8 – Graphics

When and Why to Use Graphics and Visuals

Suzan Last; David McMurrey; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; James Francis, Jr.; and Kalani Pattison

Visual elements capture your readers’ attention and help them to understand your ideas more fully. Like the illustrations used to help tell a story, visuals augment your written ideas and simplify complicated textual content. Common visuals for professional and technical writing include:

  • graphs
  • charts
  • tables
  • photographs
  • diagrams
  • maps

Graphics and visuals such as these can help the reader understand a complicated process or visualize trends in the data. They can also draw attention to key points or present information quickly. The key concept to remember here is that visuals clarify, illustrate, and augment your written text; they are not a replacement for written text. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” does not hold true in technical writing, but adding visuals may save you a hundred words or so of additional explanation and clarification.

If you have visual elements in your document, they must be based on your written content and supplement your ideas. Adding graphics just to decorate or take up space may confuse your reader. Therefore, it is important to choose the right kind of visual to convey the story you want your readers to understand. If visuals are poorly chosen or poorly designed for the task, they can actually confuse the reader and have negative consequences.

Before getting into details on creating, formatting, and incorporating graphics, consider the different kinds and their functions. You can use graphics to represent the following elements in your technical writing:

Objects. If you are describing a fuel-injection system, you will probably need a drawing or diagram of that system. If you are explaining how to graft a fruit tree, you will need illustrations of how that task is done. Photographs, drawings, diagrams, and schematics are the types of graphics that show objects.

Numbers. If you are discussing the rising cost of housing in College Station, you could use a table with the columns marking five-year periods since 1970; the rows could be for different types of housing. You could also show the same data in the form of bar charts, pie charts, or line graphs. Tables, bar charts, pie charts, and line graphs are some of the principal ways to show numerical data.

Relationships. If you want to show how your company is organized in terms of the relationships between different departments and officials, you could set up an organization chart using boxes and circles connected with lines that show how everything is hierarchically arranged and related. This organization chart is an example of a graphic for a concept: this type depicts nonphysical, conceptual things and their relationships.

Words. Finally, graphics are used to emphasize written text. You may have noticed how textbooks put key definitions in a box, maybe with different colors. The same can be done with key points or extended examples. In addition to callout boxes, other word-driven graphics include word clouds, company or brand logos, and word art.

Tables vs. Figures

Visual elements in a report are referred to as either Tables or Figures. Tables are made up of rows (horizontal) and columns (vertical), which in turn create boxes or cells. Cells usually have numbers in them (but may also have words or images). In contrast, figures refer to any visual elements—such as graphs, charts, diagrams, photos—that are not tables. Both figures and tables may be included in the main sections of the report, or if they contain supplemental material, they may be contained in an appendix. Try to ensure that figures and tables are not broken over two pages. Tables that require a full page might be best placed in an appendix.

Often, if a more formal report is long enough to contain a Table of Contents (see Chapter 20), it will also contain a List of Figures and Tables or a List of Illustrations if the document has both tables and figures, or a List of Figures or List of Tables if the document contains only one type of visual element. The list of tables and figures or list of illustrations is similar to a table of contents, in that it lists the pages on which the visual elements can be found. Strong lists of figures include more than a label such as “Figure 2” — they contain the concise and clear titles of the figures or tables, so that a reader will easily be able to identify the contents of the visual element. For instance, the first table in this chapter would be designated, “Figure 8.1. Table of domestic weekend box office revenues, July 3-5, 2020.” See Chapter 20 for more details and for examples.

This text was derived from

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.




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When and Why to Use Graphics and Visuals Copyright © 2022 by Suzan Last; David McMurrey; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; James Francis, Jr.; and Kalani Pattison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.