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I am a postgraduate student in mathematics. I am writing my thesis, for which I need to prepare some Matlab plots and figures. I had sent some plots to my supervisor, and he suggested to use black for the line color because most journals want to make sure that plots look good when printed black-and-white.

I am curious to know some other advice for figures like line width, styles, colormap for surface and contour plots, the figures’ dimension, etc.

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    These days it is not unusual to have the online version (pdf) in color, but a print version be in b/w because of costs. So it is more a question of making a plot that is clear in both b/w and color. – Jon Custer Sep 3 '20 at 15:43
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    Why is this question specific to MATLAB and not figures in general? Have you looked into the (vast) amount of guidance that exists about making figures? – Raghu Parthasarathy Sep 3 '20 at 16:53
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    You can get a lot of what you are searching for with a quick Google on this question. Just experiment, see what you like, look into principles of design in academic figures too - there is plenty. – GrayLiterature Sep 3 '20 at 17:22
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    I edited the title to generalize beyond Matlab, since your question is about typesetting generally rather than some particular issue that Matlab presents. But, the community may decide your question is too broad -- as others have said, the visual arts is an entire discipline, so it will be hard to give a comprehensive answer here. – cag51 Sep 3 '20 at 23:38
  • This question should be closed as too broad. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 4 '20 at 5:14
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Someone general advice:

  • do a Google search. There are already plenty of articles talking about all different aspects of creating good figures, and they probably do a better job than my answer here.
  • experiment. Just create a figure and look at the font size, linewidth, color selection and arrangement, etc. If you have an average person's understanding of aesthetics, you should be able to spot issues in your figures. Print the paper out, and see if everything is legible.
  • imitate. Find papers in top journals and important dissertations, and see how other people create figures. I am not in mathematics, but if you look at Science, Nature or top journals in my field like Physics Review Letter, you should get a good sense of the elements in a graph, how to convey data and ideas effectively, and how to make a graph look great.
  • look up guidelines. Journals in my field often have a very specific style guide (like this), which can be a very useful reference. They can include things like "minimum linewidth is 0.5 pt" and "font size must be greater than 18 pt". They are generally good guidelines to follow.

Some specific things you can look into:

Additional resources:

  • Look up a book named "Trees, maps, and theorems" in which there is a chapter about figures. (I have been to a great talk given by Jean-luc Doumont about how to give a good presentation.)
  • Figure Design (MIT EECS Communication Lab)
  • Choosing color palettes (Seaborn)
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  • Nice answer! I updated the question title as you suggested, and removed the corresponding paragraph in your answer. – cag51 Sep 3 '20 at 23:40
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    imitate – I cannot support this as it is and recommend to apply some caution. Sturgeon’s law applies strongly to scientific presentation and many bad practices are propagated “because everybody does it”. In particular, I find most figures in Science and Nature horrible, mostly because they are way too much crammed due to extreme space restrictions, but even apart from that they do not strike me better as figures in other venues. Thus a crucial step before imitating is to ask yourself whether what you imitate is actually good. – Wrzlprmft Sep 4 '20 at 6:30
  • In particular, Matlab's font sizes in figures are notoriously too small. If I see a figure with an unreadable axis scale in a talk, I can be 99% sure that it comes from Matlab. – Federico Poloni Sep 4 '20 at 7:26
  • @FedericoPoloni In my experience, this can usually be mitigated by shrinking the size of the output figure via PaperPosition. In other words, it's not that the font is too small, but that the figure is too big for the font. – jakebeal Sep 4 '20 at 9:23
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At its heart, every figure tells a story. Before you worry about the "polishing" details, you first need to make sure that you're organizing the information to tell the story as clearly as you possibly can.

A classic book on the subject, which I have found very helpful, is Edward Tufte's "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information." This has a lot of great first-principles concepts for communicating information with figures, as well as a lot of great examples of figures that do well in doing so.

When you are working on your own figures, try playing with different arrangements and densities of information within a figure. Our first instincts are often wrong, so try splitting dense figures into separate charts and try combining figures together. Likewise, our eyes like to move in lines, so try shifting locations and orientations of objects in diagrams into different organization (e.g., vertical, horizontal, circular) to minimize overlapping lines and to bring the most important conceptual relationships into simple and salient geometric relations with one another. Color is another valuable dimension that you can use to organize relationships, whether to make certain things pop or to turn a bunch of individual lines into an organized gradient whose gist can be grasped with a glance.

Once you've got the core narrative elements of presentation sorted, then you can think about how you might want to polish the figure by adjusting fonts, line weights, colorblind compatibility, etc. Most modern software, however, starts you with pretty reasonable defaults for fonts and colormaps, so you may not need to worry much about those. Matlab, for example, has switched to parula, which is designed to work well for both colorblind viewers and greyscale printing.

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