creating scientific diagrams
November 28, 2005 7:43 AM   Subscribe

please help me create scientific diagrams quicker

does anyone have any recomendations for illustration packages or tutorials (preferably for photoshop) for producing scientific diagrams like those seen in science texts like campbells biology?
i'm fairly confident with drawing things but am finding my current process of drawing every diagram freehand (well, with a mouse) far too time consuming. thanks for any help!
posted by tnai to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
The recommendation for making diagrams with Photoshop is not to. It's not designed for that sort of thing.

You would be far better off with using Illustrator or Canvas. (Note that some journals don't like Canvas).

Also, a graphics tablet might be useful.
posted by grouse at 7:51 AM on November 28, 2005

i don't know what campbell's biology is, but for diagrams to illustrate informal talks/papers on computing i've found inkscape to be pretty good.

that's for "schematic" diagrams - graphs, networks, etc. if you're doing more "illustrations" then i think the input device is probably critical (ie get a pen tablet or tablet pc)
posted by andrew cooke at 7:55 AM on November 28, 2005

Omnigraffle does some very nice scientific/network layouts. Drag-drop, jumping lines, that sort of thing.
posted by unixrat at 8:11 AM on November 28, 2005

Use Illustrator instead. You should also give the free XFig a whirl. It's cross-platform and plays nicely with LaTeX.
posted by fatllama at 8:38 AM on November 28, 2005

If you're using a mouse: Picking up even a small Graphire pen/tablet will speed up drawing a lot. Seriously, if you draw on a computer, a tablet is the way to go.

A mouse is just not the right tool for sketching on the computer.

(If that's what your doing. If you're talking about CAD, 3D or schematics, ignore this advice)
posted by Crosius at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2005

As everyone has said, don't use a hammer to put in screws. You want a vector drawing package, not a bitmap manipulator. We use CorelDraw, but I really can't recommend it.

Honestly, I often draft diagrams on paper, scan them in, use Corel Trace (part of the Draw Package) to convert to a vector drawing, then do clean-up and text labeling in Draw. Often faster than trying to do the originals in Draw for complex equipment diagrams.
posted by bonehead at 8:47 AM on November 28, 2005

We tend to design from scratch in Illustrator since it gives us more control but, since diagrams are a pain-in-the-arse job and you can't really charge a huge amount for them, we're trying to get as many clients as possible to do them themselves in Visio. It does electrical & network diagrams very quickly, once you've got used to a slightly wierd way of working. There are a lot of (both free and commercial) plugins for various special applications, too: you might find a premade biological symbol library somewhere.
posted by blag at 9:01 AM on November 28, 2005

I'll second:

• Canvas X + Wacom tablet for illustration work
• OmniGraffle for flowchart design

Both applications can export to a wide variety of formats reliably. This eases moving the end product into publication work.
posted by Rothko at 9:14 AM on November 28, 2005

Corel Draw is awesome! It does take some getting used to, and they haven't really improved it over the years, but the basics - select for stretch handles, click again for rotate and skew handles, right click to duplicate - are the reasons it works so well, and they don't need any changing.

Technical drawings can be painfully slow... You absolutely need libraries of figures that you can work from (this means access, but also memorization so you can get do it quick). If you are doing real life schematics or dimensioned drawings you need an appropriate CAD package. Modern 3D CAD programs will output isometric views that you can import into something like Corel for final touch up. That can be a great way to save time while maintaining top notch quality.

For the record, similar questions have been asked before:
Vector drawing program for linux
Illustrator too much, MS Paint not enough
I'm new to Illustrator
Drawing software for biology

That last one reminds me, there are specialty packages for chemistry, biology, electrical panel wiring, etc. If you have very specialized needs they might be useful (I tend to like general purpose stuff myself).
posted by Chuckles at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2005

If you do go the CorelDraw route, be very careful which version you buy. Version 12, which is the current one, I think, is almost unusable out of the box, but works reasonably well after you apply the patches. This has been typical of Corel software for the past five years, and is the reason I have trouble recommending their products.
posted by bonehead at 10:16 AM on November 28, 2005

I don't have experience with biology diagrams, but I'll suggest Dia as a general purpose tool. A windows version can be found here.
posted by FissionChips at 10:52 AM on November 28, 2005

This is a typical campbell bio illustration.

I'd use Illustrator + a Wacom. A lot of it is simple shapes that are reused over & over, so you should have pretty good luck making a library & then using that.
posted by devilsbrigade at 4:16 PM on November 28, 2005

Blimey. In that case, don't go down the Visio route. Illustrator all the way.
posted by blag at 4:55 PM on November 28, 2005

Ugh. Illustrator, Inkscape and Corel draw are fine and all (I've used all three), but they'll take you eons to make good looking geometric diagrams. The best diagramming program I've found so far is Smartsketch. If you're familiar with 3D Cad, Smartsketch is the parametric sketcher from Solid Edge (Before they sold it to Unigraphics) with nicer presentation features (line weight, colour, fill etc).

If you're not familiar, parametric means that the sketch can be "constraint driven". That is, you can draw the _shape_ of the diagram first, then fiddle with the details after. Angles, tangencies, vertexes etc. will all be preserved.

Oh, and it comes with (and can link to) Mathcad.
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:05 PM on November 28, 2005

« Older Pick an Mp3 player   |   Help me identify this monster. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.