Making Great Graphs

Nothing catches a judge’s eye as quickly as a well-done graph.  If it tells an interesting story, you are likely to win a prize.   Remember these rules any time that you would like to present your scientific research in graphical form.

  • No graph can rescue a project that has nothing new to say.  Make certain that you have some differences or some interesting trend to present.  Then make a graph that tells your story so clearly that it could stand apart from your project and anyone would be able to understand exactly what you found.
  • All axes must be of the same height if comparisons are to be made.  Microsoft products automatically scale graphs, thus creating y-axes of differing heights; it’s impossible to use such graphs to compare two variables.  Set the axis height through the menus that Microsoft provides.
  • Every graph and chart must be fully explained.  Good data displays can stand apart from the project and still be readily understood.
  • Avoid special effects.  Don’t use snazzy 3D bars or grids; these distract the reader from your story.
  • Use scatterplots whenever possible.   Good projects illustrate cases of cause and effect; plotting one variable against underscores their relationship to each other.
  • When it makes sense, use lines, not bars.   The less ink spent to tell your story the better.  Furthermore, lines are the natural vehicles to convey data that develops over the course of time.  Why use lines?  In part, because they allow the eye to track the data more effectively.