0.3.2 • Public • Published

    Figment UI


    Figment renders static figures and graphics to PDF using Javascript and the web visualization pipeline. It bundles code and renders the output, supporting iterative and reproducible graphics production. It has been used along with D3 to make beautiful and data-dense scientific figures, harnessing cutting-edge web tooling without the complexity of a full web application.

    Figment seamlessly bundles Javascript, runs the code to generate a SVG or HTML document, and renders the output to a PDF. It combines the code-generation and iterative development capabilities of the Parcel Javascript bundler with the WebKit renderer and NodeJS runtime of Electron. With Figment, graphics can be produced using any browser-based tools; however, special functionality is included for graphics packaged as React components.

    Installation and usage: npm install --global figment-ui installs the figment executable. Running figment <entry.js> <output.pdf> creates a UI for figure development and user-controlled rendering to PDF.


    Model tracers Model tracers for the western North American mantle lithosphere: results of finite-element modeling in FiPy, cached in PostgreSQL, and rendered using D3 and FigmentQuinn et al., 2018, Figure 20.

    Model time slices Time slices for the same mantle lithosphere model, rendered in HTML and SVG using Figment. This would have been time-consuming to produce in Adobe Illustrator... — Quinn et al., 2018, Figure 21.


    In the 2010s, the web has increasingly become the medium of choice for the graphical communication of data. Innovations by many workers have advanced the technical capabilities of the browser for displaying complex, interactive data. Beautiful and informative interactive graphics have graced mainstream publications such as the New York Times. Web maps have replaced paper maps.

    This revolution in the visual language of the internet has been enabled by the cutting-edge and standardized Javascript/HTML/SVG rendering engine of modern browsers, along with innovative libraries such as D3. As the web's technical stack has matured, more traditional tools for data visualization have stagnated somewhat: for instance, the venerable Adobe Illustrator provides basically no capabilities for data-driven or programmatically-generated graphics. Meanwhile, software toolkits commonly used for data analysis (e.g. Matlab, Python's Matplotlib, and R) excel at generating straightforward graphics but have few tools for complex or customized visualizations.

    Static graphics are still essential. For instance, scientific papers and presentations still revolve around information-dense static figures; these formats for technical communication are both extremely important and slow to evolve. Rather than stick to an older paradigm of manual tooling for static graphics production, we'd like to harness the new technologies developed for the web.

    Unfortunately, this process is less friendly than we'd like it to be. The core client-server architecture of the web platform requires a complex toolchain to actually render a graphic to a browser. The rapid evolution of the pipeline has led to a profusion of shims to support new capabilities. Figment attempts to manage or work around some of the major sticking points, easing the production of complex graphics in Javascript.

    How it works

    Typically, building a web visualization requires data to be packaged into a serializable format (e.g. JSON) and exposed on a web server as a file or API endpoint. Then, Javascript is run in the client's browser to download this data and transform it into a HTML or SVG representation.

    Using the Electron rendering engine, Figment ditches the client/server model entirely, allowing web visualizations to be built locally. Although visualization code runs in the browser environment, it is executed with the full power and system access of the NodeJS runtime. Thus, visualizations can rely on local resources such as modeling pipelines, database connections, and files that are not exposed via an HTTP API for typical browser use.

    Figment also handles code transformation. Modern web software is typically assembled from a variety of functional units (e.g. application code, Javascript libraries, CSS) which must be bundled together into a coehernt package. This is particularly essential for newer libraries such as React, which often assume the use of Javascript extensions such as JSX. Other tools, such as Stylus and Sass, are simply time savers. Figment includes the Parcel zero-configuration Javascript bundler, allowing a wide variety of asset types (e.g. HTML, CSS, Stylus, Markdown, Coffeescript, ES6, JSX, TypeScript...) to be incorporated into figure generation.

    The basic form of Figment first arose in 2015, out of a desire to use D3 and Coffeescript to produce scientific figures for my PhD thesis. The original package, named PDF Printer, transformed Coffeescript to Javascript, separated out CSS stylesheets, and used Electron's printToPDF function to extract a PDF copy of the result. A basic file watcher allowed iteration on figure design. Since Javascript toolchains are varied and rapidly changing, Figment now offloads all code-bundling and file-watching concerns to Parcel. A newer, less-buggy user interface has been created using React. The result is a small and flexible tool with a forward-looking codebase — hopefully, this architecture will be easy to maintain and extend going forward.


    After installation (npm install --global figment-ui), the figment command-line interface should be available on your path.

    > figment [opts] [--] <entry> <output.pdf>

    The <entry> argument represents a file path to the code responsible for generating a graphic. <output.pdf> is the intended destination for the compiled PDF.

    Note: Experimental support for JPEG and PNG outputs is in development. HTML output could potentially be supported as well.

    CLI options

    --spec: Use a specification file instead of a single entry/output file pair. The calling signature then becomes figment --spec <specfile>.

    --headless: Render graphics automatically (in sequence if in spec mode) and quit. Currently disabled.

    --page-size: Page size is usually set using the DPI and size of the container element, but a standard page size string can be set if desired.

    --multi-page: Experimental multi-page support, for building reports and documents. Similar to electron-pdf.

    --reinstall-devtools: Reinstall the React DevTools extension.

    Building native node modules

    Native Node modules are often not compiled for Electron by default, and rebuilding them for the proper Electron version is required to make them work. Figment includes a figment install helper that wraps npm install but with command-line flags set to build for the Electron used in figment.

