The following is the checklist I use when making explanatory figures (including tables), which is a special class of figures. Other kinds of figures include “exploratory” and “schematic”, which have somewhat different guidelines, and will be discussed elsewhere.

Absolutely Crucial and Trivial

(imho, it is almost always a mistake to not follow these, and these are trivial formatting issues)

  1. All axes are labeled (with units).
  2. All font sizes are legible for the typical reader. Specifically, all fonts sizes (including axis labels, numbers, titles, etc.), should be the same size as the caption in the text. Note that there is basically no advantage to smaller fonts, but there is a huge advantage to clarity, especially for readers with poor eyesight (which is a larger fraction of the readers).
  3. All lines are labeled (e.g., in legend) with clearly different colors/styles.
  4. All the letters/numbers are fully visible (i.e., not obscured by part of the figure).
  5. The title provides context (e.g., sample size, dimensionality, dataset/simulation name, etc.), and possibly conclusion.

Primary Conceptual

  1. The main point of the figure “pops-out” to your audience (note: addressing this successfully requires knowing precisely what the main point is, and who your audience is).
  2. All data presented are critical to the main point (meaning none can be removed or summarized elsewhere).
  3. Is there any way to reduce cognitive load for the audience, and still make the same point, for example, by removing unnecessary:
    1. borders,
    2. gridlines,
    3. data markers,
    4. legends (by labeling data directly).

Color

  1. Color use is consistent (within and across figures).
  2. Colorblind sensitive (use colororacle).

Text

  1. The caption begins with a sentence (fragment) stating what the figure is demonstrating (i.e., why it is there).
  2. The caption defines all acronyms used in the figure (especially if they are not used anywhere else).
  3. The caption ends by pointing out particularly interesting aspects of the figure that one should note.
  4. The caption below the figure.
  5. If it’s a log scale, the axis label says so.
  6. Is your method named something other than ‘proposed method’ or ‘our method’? If not, name it and use it throughout.
  7. Is everything that is “latexable” (like greek letters, subscripts, etc.) “latexed” (in other words, did you remove things like alpha or _)?
  8. Are the number of significant digits reasonable (eg, the number of significant digits cannot reasonably be larger than the sample size)?

Other Miscellaneous

  1. If there is one color, is it the default color (probably gray, so that black can be used for emphasis)?
  2. If there are multiple lines/dots, is each a different line style and color?
  3. Are all lines sufficiently thick? (If you used matlab, and they are the default thickness, the answer is no.)
  4. Are all markers clearly different?
  5. Are the colors clearly different (ideally for colorblind)?
  6. If errorbars make sense, are they there? If there, does the caption explain whether they are standard error? If they are not there, is there a good justification provided for that?
  7. Are your axes ‘tight’ (that is, are the bounds of the axes just larger than the max and min of what you want to show)? If not, do you have good reason for the excess?
  8. Are all graphics that can be vector graphics actually vector graphics?
  9. Is the aspect ratio correct? (Hint: if you rescaled both the width and height separately, it is probably not.)
  10. If the data are 2D, are you displaying it in 2D? (If not, remove that additional 3rd dimension. It is just confusing and obfuscatory.)
  11. Is anything not aligned that could be aligned?
  12. If it’s a bar chart, does the y-axis start at zero (if it is a log axis, the answer is no)?
  13. If it’s a pie chart, can you replace it with a stacked barchart (or something else)?
  14. If you are comparing multiple approaches across multiple settings, are you grouping by the key comparison (eg, usually group by setting to make comparisons easier)?
  15. Is there sufficient whitespace?

Multipanel figures

  1. Can certain axes/labels be removed because they are redundant?
  2. Does the caption specifically mention each?
  3. Are the captions for each collected together in the overall figure caption?

Table

  1. Can it be converted to a figure? If so, do it (put table in appendix if you are scared of losing the information)!
  2. Are the rows sorted in a reasonable fashion (ie, according to the most important column)?