Document Design

Using Illustrations

Illustrations serve several important functions in your documents:

In addition, photographs can play an important visual role by showing important items, places, or people, and by giving readers a sense of "reality."

To make your illustrations effective, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Keep illustrations close to the relevant text - In printed documents, keep them on the same page, if possible, or on a facing page. Avoid forcing readers to flip back and forth.

  • Number and label figures so that you can refer to them easily. Remember: figure titles appear below the illustration (table titles, on the other hand, appear above the table).

  • Label important parts of the drawing - These labels are termed "callouts." In general, the following standards apply:

    • To minimize clutter/chaos, avoid crossing lines from different labels.

    • Align the labels whenever possible.

    • Label the drawing directly, rather than using symbols and providing a key.

  • Reference the illustration in the text - In other words, don't just drop the illustration onto the page and expect the reader to refer to it. Include language like "as shown in Figure 4-3," or "Refer to Figure 2-8 for help locating the flimflam," or "Figure 4-2 illustrates the relationship between the widget and the whatsit" followed by the appropriate drawing.

  • Show only as much of a particular illustratation as necessary - Providing too much information can either confuse readers or simply take up too much space, making the important part of the illustration too small to be useful. Note, for instance, how the directions for making hospital corners on a bed show only corner, not the whole bed.

  • Choose an appropriate style for the illustration - The illustration should help clarify a point for the reader, so you keep it as clear and uncluttered as possible. In general, you can use one of 4 basic types:
    • Photographs look more "real," and therefore can be more accurate, but they may also be less clear depending on the angle, quality, lighting, and related factors.
    • Exploded drawings help isolate the separate parts of a device or tool.
    • Line drawings provide a clear "bare-bones" sketch; if done well, they can greatly simplify a device or tool, but they don't always look "like the real thing."
    • Cut-aways reveal the inside of a device.

    In addition, if you are describing or writing instructions for software, you can take advantage of screen shots.

    • Screen shots typically appear in software manuals; the easiest way to take a picture of something on your screen by pressing the Print Screen key on your keyboard, then pasting the image into Paint or Microsoft Word (you can then crop or edit the image as needed). The two most common tools on the market for screen captures are PaintShopPro and SnagIt (both about ~$100 each).


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Copyright 2001 - James Dubinsky, Marie C. Paretti, Mark Armstrong