Meeting between Gill and Barbara, Thursday 19th July 2018

Gill met with Barbara to demonstrate how to use a set of visual elements to construct a conceptual figure describing dopamine synthesis for an upcoming journal paper. Gill had already prepared Adobe Illustrator files for each of the visual elements required for the figure and had created an initial figure to use as a starting point  – see this blog post for details. Barbara hadn’t yet got hold of an Illustrator licence, so Gill’s own copy of the software was used during the meeting.

As for the meeting held earlier in the week, with Yannis, Daniel and Robert, the aim was not to construct a final version of the figure during the meeting. Instead, Gill would demonstrate to Barbara how to use the Illustrator files and edit or adapt all of the elements to create the figure. Barbara could then finalise the figure herself, once she had the software. As a reminder, the five visual elements used to create the figure, excluding text and graphic elements, are shown below:


Mattia could not attend the meeting but he had provided a sketch on paper of how he thought the final figure could look. The initial figure provided by Gill had the neuron  drawn in such as way as to create a space between the blood brain barrier and the neuron itself. This space was necessary for the figure, in order to explain the various processes, so this the initial figure, rather than any alternative layout, was used as a starting point for the editing.

The initial figure is shown below. As in previous posts the text is blanked out, to retain confidentiality.  Directly below this initial figure is the figure that was arrived at by the end of the meeting, so that a direct comparison can be made. Bear in mind this is not the final version of the figure.

Initial figure provided by Gill
Figure arrived at by the end of the meeting

The points discussed during the meeting, and some general guidelines for constructing conceptual figures, are outlined below:

  • The figure contains a large amount of text and graphical information. Therefore it is important that this information is not obscured by the visual elements that provide the context for the figure. For this reason Barbara chose not to use any colour for the neuron, etc., but to retain the greyscale fill. The grey colours were in fact lightened further, and any dark outlines removed (such as around the dopamine molecules), to allow text to be written over the top and still be legible.
  • In his sketch, Mattia had indicated that colour should be used to distinguish between different processes. Barbara chose the red, green and blue colours used for the text boxes to complement the greyscale background. If you do decide on a set colour to represent an object or process, it is worth taking note of the RGB values of that colour, or saving it as a swatch, so that it can be easily used elsewhere in the figure (for some of the text, in this case) or in another figure in the same article or presentation, to remain visually consistent.
  • Barbara raised the important point of using colour coding when a figure may be reproduced entirely in greyscale, which can happen in print publications. This issue has been discussed before on the blog – see this post for more details. In the case of this figure, it is necessary to consider the tone of each of the colours and how this compares to tone of the grey used in the background neuron. The green colour is lightest in tone and may not stand out that clearly against the grey. This can be checked by automatically converting the figure to greyscale within Illustrator or Photoshop and checking the results. Making the colours darker in tone would resolve any issues with this figure, although the intention is to publish the figure in full colour.
  • In order to accommodate all of the text and annotation, the visual elements were moved around and the pre-synaptic neuron was shortened slightly. As each element is drawn on a different layer in Illustrator, it is easy to edit or move one element while locking all of the other layers, to avoid inadvertently moving another element. However, if several elements need to be moved at once – in this case, to shift the entire figure to the left – simply unlock all of the layers that contain the elements you want to move, select them all and move them simultaneously, using the arrow keys on the keyboard if necessary, to retain close control. It is also straightforward to edit only part of an element, such as shortening the pre-synaptic neuron, by using the white arrow in Illustrator to select only those points you wish to move or edit.
  • The initial figure was drawn at a size that will fit into the width of an A4 portrait page and the updated figure still fits into this width. Therefore, if the figure is printed out at 100% size, that is how it will appear in a typical journal. Bear this in mind when constructing a figure. If you create it at a much larger size than the publishing journal allows, it will have to be shrunk to fit. If your figure contains a lot of detail and text then legibility may become an issue, so check the figure works at the size required.
  • As the height of the figure is not a restricting factor – assuming it can take up a whole page in the publishing journal – it has been extended at the bottom to allow Barbara to include a key. Changing the image size can be achieved simply by changing the size of the artboard in Illustrator. Barbara also intends to extend the blood-brain barrier downwards slightly. As that element is made up of individual cells and tight junctions, rather than being drawn as a single entity, one of each can easily be duplicated to increase the length of the barrier.

Gill left Barbara with the revised figure so that she could make further edits and produce a final version of the figure, with help from the Adobe Illustrator guides Gill had produced for the Workshop 2 last November. There will be an update on the construction of this conceptual figure in due course.

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