Visuals are central to technical communication, in reports as well as in slides. Your visuals should be integral to your argument, accessible to your audience, and contextualized. For examples of visuals that are integral to the argument, accessible, and contextualized, look at these examples from Engineering Words:

To design visuals effectively, consider the following guidelines.

Focus and emphasize the visual’s message.

  •  Focus the audience’s attention on key details, paring away any unnecessary material. See the discussion and examples in Nathans-Kelly & Nicometo (2014), ch. 7, especially figures 7.10 to 7.12 and figures 7.16 to 7.20.
  • If you are using a visual from another source, be aware that you may need to adapt or re-design the visual.
  • Emphasize the visual’s message in your slide’s title and text or in your report’s caption and textual discussion, pointing out significant details. Answer the question: “What should the audience learn?”

Contextualize visuals for reports. 

  • Place the caption close to the visual, so that it’s clear the caption is part of the visual, not part of the surrounding text. Left-align the caption text, to make it easy to read, rather than centering the caption text.
  • When discussing the figure in your text, refer to the illustration by number, not by using spatial terms such as “below” or “above.”
  • Place the visual so that it works with the related text and nearby section headings.  A good strategy is to center the visual.  Avoid placing a visual immediately after a heading or surrounded by unnecessary white space. For examples of how to place visuals and captions effectively, please see these slides.

Use color contrasts and sizing to make the visual accessible.

  • Choose colors that contrast well. See the discussion and examples inNathans-Kelly & Nicometo (2014), ch. 7. For examples of high contrast colors, see these slides.
  • Make the visual large enough to read any text in the visual when the page is printed out (for reports that might be printed out) or viewed on a laptop (for slides).

If the visual is taken from a source, cite the source.

In reports, include a citation at the end of the caption, and include the source in your list of references. Example: If you are using name-year citation and the source is Lee (2013), the in-caption citation is From Lee (2013). If you are using citation-sequence or citation-name and the source is item 3 on your reference list, the in-caption citation is From [3]. If your citation is adapted from a source, follow the same pattern, with one change: Adapted from Lee (2013) or Adapted from [3].

In slides, include the citation in the notes field.

Content originally from Sharon Ahlers, Cornell Engineering Communication Program. Link here.


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