When are illustrations enough?

Subject: When are illustrations enough?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 3 Apr 2003 08:35:23 -0500

Conchan wonders: <<How do you decide, if an author has not handed in any
illustrations or photos, etc., whether they are needed or not?>>

Before you can decide, you need to understand the relative strengths of
words and images, and what options each medium provides for communication.
Well-chosen words with specific meanings can be far more concise than most
images ("a word is worth a thousand pictures") and their interpretation can
be much more objective; of course, it's also true that poorly chosen words
or words with a range of possible meanings can be both inefficient and
highly subjective.

On the other hand, skillfully created images work much better at conveying
qualitative or abstract concepts (colors, unusual shapes, and positions) or
conveying large amounts of data in a small space (graphs, photos). In these
cases, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Photographs provide "the
full picture", whereas diagrams eliminate many details to focus on the ones
the illustrator chose to focus on. (Photographers can "focus" on fewer
details, but have much less flexibility about eliminating details such as
surface texture.)

Determining whether text is sufficient depends on a thought process more
than on a rule: Examine the text, and determine whether it communicates
clearly and efficiently. Think whether you could say the same thing in less
space and with more clarity using an image. (This requires a knowledge of
the potential of images as extensive as your knowledge of words. Images too
have a vocabulary, and if you don't know that vocabulary, your ability to
communicate is limited.)

<<If they are how do you determine what kind of illustration or photo,
etc.,to use?>>

As noted above, there's no really good rule of thumb. The trick is to think
about the types of images you have available to use and evaluate whether any
of those options works well. The latter is a bit of a judgment call unless
you have (a) lots of experience knowing what works for your readers or (b)
the chance to test the image on your readers.

<<If the choice to use an illustration is chosen what do you use to tell the
author that an illustration would help the work and illustrator to make
preparation easier.>>

I propose the illustration, using my crude and primitive graphic talents if
necessary or my graphic artist to come up with a thumbnail if he's
available. I try to insist that he read the text before illustrating it, but
realistically, most graphics people hate reading and/or lack the time to do
it. That being the case, I sit down with him and explain the concepts,
sketch out what I mean, then let him create a good sketch to confirm that he
understood me.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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