How to create clear graphics to aid communication

Much of importance can be conveyed in a simple graphic. Modern software is capable of producing many fonts, shades, highlights and other devices, very few of which add to the clarity of a graph and most of which reproduce badly.

In Construction Management and Economics, papers are typeset from authors’ original submission. But graphics may be directly reproduced authors’ original copy. Even if they are re-drawn by the publishers, ambiguities and inconsistencies may still be reproduced. Therefore, it is important to produce graphs in a style which is consistent and acceptable. There is guidance inside the back cover of any issue of the journal, but this is not very detailed and does not address many increasingly frequent problems. Here, we provide more detailed advice, which should help to reduce the need for authors to re-draw graphs in papers submitted to this journal:

Please check the following points when producing your figures and especially check for consistency between Figures.

  • Text in Figures should be kept to an absolute minimum. Use only one font, only one size, preferably 14 pt (this large font remains legible after reduction).
  • Keys should not be included in the Figure, but placed after the caption so that they will be typeset. Similarly, sources of data should follow the caption and kept out of the main area of the graphic.
  • The caption should be at the bottom, after the Figure number, clearly separate from the Figure, followed by the key, then the source if relevant. If a Figure is based on, but not identical to someone else’s Figure, denote this by inserting “after” in front of the cited author’s name, in brackets at the end of the caption.
  • Do not label the Figures in capitals, but use lower case lettering with upper case only for the first letter of the first word and proper nouns. Ensure that all text on a Figure uses spelling consistent with the journal’s style.
  • Lines should be not less than 0.25 mm (1.5 or 2 pt) thick and should all be the same thickness. Different line thicknesses are rarely needed in drawings and never needed in graphs.
  • Figures should be provided one per page and not inserted within the text of the paper. However, it is not necessary to split them into separate files.
  • Typically, Figures should be printed between the margins of a portrait A4 sheet. Only in exceptional circumstances should you fill a landscape A4 sheet.
  • Background shading of any type should be omitted.
  • Perimeter boxes outside the Figure should be omitted.
  • Do not add shadows to boxes.
  • Switch off any 3D effects in bar charts and histograms.
  • In graphs and histograms, the Y axis caption is usually best at the top, horizontally, rather than rotated and added at the side.
  • Axis ticks should not be too cramped.
  • Different data sets in bar charts and histograms should be denoted by different orientations of cross-hatched lines, not by greyscales, tones, shading or patterns of dots. Beware of software that may produce perfect cross-hatching on the screen, only to convert it to shading on the printer! Check your graphics by printing them before you upload them. Pay particular attention to the PDF that is automatically produced by Scholar One in the submission process.
  • Photographs will be reproduced as halftones. Therefore, please ensure that photographs are monochrome, not colour. Colour reproduction can be arranged, but at the author’s expense. It is not cheap! Generally, colour only detracts from Figures, rather than adding to them. And many users of journal papers rely on monochrome photocopies; therefore it is most helpful to avoid halftones and colours, which do not photocopy well.
  • Pie charts should be omitted completely. They are intended to emphasize the relative magnitude of numbers, but we assume our readers are sufficiently numerate to be able to distinguish large from small numbers. The main problem with pie charts is that the same information can be portrayed in a couple of lines of text, so they simply waste space. To put it another way, if a picture can paint a thousand words, a pie chart conveys about 20.
  • Bar charts and histograms with only one set of data are similarly unnecessary, especially if the information can be out across in a few sentences. Edward Tufte has written extensively on the topic of graphical communication. One useful rule of thumb that he suggests is that a graphic should only be used if it portrays data with less ink and paper than plain text would.
  • Computer screen dumps are not necessary in this journal, given the aims and scope of the journal. The focus of papers in CM&E should be on the management and economics of developments in our field, not on how to use technology. The science of user interfaces would probably be reported in journals other than this one. And user instructions would also not figure highly in this journal. Apart from the fact that user interfaces quickly become outdated, screen dumps are low resolution and usually consist of areas of colour and grey tones, so any images from software that are to be reported in the paper would normally be re-drawn in line with the guidance notes above.

For further clarification, please contact the editor. Finally, please note that different journals have different requirements and these guidance notes only apply to Construction Management and Economics. If you are producing graphics for another journal, check their requirements. One of the best writers on the topic of graphical communication is Edward Tufte. You may find it useful to look at his book on “The visual display of quantitative information“.


About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
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