Choosing to Use Graphics

Graphics can be a tricky issue in technical writing. Some authors use graphics at the drop of a hat. Often, the graphic shows something that the reader can readily understand from the text or contains nothing of value to the reader. For example, some books contain images of objects that don’t have any intrinsic value of themselves and possibly contain a little text that the author could easily include in the text. However, some authors err to the other extreme. Some abstract concepts lend themselves to pictorial representation. For example, a block diagram can often convey relationships that would be impossible to describe using text alone. Consequently, the issue of whether to use graphics within a text or not often hinges on the graphic’s ability to convey meaning that words alone can’t.

However, the decision to use graphics often involves more than simply conveying information. The quality of the graphic also matters. Graphics that appear too small in the book make it impossible for readers to make out details and render them useless. Designing a graphic that provides all the required details can be time consuming. However, including a less than useful graphic in the book is generally a waste of space. In some cases, the solution is to provide a reference to an external source (such as the Internet) for the graphic, rather than include the graphic directly in the book. Some authors have a strong desire not to use external sources because they tend to change, but using poorly designed graphics that fail to convey the desired information to most readers is equally problematic.

Focusing the graphic is also a problem. When a graphic contains too much detail or contains elements that have nothing to do with the discussion, the message can become lost. Using a cropped graphic helps focus attention and reduces the amount of space the graphic consumes in the book. By focusing reader attention on specific details, it also becomes easier to convey a specific message. Most important of all, keeping individual graphics small (yet easily readable) is essential to allowing use of as many graphics as is needed for the book as a whole.

The bottom line is that authors who use graphics effectively are able to communicate a great deal of information to readers in a modicum of space. In addition, using graphics presents the reader with another way to learn the material. Many people don’t learn well just by reading text, they also require graphics, hands on activities, exercises, and the like in order to learn a topic well. When choosing to use graphics, you must consider all aspects of how the graphic will appear to the reader. Let me know your thought on graphics usage at