, which was on the occipital lobe and the human using color as a highlighter. Another example here was when we did this octopus figure, and I'll go through these quickly, but just to say that, you know, again, using color sparingly, you're able to draw the attention to the right areas.

You know octopi are enormously colorful species, but we had to dial that back and almost fake the color of the octopus so that you could see the key areas which were blue and yellow, and then we could use that as accent colors throughout the other parts of the legend. So again, using color, very sparingly and it would be like if we were trying to draw or build that Ikea shelf with too much color on it, it would just be so distracting. Obviously expensive color-wise too.

So there's a reason why things are black and white when they're printed on manuals but think of that again, getting towards that Ikea drawing where color in this case is actually gray. They've used it sparingly, but it's used as an anchor point to say that this is the bottom of the shelf and kind of orients your eye throughout the entire image. So it's very successful with no color. And so again I want to emphasize that maybe color isn't even necessary in some cases, but if you do want to use it, use it sparingly and I loved that, Dr. Matsushima may use this similar type of image because we see this a lot and we are tempted to color in, you know, every protein or every part of a diagram, bright color. But look what happens when you eliminate color completely and you focus it on just an area, your eye goes straight to the area that has color, saturation and intensity of the color. So you know, you can really use it as a tool to say, Hey, look right here and not over here. Same thing, exact same image, but the color focus is in a different area and the saturation is in a different area. It's a brighter red, and you can use those colors, but again, you have to use it sparingly and know that your audience is going to focus on the areas where you have color and it's a very powerful tool in this case. Oh, and also shameless plug, we have this really neat commenting feature in BioRender. So if you're in here and you wanna, you know, give feedback to your colleagues, or if you're working on your grant figures together with your lab mates or your PI or your students, then you can actually come in here and like leave comments and say, Hey, too much color, or, you know, change the color and then you can actually start a comment thread here and collaborate with your colleagues if you didn't know that we had that feature. 

Another tip, don't oversaturate colors. I think this was back in the nineties when Microsoft defaulted everything to like fluorescent red and the CMYK color palettes, but you can actually get away with quite a lighter color palette, you know, not too light where it disappears, but, luckily in BioRender and I saw some questions of, you know, how do you pick colors? In BioRender specifically, we have a set of pre-made cell colors or mice colors that are already neutral and somewhat cohesive, so you can be rest assured that no matter what colors you pick, they'll somewhat look nice. Even if it's a pink you kind of dial that back or even a red dialed back a little bit. So yeah, don't be afraid to desaturate your color palette a little bit and not go with the automatic highlighter colors.

So cell number one, you're all very adept at understanding that colors have an emotional tie to it. And so do shapes. This spiky red invasive looking cell on the left looks like the invasive cell and what we see a lot of the time. So 90% of you said that was the invasive cell. A lot of the time we don't realize that and we just color things on your figure, kind of willy-nilly. And the problem is sometimes we're actually trying to communicate the opposite thing. So in this case, it probably would've been better if the activated macrophage was a cooler color, like purple, and maybe the cancer cell was more of a red. And so automatically you flip the script and focus the viewer's attention on who is a villain and who is not the villain of the story.

Another tip related to colorblindness is if you're worried about your image not being visible for colorblind audiences, we have a quick grayscale mode where you can see if your images don't have enough contrast. That's usually the first gut check to know if it is colorblind friendly. Of course, you want to make sure that the colors themselves are compatible, but even just adjusting the contrast can help with diagrams. Sometimes it just means lightening up the background and darkening the foreground. But the black and white color check is a really good quick gut check to see if you have enough contrast in your figure.


Arrows should be used sparingly. Sometimes we see step one, then go to step two, then go to step three, sort of directional. Then there is the use of an arrow to label something. So consistency is key. I would also recommend not being afraid to play around with the opacity sliders. Sometimes it's not necessary to show the background or the foreground of an object so intensely. You can kind of adjust the transparency to help layer objects and make the important items stand out. The black and white color check is a quick gut check to see if you have enough contrast in your figure.


Making sure that your content is audience-appropriate is important. Going back to the diagram, you can remove or change the arrows to better convey your story. You can use dotted curved arrows to show movement. Dotted lines usually indicate that something has happened or will happen. Emphasize the main takeaway of the image. Simple changes like bolding text or using different colors can draw attention to the most important elements. Step back and think about the one takeaway message you want viewers to get from the image.

What is that one takeaway message? In this case, it was the tumor growth. So that's where we ended the color, that's where we bolded the text and that's where we emphasize the little icons. Sorry, I just wanted to make sure we flag time here. We're at 2:47. Okay, thank you. I'm gonna hang back for about five more minutes if you're all available, but since we are up on time, maybe I'll do a little bit of housekeeping and then I'll go back into doing a quick figure makeover if you want to stay back. 

Those were the five general tips that I wanted to cover, which was clarity over beauty, think Ikea, drawing simple layouts and reading order. Think of color as a highlighter, really important. Use arrows sparingly and the right types of arrows. I would recommend using that worksheet and then making sure your images are context appropriate.

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