Writing@CSU Guide

Designing Documents: Using Figures

Updated Jun 2022

Keep in mind that figures provide a snapshot view of information. For more information, explore the following pages:

  • Types of Figures
  • Key parts of Figures
  • Targeting to Readers
  • General Guidelines
  • Displaying Figures
  • Commonly Asked Questions

Types of Figures

Figures include graphs, equations, photographs, line art, drawings, maps and other visuals. Keep in mind that Figures provide a snapshot view of information. For more information, explore the following pages:

  • Bar Graphs
  • Line Graphs
  • Pie Charts
  • Scatter Plots
  • Photographs
  • Line Art
  • Maps

Bar Graphs

By using Bar Graphs, you can provide a highly visual presentation of data. Use Bar Graphs when you want to present data to numerically challenged readers.


Keep in mind that Bar Graphs often work well for more general audiences. When preparing Bar Graphs, use bars for discrete categories, and follow these guidelines:

  • Avoid 3-dimension bars
  • Keep bars same width
  • Keep scales simple
  • Place labels near or in bars
  • Make bars visually distinct
  • Start vertical axis at zero
  • Break axis if scales are long
  • Avoid placing Bar Graphs with different axes side by side

Line Graphs

Line Graphs are used mostly in scientific, technical, and business publications showing trends in data, such as growth or changes.


For simple Line Graphs,

  • Use Line Graphs for continuous data
  • Show key points along horizontal axis
  • Limit the number of lines
  • Make the lines distinct
  • Label lines carefully
  • Use proportionate axes

Pie Charts

A pie chart effectively displays the proportion of the parts of a whole. For instance, a pie chart can visually display the percentage of men and women in Congress during a particular session.


Keep in mind that Pie Charts often work well for more general audiences. When preparing Pie Charts follow these guidelines:

  • Labeled each slice of the pie chart
  • Place the number or percentage under the corresponding label
  • Avoid clutter by having no more than six slices within a pie
  • Consider combining smaller groups to reduce the slices to six

Scatter Plots

Scatter plots show correlations between raw data, but they are relatively difficult to see and understand. Use scatter plots only with specialized audiences. Otherwise, you may confuse your audience.

Typically, a point on a scatter plot represents thousands of cases. A scatter plot is useful to show how citizens vote during an election.


If you own a 35mm camera, you can easily shoot quality Photographs to illustrate your articles, publications, and presentations without knowing many technical details of photography. As one professional photography suggested, they are Ph.D. cameras--"Push Here Dummy."

You simply point and shoot--the camera focuses on the subject, makes the needed adjustments, and exposes the film. To learn more, explore the following links:

Improving Quality

To shoot good Photographs:

  • Know your equipment and how it works
  • Shoot test rolls to learn about your camera
  • Select slow- to medium-speed films
  • Use black and white negative film when you need black and white prints
  • Use color transparency--i.e., slide film--for presentations and for printed publications
  • Have film processed by a professional photographer's laboratory

When shooting Photographs:

  • Check your camera and batteries to make sure they are working
  • Check and adjust exposures as needed when shooting
  • Use tripod to steady camera, if needed
  • Focus carefully
  • Shoot multiple pictures of the same subject

Improving Content

Good Photographs don't just happen--photographers must plan Photographs to show the desired content. Having good content begins by planning what you'll show in your Photographs. To improve content of your Photographs:

  • Plan the content for each Photograph
  • Generate a detailed shooting list
  • Consider the viewer's frame of reference--what do they know about your topic
  • Start with the familiar and move to the unfamiliar
  • Shoot a series of photographs to illustrate your points
  • Consider ways to add people, animals, or other elements to enhance visual appeal

Improving Composition

To improve composition, you need to learn to see good Photographs and then use a camera's technical capabilities to create visually pleasing scenes.

To improve Photographs:

  • Use the rule of thirds
  • Move in close
  • Vary your angles
  • Frame your scenes
  • Vary the depth of field
  • Use leading lines

For more information on basic photography, check your local library for books, your local camera store, or search for videos on basic photography.

Line Art

Line Art consists of simple illustrations, usually in black and white, that outline key elements of the visual being shown. Chances are you are not skilled at drawing Line Art, so you will need to use a professional illustrator or use some of the software designed for preparing Line Art. To learn more, explore the following:

Uses of Line Art

Use line drawings to illustrate key components or parts. You'll find Line Art used to show the key parts of such things as:

  • equipment
  • plants
  • animals
  • maps

Working with Illustrators

When you turn to illustrators to help you prepare Line Art, consider the following guidelines. Provide plenty of lead time for the artist to complete the job. Below are some more suggestions when working with illustrators to make the process easier and less time consuming:

  • Sketch your ideas, even if they are crude
  • Determine the final size of the Line Art
  • Consider what you would delete to simplify the line art if required for budget or time reasons
  • Provide your sketches
  • Explain the final form needed, such as printed hard copy, graphic file, or color slide

Using Software

If you have access to a computer with drawing software, you can produce simple Line Art. You'll find two kinds of software:

  • drawing and tracing programs, such as Corel Draw and Adobe Illustrator
  • drag and drop software, such as VISIO

Using software you can create Line Art, save it as a graphics file, and import it into word processing, desktop publishing, presentation, or online documents.

