How to Create an Effective Graphical Abstract

How to Create an Effective Graphical Abstract

Graphical abstracts are incredibly popular these days.

Our goal with this post is to connect you with the necessary steps to create awesome graphical abstracts for your publications.

There are a few crucial steps to create a graphical abstract. If you’re not familiar with what we mean by graphical abstract, it’s literally a figure that explain scientific information in a visual form. A modern way to call it is “an infographic”.

See one interesting example of graphical abstract below:

image (80)


In this post you’ll learn essential concepts about designing a graphical abstract, and discover how to use a powerful platform called Mind the Graph to create graphical abstracts for your publications.


The graphical abstract is one single‐panel image that is designed to give readers an immediate understanding of the take‐home message of the paper. Its intent is to encourage browsing, promote interdisciplinary scholarship, and help readers quickly identify which papers are most relevant to their research interests –  according to the Cell Press guideline, which I believe, also applies to Elsevier journals.

The ideal graphical abstract should be self explanatory. The reader should quickly understand it and be able to decide whether to read your paper or not. If you achieve this, your graphical abstract is successful and effective.

On important thing to have in mind is that your research is already pretty complex. So, your graphical abstract shouldn’t be. Be concise and direct, use minimal amount of words and rely on powerful graphics for your graphical abstract.


What makes an effective graphical abstract?

A graphical abstract is a figure that explains the message of a research paper in a clear and attractive way.

It’s generally published together with other elements of the paper, like TITLE, LIST OF AUTHORS and ABSTRACT.

So, here is one example of how a graphical abstract is published.

Imagem relacionada

So, you see, the idea of the graphical abstract is to communicate together with the other elements of the scientific paper.

Not all publishers are using graphical abstracts at the moment, but this is an initiative of the Elsevier, probably the main scientific publisher in the world, which is followed by some important ones, like Cell and Springer. There is not a “correct” form to create a graphical abstract, but specific guidelines are being published. We will share some information of a guideline published by Cell called “Cell Press Graphical Abstract Guidelines”, that you can find here.

An effective graphical abstract will attract attention of your reader and it’s useful to screen the information very rapidly. It does not intend to substitute the paper, but rather to attract curiosity to it. The intention is mainly to briefly introduce the subject of the paper and summarize information.

Creating a graphical abstract step-by-step

The basic process of creating a graphical abstract is 1) conceptualize, 2) sketch and 3) design. Most of scientists believe that they cannot create effective graphical abstracts because they cannot illustrate. That’s not true at all. Scientific illustrations are just a part of an effective graphical abstract, and while no one can conceptualize your graphical abstracts, the scientific illustrations you can find on Mind the Graph.

It consists of three steps: (1) concept, (2) sketch, and (3) design & refine. The first two steps are done on paper, and we only move to graphic design software for the third step.

The graphical abstract concept is the very first thing. You need to decide what is the MAIN MESSAGE of your graphical abstract and who is your audience. Is like thinking about what story you want to tell and to whom.

You did the research and have a lot of results to communicate, but remember, don’t overcomplicate. Try to think like the reader and summarize your paper to the most important thing you discovered.

Your goal with the graphical abstract is normally defined by the CONTENT and AUDIENCE. So, keep it in mind. And keep it simple.


The graphical abstract should:

  • Have a clear start and end, “reading” from top‐to‐bottom or left‐to‐right
  • Provide a visual indication of the biological context of the results depicted (subcellular location, tissue or cell type, species, etc.)
  • Be distinct from any model figures or diagrams included in the paper itself
  • Emphasize the new findings from the current paper without including excess details from previous literature
  • Avoid the inclusion of features that are more speculative (unless the speculative nature can be made apparent visually)
  • Not include data items of any type; all the content should be in a graphical form


The graphical abstract should also:

  • Use simple labels
  • Use text sparingly
  • Highlight one process or make one point clear
  • Be free of distracting and cluttering elements


We encourage you to sketch your graphical abstract ideas by hand first, even before seating in front of your computer. Most of us don’t have professional design skills, nor have access to professional design software. Luckily for you, there is no need. The video below shows an interesting tutorial using a platform called Mind the Graph.

Tutorial: How to create a graphical abstract for Elsevier

For the sketch, first select just the necessary visual elements (a cell, protein, chemical compound, animal …) and the textual elements that will accompany them. Always prefer illustrations and icons than text. They communicate more directly.


When you are organizing the elements of the sketch, consider that they have to be arranged in some sort of an order. Organize yor graphical abstract from left to right and/or from top to down.

Another aspect you should consider is to avoid having too many visual elements scattered around the sketch. All elements should be somehow connected to each other, sorted into groups that have something in common. Avoid using boxes around elements that fit together, just put them close together. You may use boxes to highlight some texts.


Just know you should move to a graphical design software. If you don’t have access to Photoshop or Illustrator, the good and old Powerpoint works as good as well. You’ll likely use google images to find the illustrations you need. The problem here is to find illustrations that all have the same style. Using different artstyles may easily become weird.

Dont’ forget to consult the guide for authors for the journal where you are submitting your paper. The guide will give you information about the font type and size, line-widths, colors, and the dimension of the graphical abstract. It will also mention whether you are to provide it as a PDF, TIFF, or PNG file format.

According to the Cell Guideline, here are the TECHNICAL REQUIREMENTS for a graphical abstract

  • Size: The submitted image should be 1200 pixels square at 300 dpi.
  • Font: Arial, 12–16 points. Smaller fonts will not be legible online
  • Preferred file types: TIFF, PDF, JPG
  • Content: the abstract should consist of one single panel

A note about color: Effective use of color can enhance the graphical abstract both aesthetically and by directing the reader’s attention to focal points of interest. Authors are encouraged to select colors that are consistent with and complementary to the colors used on the Cell Press website. Heavily saturated, primary colors can be distracting.

Make the dimension of the ‘art-board’ in the exact size the journal requires it. This will allow you to match all element and font sizes with the required from the beginning. Now draw all the visual elements you have on your sketch. You can make your work easier by adding content from repositories which contain free science art figures. Mind the Graph is our recommended repository of scientific illustrations for graphical abstracts. Try it for free and fall in love, it will make your life way easier 🙂

What is Mind the Graph? Free infographic maker for science

As I mentioned before, a graphical abstract is basically an infographic.

If you want to learn more advanced information on how to build infographics, we have a complete guide for you. 


Create beautiful scientific infographics with no effort

We turn scientists into designers to boost your impact. Globally.

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Fabricio Pamplona is the founder of Mind the Graph - a tool used by over 400K users in 60 countries. He has a Ph.D. and solid scientific background in Psychopharmacology and experience as a Guest Researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry (Germany) and Researcher in D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR, Brazil). Fabricio holds over 2500 citations in Google Scholar. He has 10 years of experience in small innovative businesses, with relevant experience in product design and innovation management. Connect with him on LinkedIn - Fabricio Pamplona.