How to Create Highly Impactful Graphical Abstracts

So you have successfully written a useful research paper and are ready to publish it for the world to read. Just one more step left – creating an abstract that entices the right readers and forces them to read the entire paper.

You brace yourself for the abstract prompt and realize that the journal actually would like you to submit a graphical abstract. 

This may seem like a hassle at first, but it is actually an opportunity to create a highly impactful abstract that not just provides an overview of your paper, but it also leaves a lasting impression on the reader. 

As a matter of fact, did you know that humans can process visual information 60,000 times faster than textual information?

If you thought creating visual content was a creative job, think again. There is a whole lot of neuroscience behind it. 

What is a Graphical Abstract?

A graphical abstract, also known as the visual table of contents is a pictorial representation of the main findings of your paper.

Graphical abstracts act as the perfect hook for your paper, as they provide an opportunity to present the essence of your paper in the form of a concise diagram.

Graphical abstracts are supposed to be simple and clear, as they are aimed at simplifying the more complex parts of your paper. 

To the uninitiated, creating impactful graphical abstracts can feel like a gargantuan task at the outset, but you can break down the entire process into the following steps: 


The first step of the process involves conceptualizing the right idea and structure for your abstract.

The first things to do within this step are easy, primarily because it is the same process that you would follow for a textual abstract.

You should start with jotting down the primary ideas of your paper, and the variables that you would want to showcase through the graphical abstract.

While conceptualizing your abstract, you should be aware of the fact that you are looking for simplicity and not a jargon-laden complicated diagram that the readers can barely understand without context. 

Once you have narrowed down the goals and ideas for the abstract, the next step would be to align these ideas in a presentable way for your target audience.

You should start by identifying and understanding what your readers would be interested in, and how to present it in a way that would enamour them. 

Next, focus specifically on the aspects that you want to cover in your graphical abstract and note them down because it is supposed to represent only the most interesting/important parts of your paper, not everything.

Pro tip: Write a textual abstract first to get an overview of the elements you want to cover in your graphical abstract, and then narrow down ideas from within it so that you can align it with your content.


Probably one of the more important and definitive steps in creating your graphical abstract is sketching.

In this step, you give your graphical abstract a more concrete structure as your visual elements start taking shape on a piece of paper.

You can also use drawing software to complete this step, but drawing on paper is highly recommended taking into account any potential errors or modifications while sketching. 

This step is also useful in selecting the visual elements that you want to incorporate into your graphical abstract.

You must ensure that you organize all your visual elements to be in a defined flow and declutter the structure to be as refined as possible.

This may even include removing elements that you initially considered to be useful. After all, the end result should be as clear and impactful as possible. 

Pro tip: Sit with a piece of paper and pencil, and try assuming a reader’s perspective while sketching your visual elements. There is one interesting study done to know the impact of sketching and drawing and its relationship with spatial visualization ability. Read more about it here.

Refine and Design

As is true for any research paper, creating a graphical abstract can involve multiple layers of refinement.

In order to put your best foot forward with the abstract, review your roughly sketched graphical abstract several times and if possible, get it reviewed by other academics who have successfully published theirs.

Take constructive criticism in your stride and be open to editing it until it is an apt representation of your paper. 

Every journal provides a guide that will indicate the format in which your graphical abstract should be submitted.

Once you have noted this, all you need to do is choose an abstract design tool or software which will allow you to create the final version of your graphical abstract.

Even after this, check whether the end result meets the goals that you had defined in the first step. If it does not, feel free to edit and refine it till you reach there. 

Pro tip: Have a neutral party take a look at the final version of your graphical abstract so that you can be assured that it is effective, 

Conclusion – Upgrade your Abstracts

As the world is shifting towards consuming more visual content than ever before, it bodes well for you to have a graphical abstract as compared to a textual one.

Not only can you express the most ideal parts of your paper interestingly and engagingly, but you can also set the groundwork for your research paper, thus motivating more people to read it.

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 a 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.