Flow Chart

Use flow charts to show how a process works. Such processes might be how a computer operators, how oxygen flows through your body, how photosynthesis works, or a multitude of other scientific or technical processes.


If you are in a scientific or technical field, you may find the need to provide Maps for technical reports, articles, program announcements, and other publications. Explore the following links for more information on Maps:

Orientation Maps

When preparing Orientation Maps, consider the following

  • Provide a general orientation map of the area
  • Provide a second map that details the specific are
  • Simplify the map--i.e. show only key features
  • Orient map with North at the top of the page
  • Provide a distance scale
  • Add legend with symbols, if needed

Direction Maps

When preparing Direction Maps for meetings, conferences, or other gatherings, consider the following:

  • Assume readers have not visited the site
  • Label all streets, roads, highways and key landmarks
  • Include a north pointing arrow
  • Provide a scale or give distances
  • Include a narrative to help readers
  • Double check map for errors

Key Parts of Figures

Unlike tables, style guides do provide detailed guidelines for the parts of Figures. Instead, the Figure contains the primary visual component, and the caption describes the Figure.

Targeting to Readers

When you consider each kind of Figure, consider whether the Figure you plan to use is the best to communicate to your readers.

Ask the following questions:

  • Are readers familiar with the kind of Figure you plan to use?
  • Are readers skilled in reading and interpreting the Figure?
  • Will your readers understand the abbreviations you're using?
  • Do readers have a general knowledge of your topic?
  • Will readers interpret the Figure in the same way you do?

Keep in mind that readers' backgrounds, and whether they read and interpret Figures in the same way you do.

General Guidelines

The following lists provides general guidelines for developing Figures. When developing Figures, follow the general and specific guidelines:

  • Follow the publication's style or instructor's guidelines for tables
  • Place titles below Figures
  • Write complete descriptive titles
  • Use Arabic numbers for Figures
  • Use double number for tables within chapters: Figure 1-1 for the first Figure in Chapter 1
  • Place Figures on separate pages at the end of the document
  • Don't clutter visuals
  • Use clear typefaces to maintain print legibility
  • Provide footnotes describing abbreviations

Displaying Figures

Researchers suggest the following:

  • Complex visuals work for highly trained professionals
  • Simple graphs work best for readers who lack training

Commonly Asked Questions

If you aren't accustomed to working with figures, you may feel uncertain about how to incorporate them into your writing. A good place to learn about figures is in journals and other publications. You should also investigate the style guides used in your field. Many organizations produce these guides to help you properly include figures into your documents. To read answers to some common questions, choose any of the items below:

Should figures replace text?

It's typically easier to look at a graph or chart than to read through a paragraph or two that describes information in great detail. This does not mean, however, that graphs and charts should take the place of your text. You should not simply say, "Our results are shown in Figures 1 through 9." Instead, the primary role of figures isn't to replace, but rather to enhance your narrative.

How are graphs, charts and text related?

The role of figures is to reinforce what your text states and to make some of the text easier to understand. Stating information in words gives readers the general idea but seeing it in graphical form makes it clearer. At the same time, the information you convey in your text also supports your graphic. Don’t just write that the information can be seen in the graphic. Tell your readers what the graphic depicts.

How many figures should I use?

Generally, having more rather than fewer figures is desirable. If the graphics aren’t adding anything, don’t put them in, but you can always find opportunities where figures will help. Remember, you can always place less important figures in an Appendix.

Where should figures appear in the text?

Ideally, figures should appear on the same page, immediately following or adjacent to the first instance when you mention them in your text. When you write, "See Figure One," your readers should be able to easily locate the graphic. Also, your readers will appreciate not having to turn pages and hunt for a graphic. Advances in word processing and desktop publishing software make it relatively easy to insert figures within the text itself. If it isn't possible to fit a graphic onto the page immediately following or adjacent to its first mention in the text, then you should place the graphic on the next page.

What should figures look like?

Figures should be clear, and captions should be large enough to be read. Many readers prefer that bold symbols be used to represent data. Also, all lettering and numbering should be large enough to easily read and you should use a mix of bold and lighter lines.

How large should figures be?

Unless they are extremely complex, figures should not take up an entire page. They should be of a size that allows them to be inserted on the page where either the graph or chart is first mentioned. However, they should not be so small that they are difficult to read.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.

Zimmerman, Don, & Gregory Thayer. (1997). Designing Documents: Using Figures. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=40