1. FFI Australia
  2. FFI US
  3. Conservation Circle
Map of hippo distribution. Credit: Scholte & Iyah/Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Graphics for conservation: maps with a message, plots with a purpose

Posted on: 19.02.16 (Last edited) 22 February 2016

Dr Martin Fisher, Editor of Fauna & Flora International’s journal – Oryx – explains why strong illustrations are key to effective science communication, and introduces a new tool for conservationists grappling with graphics.

Even those for whom the name Marshall McLuhan means little may have heard his most famous – and enigmatic – aphorism: ‘The medium is the message’.

A 20th century philosopher of communication theory, McLuhan was apparently referring to the fact that the way in which a message is communicated influences the manner in which it is perceived. He even tweaked the aphorism into the title of his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.

That the medium is the message is no longer in dispute: we are all bewitched and harangued by a variety of media – and of course messages – on a daily basis, and most people are aware that different platforms serve different purposes. You would not post an essay on Twitter, for instance, or publish a picture of your lunch in a scientific journal.

Conservation, also, is no stranger to this concept, and from blogs such as this through to tweets, documentaries and scholarly articles, we are mastering the art of communication and using it in ever more skilful ways.

Grappling with graphics

Of the many outlets available, conservation practitioners and researchers make much use of peer reviewed literature to communicate their messages. This is exemplified by FFI’s well-known journal, Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation. In this and other journals, graphics (i.e. illustrations used to present data) are an integral component of most scholarly articles.

These graphics help us tell stories about conservation: where hippos are in relation to human activities, for example, or from where threatened tree seeds were collected for use in forest restoration.

The resonance of McLuhan’s observation is felt particularly keenly when one beholds an illustration in which the message is confused and unclear. The message conveyed is not only influenced by the medium in which it is presented but also by the quality of the draughtsmanship: a poorly crafted illustration does not speak a thousand words!

Poor graphic design can confuse your message. Credit: Graphics for Conservation.

Poor graphic design can confuse your message. Credit: Graphics for Conservation.

Once upon a time, to illustrate a conservation story, one filled a selection of Rotring® pens of different nib widths, selected Letraset® sheets of the required font size, and drafted a figure carefully on tracing paper. This was a time-consuming but reliable way to prepare a graphic, and there was a generation of designers dedicated to this skill.

Publishers today will rarely accept a picture in this form – rather, they require them in one of a few select digital formats. Thankfully, a plethora of digital mapping, data plotting and graphics tools has come to our rescue, each able to produce visual wonders that the humble Rotring® pen could only dream of.

Yet with this seemingly simple, ink-free drafting has come a baffling complexity, and even creating something as simple as an outline map of a country can be a challenging task. To add to these difficulties, many graphics software packages are frightfully expensive and dedicated graphic designers are rarely available to lend a hand – illustrating one’s conservation story is now largely do-it-yourself.

In our work in the Oryx editorial office we see many authors struggling to prepare maps and data plots that communicate their message or purpose in a way that both does justice to the research and meets the format and style requirements for publication.

A well contructed graphic. Credit: Hoffman et al., 2015, Oryx.

Conversely, a well constructed graphic tells its story at a glance. Credit: Hoffman et al., 2015, Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

I am therefore pleased that, with the support of The Rufford Foundation, the first edition of Graphics for Conservation: How to Illustrate your Story, is now available.

The medium is digital of course, and the manual is freely available online. Graphics for Conservation provides detailed guidance on designing maps and data plots, advice on the wise use of graphics formats, instructional videos to help people draft beautiful figures, and suggestions for how to avoid obfuscation of the message. Central to the guide is a series of case studies: maps with a message and plots with a purpose.

To ensure that all authors have the same opportunity to follow the instructional videos and prepare high-quality publication-ready figures, the manual uses only free software and publicly-available map data. Our complete list of recommended software and data for mapping, plotting and graphics can be found at oryxthejournal.org.

Using maps and other figures to present data, findings and related information – to help tell a story – is an integral part of writing for conservation and related sciences. But without some elementary mastery of the techniques and a little design forethought, the message can remain obscured.

Graphics for Conservation aims to help, and will continue to evolve and develop. If there is something you would like us to add, or if you have an interesting map or plot study that you would like us to include, please let us know – there is a comments icon for this purpose at the foot of each page of the manual.


The hippopotamus distribution map shown at the top of this page is a modified version of Fig. 3 in Scholte & Iyah, 2016, Oryx.

The map shown in the well constructed graphic is a modified version of Fig. 1 in Hoffman et al., 2015, Oryx.

Written by
Martin Fisher

Martin is Editor of Fauna & Flora International’s scientific journal Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation. Before joining FFI, Martin initiated an MSc in ecology and conservation at the University of the South Pacific and lectured in ecology and conservation at a number of universities. In 2011 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London for contributions to the understanding and appreciation of Zoology.

Other posts by

Written by

Martin Fisher
Other posts by
Make a donation

Support Fauna & Flora International

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is a company limited by guarantee, incorporated in England and Wales, Registered Company Number 2677068. Registered Charity Number 1011102
Fauna & Flora International Australia (Ltd) is a company limited by guarantee, and recognised as a Charitable Institution (ABN 75 132 715 783, ACN 132715783)
Fauna & Flora International USA Inc is a non-profit organization incorporated in the State of Delaware with federal tax identification number 81-3967095. 501(c)(3) status for Fauna & Flora International USA Inc currently is pending IRS approval.
Fauna & Flora International Singapore is a public company limited by guarantee, Registration Number 201133836K. Registered charity under the Singapore Charities Act