Introduction to Graphics


Graphics are used to illustrate complex information at a glance and to help the reader retain information. Graphics also improve the readability of a document and serve to make a technical document less intimidating by breaking up the text. Text-heavy, verbose documentation often bores readers and has difficulty conveying complex ideas. Simple, uncluttered graphics enhance text and are easy to understand and translate.

Consistency in the way graphics are presented enables the reader to easily interpret information from one graphic to another (and especially from one "book" to another "book" in a documentation set). Using appropriate graphics and graphic techniques described in this chapter will enhance the readability of technical documentation and enable authors on geographically diverse documentation teams to achieve consistency.

This chapter of the MS-PTC Editing Guide provides editorial guidelines for working with graphics.


Choosing Graphics 

It is often difficult to know when a graphic is necessary. Conversely, technical documents become less usable if graphics are overused. A standard rule of thumb is to avoid duplicating information both in text and in a graphic; instead, use graphics to expand on the text or replace the text. If written information lends itself to graphical depiction, use graphics to minimize the written text. The written text and graphic(s) should rely on one another and work in concert to convey information. In other words, if the text is descriptive enough and provides sufficient information to readers, perhaps a graphic is not required. On the other hand, if a graphic completely covers the salient points of a topic, minimal descriptive text is preferred over verbose text. The text and the graphic should minimally overlap.

An important point to keep in mind for all aspects of technical communication is the needs of the target audience. Screenshots are a valuable visual tool when explaining procedures to novice audiences. Similarly, if a document is describing complex numerical information to readers, consider using graphs or charts to visually depict data. Audiences typically absorb information better when it is shown visually instead of described textually.


Creating Graphics or Using Graphics from Other Sources 

Ideally, graphics used in technical documentation should be original and created with a personally-licensed or corporate-licensed graphics software package. Popular graphics software packages include the following:

  • Microsoft Visio
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)
  • Corel Draw
  • Microsoft Paint

It is worth noting that licenses for all of the above software packages cost money, some licenses are several hundred dollars. The GIMP program, however, is part of the GNU software project is available for free.

Copyright rules discourage borrowing of graphics from other sources. Uncited use of copyrighted material can lead to legal problems. When editing a document that includes graphics, the editor should be fully aware of copyright laws and whether or not appropriate permissions are in place to re-use graphics developed by other sources. If permission is not in place, editors should flag the issue and notify either the document author or the company legal team about potential copyright conflicts.


Introducing Graphics 

Whether or not graphics are supplemented by thorough descriptive text, standard text to introduce the graphic should precede the actual graphic. This helps the graphic fit in with the flow of the documentation by informing readers in advance about a graphic. Without text that formally introduces a graphic, the graphic placement can seem haphazard and disruptive to the flow of text.

At a minimum, a "stem" sentence should be provided that briefly describes the graphic and includes a cross-reference to the caption, for example, "Figure 15.1 depicts a male painted bunting".

Source: Norbert Elliot,
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Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2021, 4:48 PM