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 [email protected].

 

WebM Replacing the Animated GIF?

There is always some new technology out there trying to replace the reigning king (or queen). The Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) has a colorful history, but is mainly used today for animated GIFs—those short sequences of animation that you see spread throughout the Internet (and many intranets as well). In fact, you can find animated GIF generators, free animated GIF libraries, and tools for working with animated GIFs by the score. It’s hard to believe that anyone has found uses for even a small portion of the resources out there.

Web Media (WebM) is a technology that is designed to work like an animated GIF, but provide significantly more functionality. It’s an open source project that will supposedly replace the aging animated GIF at some point. A recent articled entitled, “GIF is Dead; Long Live WebM” explains the technical details of why this file format is so superior and why developers desperately need to embrace it. (Read “What Is WebM, and Can It Dethrone the GIF?” if you want a simpler explanation.) After reviewing everything I can online, I have to agree that WebM does, in fact, have a lot to offer. Most importantly, it can support longer animation sequences. The additional colors it supports are nice to have, but it’s the long animation sequences that will ultimately sell this technology to those who need it.

Unfortunately, WebM also has a lot of hype surrounding it. Advocates would have you believe that wholesale replacement of animated GIFs is imminent. The animated GIF won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, here are some reasons that animated GIFs will stick around for at least next several years:

  • Not every browser supports WebM natively. Only newer versions of Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome support it. Even though Chrome is currently the most used browser out there, it doesn’t quite have enough market share to fully control the market (not that market share alone is a good reason to adopt any technology).
  • There is a huge base of site that already use animated GIFs to good effect and it’s doubtful that the developers of those sites will make a change without a really good reason for doing so.
  • Animated GIFs enjoy a huge support base in free predefined graphics, free tools, and free support. There isn’t a strong monetary need for a new technology.
  • WebM is viewed as more complicated to embed in a Web page.
  • The tools for working with WebM aren’t nearly as easy to use as those that developers can use with animated GIFs.

The question of whether WebM will eventually replace the animated GIF isn’t answerable at this point. The technology is too new, not enough browsers support it, and the tools required to work with it still need a lot of polishing. Until WebM builds enough of a presence online and a backlog of free graphics for developers to use, you can be sure that developers will stick with what they know.

Upgrades really are nice. New technology can provide developers with useful advantages over what has come before. However, without a compelling reason to use WebM, you can be sure adoption will be slow. Without major improvements in support and reduction in complexity, developers will be reticent to make the move and WebM could end up being just one more good idea that didn’t quite make it. Tell me your thoughts about WebM at [email protected].