Authors need to pay attention to figures for both scientific and
technical reasons. Figures are often the primary presentation of
one's results, and they need to be clear and understandable. Figures
are also expensive to produce, and a bit of care in their preparation
will keep journal costs down and production on schedule. The
following are just a few thoughts from experience and talking to
production staff. I'd welcome any suggestions for modification or
In the old days, we could rely on human artists to make the figures
right. Unfortunately, neither computers nor most astronomers have
good artistic judgment. The only substitute is careful thought and
examination of the figures. A variety of general suggestions can be
and specific suggestions for electronic art at
suggestions can be found below.
The first thing to keep in mind is that most figures will be reduced
in size for publication. The final width will normally be one of
three values: 88 mm for a single column, 185 mm for full page, and
248 mm for sideways on the page. The single column width is
preferred if all the information can be presented at that scale.
Please be sure to examine all your figures at their expected final
scale. Borders, tick marks, lines, and labels should be large enough
to be clear at this scale. No feature should be thinner than the
finest lines commonly used in the Journal. If features are too thin,
small bits of metal type break off during printing. The printer does
not like this!
Use lines that are thick enough to show up well, especially if there
will be a large reduction factor. Consider relative thicknesses as
well, making the most important lines (often the figure borders) the
Consider the relative sizes of all labels. The most important should
be the largest or at least no smaller than less important ones.
Labels on different axes should be consistent in size and style.
It's best to avoid a mix of many different label sizes in one figure;
one or two sizes usually suffice. Confirm that all labels are big
enough to read! Bold fonts often work better than non-bold,
especially at large reductions.
Avoid clutter. Don't put too many tick marks on the axes, and don't
label too many of the tick marks. Often two or three tick labels on
each axis suffice.
If different symbols are plotted, make sure they are distinguishable.
If a grey scale is overplotted with symbols, make sure the symbols
contrast enough to be seen.
Avoid wasting space. Don't repeat axis labels unnecessarily. In
figures consisting of several panels with the same axes, consider
labeling only one of the panels and moving all the others closer
together or even juxtaposing them. If panels have one common
axis, consider juxtaposing panels on that axis, again eliminating
Consider whether it's better to explain symbols in the figure
caption or symbolically with a legend in the figure itself. I don't
know any general rule; just decide which is clearer in each case. If
you do use a legend, make sure it will not be confused with the data.
There should be no internal grid lines in ordinary two-dimensional
graphs. (Possibly they might be needed in some very rare case, but I
have yet to see an example.) Grid lines might be needed when
attempting to show three-dimensional objects, but alternatives such
as an "illumination direction" may work better. The most important
thing is to be sure the meaning is clear.
For grey scale (or color) images, a rendering that looks good on a
computer screen may not be best for printing on paper. Printed images
generally are clearer when there is more white than black. For
astronomical images, this usually implies a negative. Careful
attention should be paid both to the zero level (which should usually
be near white) and to the contrast stretch (which should be chosen to
show the key features clearly). The (expected to be) final version
should be printed on a high quality printer and examined on paper.
For color figures, see the
For figures that represent only a single dimension of data in each
pixel (whether the dimension be surface brightness or something more
complex like a ratio or other function), I strongly recommend using a
grey scale and not a color image. The major reason is that no color
palette has an intuitive translation to a one-dimensional scale.
Also, color images are expensive, and a non-trivial fraction of
astronomers are color blind and may be unable to interpret a color
Color is justified when it is the best way to present a complex data
set. Good examples might be presenting images at three different
wavelengths encoded in a single figure as blue, green, and red or
superposing a red-blue color palette to indicate radial velocity on a
surface brightness image.
If you still want to use color figures, be sure to see the special information.