If you are looking for a good Illustrator tutorial, you are in the wrong place – but if you want a bumbly behind-the-scenes look at how a non-expert gets by making science-y graphics, you’re in luck! I’ve been spending a lot of time making graphics for my research stuff so I thought I’d give you a flavor of some of the things you can do in Illustrator (and Inkscape though with different keys and stuff), some tips, and why it’s so useful to invest a little time to learn early on as a scientist (this video isn’t just for scientists but I’m a scientist so I focus on those usefulness aspects).
video notes: I think I forgot to mention one of the most useful things – the eyedropper tool – you can get it by clicking the eyedropper icon or with the letter “i” – and then you click something and it will copy that thing’s formatting – great for making things the same color, line thickness, etc.
One more thing to be aware of is that you may want to change the settings so that it does or doesn’t scale the line thickness and stuff when you scale a thing. Lots of settings you can mess around with in Illustrator ➜ preferences
A lot of people have been asking me about my graphics – unless otherwise stated (and of course, cited) such as paper figures I want to point out things in or photographs – I make them all myself. And you are free to reuse if you credit me (either the bumbling biochemist or Bri Bibel or Brianna Bibel). I have a page with some key figures on my blog, and I also have some on Wikimedia Commons for easier download.
It’s always super weird when I search Google figures for something and my figures appear – I think that’s actually how a lot of people find my blog. So that’s a bonus. But there is lots of value to scientists (and non-scientists) learning how to use (and practicing using) graphics software.
I use Adobe Illustrator. It’s kinda $$ but you might be able to get a copy through your school. That’s how I got started using it. When I first started making some basic graphics in undergrad, the summer before starting grad school, I didn’t have Illustrator, so I used a free alternatives, Inkscape. It’s not as refined as Illustrator, but it’s free!
The key thing these softwares have in common is that they are vector graphics programs. This means that, instead of saving a static “picture” of your works-in-progress, you save a sort of instruction manual for the computer to make it – so you can then make changes. So, for example, if you had a simple drawing of a box saved it as a png or a jpeg (non-vector) and you stuck it into any program, you’d be limited to just trying to blow it up or squash it. And if you did try to blow it up it would be all pixel-y. But, with a vector image (such as an .ai or an .svg file) you can blow it up as big as you want and you don’t lose any resolution (it doesn’t get all grainy). And, even cooler, if you open it in a vector graphic program, you can manipulate the lines of the square – maybe you want to delete one to make a triangle, or color it a different color or something.
You might think this all is good for sci-comm graphics, but why should your average day scientist take the time to learn? Ever see someone give a powerpoint presentation and the graph is so pixelated that you can’t even read the axes? If they’d made that figure in a vector graphics program, and saved as a PDF or just a really high-res and/or large picture they wouldn’t have that problem (with the graphics programs you can export in basically any format and at any scale and resolution you want).
And that’s just the “dry” stuff – you can also make graphics to make your presentations really pop and keep your audience engaged and focused. A key thing I’ve learned is that it helps to keep some sort of visual reminder for the audience to keep track of what you’re talking about throughout. For example, if you are studying a complex of 3 proteins, keep a little graphic of the 3 proteins in the corner of the slide and highlight the one you’re talking about when you talk about it. Similarly, if you have a protein in a couple of different states, put a graphic of the pic it’s in. This way, if your audience gets confused or sidetracked, they won’t get lost.
I can only do a fraction of the things that are possible with Illustrator. I don’t claim to be an expert at all. I have just taught myself through a combination of online tutorials and just lots of practice. I also used a free 10-day trial of PluralSight to get some video tutorials: https://www.pluralsight.com/browse/creative-professional/visual-communication/illustration/illustrator
I encourage students to start learning early. I think this was key for me because I had a lot more free time and less pressure earlier in my PhD, so it gave me time to play around and start my blog and stuff without feeling as much productivity guilt. And that really built a strong foundation for where I am now.
The most useful thing I learned was using symbols. Basically, you can make a graphic you know you’re going to reuse a lot, such as a figure of ATP or, in my case, the protein I study, Argonaute (Ago), which is the key protein in RNAi http://bit.ly/microRNARNAi. And then you can fetch it “pre-made” from your symbol library whenever you want it. You can even use the export assets panel in Illustrator to export the figure as an image. And you can make different versions of it saved as different symbols (such as bound to partners, shape-shifted, etc.)
I do this for my research presentations – I export the different figures as pictures, and then animate them in my slideshow. If I need to make changes (such as when my boss (PI) asked me to make the figures darker so they’d pop out more) I can easily just update the file version. Yeah – that’s another really cool thing, my boss uses some of my intro animation slides in her talks!
Also, I’ve I’ve talked about before, I make “paper-style” figure legends for my figures that are just for my notes (and potentially lab meeting.. I make separate artboards for each, which are basically individual canvasses within a larger canvas. I make “paper-style” figure legends for my figures that are just for my notes (and potentially lab meeting) – This has come in really handy when I now need to put them into my thesis (and paper). Having the experimental details already written down there keeps me from having to dig through my notes from years ago to find out what the heck I did. I save my figures as PDFs, which are also vectors, so they can be blown up for unfuzzy presentations etc. (though they come at the cost of larger file sizes)
As I said, I am definitely not an expert on using Illustrator – and if you are really interested in graphics and stuff you can do a LOT more with it. Or with the free alternative, Inkscape: https://inkscape.org/
I just have learned what I need and it’s served me well on many fronts. note: Illustrator files are .ai files. But you can export them as .svg files that are Inkscape-compatible. And you can export the artboards as PDFs, jpegs, pngs, etc. Happy figure-making!
my blog’s graphics page: https://thebumblingbiochemist.com/graphics/
my wikimedia stuff: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:ListFiles?limit=50&user=Biochemlife
more on topics mentioned (& others) #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 http://bit.ly/2OllAB0⠀