A picture is worth a thousand words. Or so the saying goes. Complex relationships, such as those found in a computer program, an industrial process, or almost any system, are usually easier to comprehend if displayed visually. The same is true for statistical information and other numeric data.
Graphics often make a stronger impact on readers than words. Readers stop reading, look at the illustration, and frequently remember it better than the accompanying text. Consequently, any document that presents complex or technical information should utilize graphics.
Nevertheless, you need to ask: if a picture is worth a thousand words, is the tradeoff a bargain? True, graphics are much easier to produce today than they were just a few years ago. Even microcomputers offer graphics packages that can produce images acceptable for most publications. However, graphics don't come for free. They still cost dollars to produce and print, and they cost time for readers to look at them and figure out what they represent. And if you use too many, they lose their impact.
So, use graphics, but use them carefully and deliberately.
Also think about the strength of impression you want to make. A graphic image can often be recalled long after the associated explanation has been forgotten. For a point you want to make especially memorable, consider using a graphic.
A key issue, then, is how to decide when to use words and when to use graphics. We know no hard and fast rule, but we suggest this guideline: use a graphic when it is cost-effective.
Graphics have three kinds of costs associated with them. The first, and in most cases the least important, is the dollar costs of producing and printing them. They often require artwork by a skilled technician and/or special computer graphic equipment. They require layout, either manual or electronic, and they often extend the page count for printing. So, weigh these actual costs against the benefits they offer.
The second cost is your time and effort. Whether you have access to a graphics art department or a graphic system, you will spend time sketching the graphic, explaining it, reviewing proofs, or perhaps you will produce the graphic yourself using computer tools. Either approach will require your involvement in the process.
But the most important costs are your readers' time and attention. When readers encounter a graphic or reference to a graphic in your document, they must interrupt their reading and the flow of ideas you are presenting to look at the graphic. They must orient themselves to it to see what it is all about, what the symbols represent, how they are related to one another. They must then draw the inferences you intend. When they are through looking at the graphic, they must find their place in the document, re-establish the context of ideas, and resume reading. All of which takes time and effort.
These costs -- dollars, your time, and your readers' time -- should not suggest that you avoid graphics or even necessarily reduce the number you include. They simply suggest that you think about whether the idea is sufficiently complex and/or important for the investment. In most cases, the answer will probably be yes. But ask the question and don't waste your time or your readers' with graphical presentations of simple ideas that could be expressed more efficiently in words.
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