How to Create an Effective Graphical Abstract • Guide

The goal of this post is to familiarize you with the essential concepts we teach in our Seyens Workshops which are crucial for creating effective graphical abstracts. We will address:

  • some essential concepts and terminology,
  • the process we use to create graphical abstracts for our clients.

What makes a graphical abstract effective?

A graphical abstract is a figure that clearly and succinctly conveys the main message of your research (paper). The goal of a graphical abstract is that together with the title of the paper, the reader will be drawn to read the whole paper and will easily decide whether the content is interesting. In case you are new to graphical abstracts, I suggest you start by reading what’s a graphical abstract.

What you want to achieve with a graphical abstract is that the reader will quickly and effortlessly understand what your research is about. The important word here is effortlessly, implying that the reader will not have to struggle and think about what exactly you are trying to present. Have in mind, that your research is already pretty complex. You shouldn’t make it even more difficult to understand with a complicated graphical abstract.

The graphical abstract should in a way be self explanatory. The reader should quickly understand it and be able to decide whether to read your paper or not. If you achieve this, your graphical abstract is successful and effective.

The process for creating a graphical abstract

When preparing graphical abstracts at Seyens (our own or for our clients), we usually follow this creative process. It consists of three steps: (1) concept, (2) sketch, and (3) design & refine. The first two steps are done on paper, and we only move to graphic design software for the third step.


1. Concept = content + audience + goal

Concept is the first step of our process. You’ve done your research and have some results and messages to communicate. To meaningfully communicate (and the graphical abstract is a form of communication), you should first consider the three important elements:

  • content,
  • audience, and
  • goal.

Content is your research summarized in a research paper. It is the source from which you will need to define your audience and goal.

Audience is to be defined next. The reason is that different audiences require different approaches in order to get them to the desired goals. When you write a journal paper, you should think about who would be most interested in reading it. Who is the audience that would most benefit from what you have to say? There are a lot of research fields that are somewhat interdisciplinary. For example. When your research results target a specific chemical compound, your most common audience could be analytical chemists. However, maybe there is a value for audiences from medicine, biochemistry, or pharmacy? One of the easiest ways to choose the audience is together with the journal where the paper is being published.

Selecting a goal is (in most cases) defined by the content and audience. In scientific publications, the goal is usually to explain a structure, process, method etc. To highlight and amplify the main message of your paper. Try to limit the message you want to communicate with the graphical abstract in less than 50 words.

The difference between the paper’s abstract and the message for the graphical abstract is that the graphical abstract should only focus on one aspect of the your paper and not try to summarize it whole. Your research paper might have motivations and implications, and it has some research results and methods and so on. In a graphical abstract, you should only focus on one of these, the most important, and ignore the others.


2. Sketch = visually sketch the message on paper

First select the necessary visual elements (a cell, protein, chemical compound, animal …) and the textual elements that will accompany them. If a concept can be presented visually, that is better than described in words. For the text, try including some verbs as they best describe what is going on in the figure. As the space in the graphical abstract is very limited, keep the number of elements to the minimum and simplify the message to bare essentials.

When you are organizing the elements of the sketch, consider that they have to be arranged in some sort of an order. As most of the journal papers are in English language (which is read left-to-right, it is preferred that the message of the figure also follows the ‘western’ principles: organized from left-right, or from top-down.

Another aspect you should consider is to avoid having too many visual elements scattered around the sketch. All elements should be somehow connected to each other, sorted into groups that have something in common. Avoid using boxes around elements that fit together, just put them close together.


3. Design & refine = simplify by removing or grouping

When moving from drawn sketch on paper into your graphic design software, first read the Guide for authors for the journal where you are submitting your paper. The guide will give you information about the font type and size, line-widths, colors, and the dimension of the graphical abstract. It will also mention whether you are to provide it as a PDF, TIFF, or PNG file format.

Use the information from the guide to set-up your graphic design software. Make the dimension of the ‘art-board’ in the exact size the journal requires it. This will allow you to match all element and font sizes with the required from the beginning. Now draw all the visual elements you have on your sketch. You can make your work easier by adding content from repositories which contain free science art figures. Several can be found just by searching on Google or the following sites:

The last step of the process is to refine what you’ve drawn. To put it bluntly, this means to remove all necessary elements that don’t add to your message. Remember: if a visual element doesn’t add to the message, it detracts from it. Consider it as noise that has to be removed. This is valid for unnecessary elements and for color as well. Make sure that the message is presented unambiguously and is easy to understand.

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