Writing@CSU Guide

Designing Documents: Using Illustrations

Updated Jun 2022

Whether writing for a scientific, technical, or business journal, plan your illustrations before you begin writing: it will reduce your narrative. Then write around your illustrations, or better yet, let the illustrations carry the message. Consider the following when preparing illustrations:

  • Communication Approach
  • Audience
  • Intended Message
  • Style

Once you have considered the above factors, then you can think about:

  • Preparing Illustrations Yourself
  • Borrowing Illustrations
  • Hiring an Illustrator

Communication Approach

Different professionals and illustrators use different approaches for planning Illustrations. When planning your Illustrations, consider the kind of communication product you're producing--technical report, journal article, magazine article, presentation, website, book, or poster session. Keep in mind that your Illustration needs to fit the respective format.

Design the Illustration to fit the communication. Don't copy a table from a journal article and used it in a poster session. Seldom will the text be larger enough for the audience to see. You'll need to redesign, and perhaps simply the table when presenting the information as a poster session.

While color photographs can be converted to black and white photographs for printing, they often lose quality and produce inferior black and white photographs. If the final Illustrations is a black and white photography, shoot black and white negative, have black and white prints made and submit them with your report or article.

You can also produce inferior photographs and images when trying to resize Illustrations for different presentations. While the Illustrations of a certain size may work for a magazine article or journal article, using the same image may not work when resizing it for a poster as it may lose quality and look pixelated. You may want to consider using a different image or keeping this in mind when planning for the Illustrations.

Simply, the best Illustrations are designed for the publication, targeted to the intended audience, and follow the publication's style.

Plan for Your Audience

When planning your Illustrations, keep your audience in mind. Consider:

  • What they know about your topic
  • Their familiarity with reading tables or figures
  • Their ability to interpret data and information

If your audience members know little about the topic, use simple Illustrations to introduce the basic concepts. If your audience has little experience with reading tables, provide simple figures, such as bar graphs to illustrate key ideas. If your audience has little experience interpreting data, then develop Illustrations that show your interpretation of the data.

Planning Your Message

When you think about your Illustrations, ask:

  • What is the primary message that my illustration should convey?
  • What are the secondary messages that my illustration should convey?

Keep in mind that your readers may not interpret your Illustration the same way that you do. It is much like the cliché, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Make sure your viewers understand your illustration.

Ask some of your intended readers what they see or interpret from the visual. If they don't have the same interpretation as your intended message, redesign the illustration.

Functions of Illustrations

Depending on your purpose, the publication, and audience, illustrations can serve different purposes. To learn more, explore each item below:

  • Support Narrative
  • Reduce Narrative
  • Emphasize Key Points
  • Visualize Information
  • Summarize Data
  • Simplify Data
  • Break-Up Text
  • Enhance Understanding
  • Add Visual Appeal

Support Narrative

Illustrations can help support the narrative. They can help you make your points clearly by visualizing the information and showing information in different forms. Illustrations can support your narrative by succinctly presenting ideas that may have required hundreds of words.

Reduce Narrative

Depending on the project you're writing about, Illustrations can reduce your narrative length. Illustrations--drawings, photographs, tables, line graphs, and other visuals can replace dozens, if not hundreds of words in your narrative.

As you plan a document, develop your Illustrations after you've organized and outlined your document. Consider where you could replace the narrative with Illustrations.

Emphasize Key Points

When you're reporting on a lengthy topic, you'll often need to stress key points. By selecting the key points to illustrate and then placing them in a visual, you highlight only your most important points.

Visualize Information

At times providing Illustrations helps readers see points they would have otherwise missed. Different types of Illustrations can help readers see key points.

For example, a study exploring the impact of fencing to reduce grazing by livestock could present the information in both a table and photograph. The photography could help readers see what the data means.

Summarize Data

If you're writing a research report based on large amounts of data, do not put raw data in your report. Instead, summarize the data in summary tables, line graphs or bar charts. Which you select depends on your intended readers and their ability to understand your data and read the respective kind of Illustration.

For example, if you are doing a study of radon levels in homes, you need not report the radon level from each home. Instead, you could report the mean, median, or mode from different homes in the different parts of your community.

Simplify Data

Different readers--i.e., audiences--have different abilities to read and interpret tables, data, and numerical information. You can often simplify data by converting numerical data to line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts.

Break Up Text

Review many newspapers, magazines, and newsletters, and you'll find that the graphic designers use Illustrations to break up text and add visual appeal. Lengthy passages of text create an overall gray impression. By adding photographs, line art, and typographical elements, graphic designers enhance the documents' overall visual.

Enhance Understanding

Readers and users think in different modes. Some people think in visuals, others think in words, still others think in combinations of text and Illustrations. Adding Illustrations helps some readers understand information easier than reading text. And in some cases, you need only provide Illustrations--no text.

For example, some computer manufacturers provide only visual instruction sheets for cabling computers, keyboards, and monitors.

Add Visual Appeal

Illustrations often interest readers and viewers in a publication, article, Web site, or other communication product. In more general circulation publications, such as magazines, newsletters, annual reports, flyers, brochures, designers add Illustrations to enhance the visual attractiveness of a publication. A variety of techniques emerge--placement, size, color, and typographical features.


Like any writing, you'll need to follow an accepted style when preparing your Illustrations. Check the publication or the organization's style manual for guidance on preparing the Illustrations.

Many publications follow a standard style manual like The Chicago Manual of Style, CBE Style Manual, or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Each one specifies details for illustrations, both tables and figures.

Check carefully the Illustrations in any journal, magazine, Web site, or organization for specific style issues. For example, many styles call for the titles to go above tables and below figures, but some organizations place all titles above both tables and figures. Look carefully at extended discussions of tables and figures in this module on Illustrations.

For class assignments, ask your instructors what publication style they would like you to follow.

Preparing Illustrations Yourself

With today's computer and digital technology, you can develop high-quality tables using standard word processing programs, or figures using drawing software. By obtaining the appropriate software and learning how to use it, you can prepare different kinds of figures, such as line graphs, bar graphs, circle or pie charts or line art.

Alternatively, you can prepare illustrations using standard drawing, illustration, and art techniques and then scan them into a computer for importing into a report, article or other communication. A discussion of these techniques is beyond the scope of this website module, so check your local library, Books in Print, or a local bookstore for books on illustration techniques.

Borrowing Illustrations

If you find an Illustration in an existing publication or on the internet, and you'd like to use it in a published report, journal article, magazine article, newspaper, presentation, other communication, or post it on a website, obtain permission from the copyright holder.

In a few cases, Illustrations may be in the public domain--i.e., produced by a government agency. You can usually use them without permission but be careful. Some government publications may be copyrighted, so do seek permission before you use any Illustrations from them.

Hiring an Illustrator

If you need Illustrations, you can hire a professional artist who can prepare the Illustrations you need but be prepared to pay for their services. A simple illustration may cost $25, $50, $100 or more depending on the complexity of the Illustrations and the artist's skills, and the timetable for preparing the Illustrations.

If your school has an art department, you may be able to find an art major who can prepare the Illustrations for you. If you are preparing Illustrations for a university or college publication, you may be able to turn to your school's staff artists and illustrators. Keep in mind too that they charge for their services.

In many organizations, the staff illustrators may be book ahead days, weeks, or even months because of a backlog of work. When you anticipate the need for a commercial illustrator, check with them well in advance of when you'll need the finals of your Illustrations.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

Zimmerman, Don, & Gregory Thayer. (1997). Designing Documents: Using Illustrations. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=39