Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
The capability to use tools has given humankind enormous power to enable many things. It’s not a very different story for scientific figure preparation! While there is simple software like Microsoft Painter (my first digital drawing software) and Microsoft PowerPoint (which is surprisingly popular among researchers to “draw” things not just for presentation slides), more dedicated professional graphic design software can definitely be a great help. In this tip post, I wish to introduce several common and popular design software for 2D and 3D graphics.
In scientific figures, 2D graphical elements (schematic illustrations, plots) are the most common type of graphics. 2D graphic design software can be divided into two categories: vector and raster design software (for more information on vector vs raster formats, please check this tip post).
Let’s start with 2D vector design software. Despite being commercial with a relatively high price (although cheaper with academic discount), Adobe Illustrator has become a dominant software for 2D vector design in scientific figure preparation due to its ready compatibility with other commonly used Adobe software packages (Photoshop, Acrobat, InDesign, etc) as well as broad adoption in the publishing industry. I also use Adobe Illustrator for most of my 2D graphic design for scientific figures, so the upcoming tip posts will be mostly based on Adobe Illustrator.
However, there are open-source alternatives that are freely available with comparable functionality. Among them, Inkscape is one of the most popular and powerful alternatives to Adobe Illustrator. Note that many standard vector graphic formats (.eps, .svg, .pdf) are compatible across different software, so the choice of software can be made based on the availability (often through university/institute software volume licensing) and personal preference.
Next is 2D raster design software. Unlike non-scientific purposes, raster graphic design has very limited use in scientific figure preparation. The main reason is that inappropriate manipulation of raw image data (commonly in raster formats) is a major concern regarding research ethics and integrity. Hence, it is strongly recommended to familiarize with the guideline for scientific digital image manipulation before using these 2D raster design software (some good reading materials like this and this).
Adobe Photoshop is arguably the most well-known 2D raster graphic design software due to its long history and powerful functions (even photoshopping is in the dictionary). However, Adobe Photoshop is a relatively expensive commercial software package (unless provided by university/institute through volume licensing) and its powerful functionalities are often not really relevant to scientific figure preparation as scientific digital image data mostly need only minimal edits (like cropping, etc). Hence, very simple built-in functions of Microsoft PowerPoint (or Keynote if you use Mac) can be enough for many occasions. If you may need open-source alternatives to Adobe Photoshop, I find GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) can be a great option as a free alternative with comparable functionality.
While 2D graphics are the most common type in scientific figures, 3D graphics are often useful to describe complicated structures or ideas. 3D graphics are typically prepared by computer-aided design (CAD) software. While the division is not very clear, I roughly divide commonly used 3D CAD software into two categories: engineering CAD and general CAD.
Engineering CAD software is a dedicated program for engineering design & validation that are often incorporated in the curriculum of undergrad/grad programs. While engineering CAD software is not mainly used to make scientific figures, their capability to build 3D models of complicated structures with specific dimensions and design parameters together with photo-realistic rendering function fits perfectly for 3D graphics for scientific figures. There is many engineering CAD software, but I am most familiar with Solidworks and Autodesk Inventor (probably because I am a mechanical engineer). While the upcoming tip posts will focus more on 2D graphics, I will use Solidworks for 3D graphics although the general approach should be similar in different CAD software.
Apart from engineering CAD software, there is a range of general CAD software for more general design purposes including animation, games, etc. One key difference between engineering and general CAD software is the extensive design validation functionality. General CAD software focuses mostly on building 3D models and their photo-realistic rendered images. Among many general CAD software, SketchUp (popular in architecture design) and Autodesk 3DS Max are pretty commonly used for various purposes. Note that these engineering and general CAD software are commercial and very expensive (unless provided by university/institute through volume licensing). Blender is a great open-source free alternative for commercial CAD software for 3D model building and rendering.
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.