A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words – 
10 tips on using visuals to enhance your document’s message


Understanding written information can be made easier through the use of good visuals strategically placed within your documents. Especially when it comes to numerical information, readers understand and remember that information more easily if presented visually. However, it is all too easy to include too many, cluttering the document, or not placing them properly thus creating visual pollution! The visual should enhance the copy, not overwhelm it and be used only to add clarity to the message and assist the reader in understanding the content. Also, visuals should add to the written information not simply repeat it or stand apart from it. Therefore, use visuals sparingly and selectively.

Here are 10 tips to direct you in properly using visuals:

1. Introduce the visual in the text before the reader comes to it, so the reader knows why it’s there. 
Place the visual as close as possible to the copy it augments. Remember, you are trying to reinforce a point. A reader will not make the connection if the visual is placed too far from the text it references.

2. Keep size, level of detail, and color of visuals readable.

3. Select an appropriate title.
You want the reader to interpret the information contained in the visual in only one way, so get to the point. When you write a title, ask the question, “What is the central idea I want to communicate using the information in the visual?” Your answer should be the gist of the title.

4. Label figures and tables with a number and caption.
Common labels are table, chart, graph, illustration, and figure. Or call them all exhibits. If you have multiple ones in your document, number them sequentially. Label the important parts of visuals (if appropriate). Make all labels horizontal when possible.

5. Use both upper and lowercase letters, not all capitals. 
They make the type easier to read. Also use a simple serif typeface such as Times New Roman  which is easier to read than sans serif type (and steer away from italics). 

6. Use color to help the reader grasp important elements of a visual. 
Colors make visuals easy to read. Especially in charts and graphs, the foreground colors for the graphics and text should contrast with background colors. Color creates vivid demarcations that help your reader's eye grasp important elements of a visual, and it can influence emotional responses. In a series of visuals, make sure color is used in the same way for each one.

7. Use white space to improve impact and readability.
Think of the white space as a “frame”. It lets the eye move easily from the text to the picture.

8. Refer to visuals in the text i.e. (see Figure 1). 

9. Cite your sources when necessary.
Put a source note at the bottom of each visual. This note will tell the reader where the information in the visual came from (important for charts and graphs, for graphics, it’s the copyright notice). The idea is to provide enough information so that your reader can locate the source to get more information if needed.

10. Respect copyrights 
Before using any charts, graphs, or graphics that you or your company have not created be certain that you have permission to do so (no one is going to hunt you down if you use one or two in your document with proper citations, but with original graphics, or if you have many, do go the extra effort and contact the creators).

Visuals not only clarify information, they also add a bit of excitement to the printed page. They break up blocks of text giving the right side of the brain something to focus on. Your reader will thank you for having included them.
                                                                  © 2007 Leona M Seufert

At Beyond Words Communications we not only understand how to structure information to include visuals, but also know how to work with your graphic artists. Contact us if you feel your documents could use a bit of visual pizzazz!