How to make pictures that inform

Graphics—photos, illustrations, diagrams, maps—add to, replace, reinforce, explain, and illustrate words. Reduced to their simplest, most familiar visual language, lines and curves, they can communicate almost instantly, more quickly than words do. And readers (of printed documents, not necessarily Web sites) often look at them before anything else and use them to decide whether to read adjacent text. But that doesn't mean pictures only have to show up to be effective.

Used to their full potential, graphics help to eliminate any possible wiggle room in the words. When we read descriptive words, we form a picture in our minds, but it's rarely the same mental image as another reader's. It might not even be the same as the writer's. (It's similar to seeing a movie after reading the book, and disagreeing with the casting based on what you had envisioned.) And we had to read first to get any picture.

But with a clear graphic to go with the words, we see the same picture as the writer right away. And we get some meaning even before, or without, reading anything.

Photos in information design must be clear.* They must:

  • be in focus
  • have a focus (give the right amount of detail, not more or less than the reader needs)
  • mean something
  • show what you're telling
  • tell what you're showing (include legible and consistent captions, titles, and labels)
  • appear close to where you talk about them
  • point readers into the text

Photos must be in focus

Informative ...

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