    Entry signature

    An entrypoint a Javascript file, or a Parcel asset type that compiles to Javascript (e.g. Coffeescript, ES6, ReasonML, Vue, Typescript, etc.). This file can have ES6 or CommonJS semantics, but usually exports a single renderer function, with the signature below.

    Basic functional rendering

    function(Element: DOMNode, Options: {}, Callback: Function) -> Void

    • Element: a DOM element container into which the graphic will be rendered
    • Options: a settings object passed into the render function
    • Callback: a function which should be run once graphics creation is complete (optional).

    Note: support for Promises/async functions is intended, but not yet included.

    import * as d3 from "d3"
    export default function createFigure(el, opts, cb) {
        .style("width", 300) // For control of output PDF size, explicitly set the
        .style("height", 300) // size of the container element in javascript or CSS.
        .text("Significant results detected")

    React components

    React elements and components exported from the entrypoint file get special treatment: if detected, they will be rendered directly without needing to call the ReactDOM render method. This allows better DevTools support and passing props into the component. Eventually, we may bundle a basic "options panel" user interface to allow the component to be modified at runtime.

    Class-based React components are detected without user intervention, using the built-in Component.prototype.isReactComponent = true property. Likewise, React Elements are detected using the React.isValidElement(el) function. If you are using a React function component, you need to set either .isReactComponent = true or .propTypes = {...} on the component — there doesn't appear to be a foolproof general way to differentiate between a functional component and a normal function.

    import { createElement } from "react"
    let createFigure = (props) => {
      return (
        <div className="figure">
          <h1>I am a fancy graphic</h1>
    At least one of the below must be set for the React component
    to be properly rendered
    createFigure.isReactComponent = true
    createFigure.propTypes = {}
    export default createFigure

    Spec mode

    A "specification" can be passed into the CLI using the signature figment --spec spec.js. This Javascript file defines a set of tasks to be exposed in the user interface.

    Spec mode

    The expected syntax of the spec file is shown below. Arbitrary options can be passed into entrypoints using the options file. Note: ES6 semantics are not currently supported for the spec file, but this is planned.

    const { Visualizer } = require("figment-ui")
    const v = new Visualizer({ buildDir: __dirname + "/output" })
    v.task(`roi-plots/test-dips.pdf`, "./test-dips/")
    // Tasks can be generated from lists, etc.
    const types = [
    for (let type of types) {
        `roi-plots/attitudes-${type}.pdf`, // output filename
        "./roi-plots/", // filename for rendering endpoint
        { type } // pass options into component
    module.exports = v

    Related projects

    Key components

    • Electron: Webkit/NodeJS runtime
    • Parcel: Zero-configuration Javascript bundler

    Useful companion tools for figure generation

    • React: Component-based UI library
    • D3: "Data-driven-documents"
    • Stylus: "Expressive, dynamic, robust CSS"
    • Coffeescript: "a little language that compiles into JavaScript."
    • Pg-promise: Interact with Postgres databases in Node.js
    • d3-annotation: Create text annotations and callouts

    Prior art

    • Webpack: The original Javascript bundler, inspiration for Parcel
    • Electron-PDF: Print PDFs from HTML files

    Publications using this pipeline

    • DP Quinn and BL Ehlmann, A PCA-based framework for determining remotely-sensed geological surface orientations and their statistical quality (2019), Earth and Space Science, doi: 10.1029/2018EA000416.
    • DP Quinn and BL Ehlmann, The deposition and alteration history of the northeast Syrtis layered sulfates (2019), Journal of Geophysical Research–Planets, doi: 10.1029/2018JE005706.
    • DP Quinn, JS Saleeby, MN Ducea, P Luffi, and PD Asimow, Late-Cretaceous construction of the mantle lithosphere beneath the central California coast revealed by Crystal Knob xenoliths (2018), Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 19, doi: 10.1029/2017GC007260.


    Feature requests, code review, and pull requests for bugfixes and additional functionality are welcome!

    The main process Javascript is contained in the /main directory; /src contains Coffeescript code and Stylus stylesheets for the renderer process. This code is compiled to Javascript with Parcel using npm run build; npm run dev watches and recompiles on demand.


    v0.3.0: 2021-06-08

    • Upgrade Electron to v13
    • Dark mode support that allows configuration

    v0.2.0: 2021-05-10

    • Support Webpack for configuration alongside Parcel, using the webpackConfig configuration option.
    • Switch codebase to TypeScript from Coffeescript


    • [ ] Support non-Javascript Parcel entrypoints
    • [ ] Support more formats (PNG and JPEG support are half-baked but important).
    • [x] Allow spec files to be written using ES6 javascript
    • [ ] Potentially create a YAML or JSON format for spec files?
    • [ ] Improve pathname resolution for renderer code (__dirname currently points to the Parcel build directory)
    • [ ] Allow options to be controlled at runtime for React components
    • [ ] Re-enable headless graphics generation (requires more thought on when React components are "done" rendering)
    • [ ] Create a prepackaged binaray distribution.
    • [ ] Change "Print" button to "Render"; might be less confusing.
    • [x] Create a dependency on electron-pdf? The parts of electron-pdf that are valuable in this context are straightforward using just Electron.
    • [x] Make helpers definable in CLI. Now that we are using Parcel, all usable filetypes are bundled by default.
    • [x] Remove coffeescript and stylus defaults. Outmoded by Parcel.
    • [x] Allow testing on multiple figures at once. Spec mode covers this.


    This library was created by Daven Quinn during 2015–2019. Several research projects were enhanced by this work and allowed me to contribute time to this tool: as such, a share of the credit goes to each of my supervisors Jason Saleeby, Bethany Ehlmann, John Grotzinger, and especially Shanan Peters.




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