Using graphics in technical documents



Graphics help enhance the form (appearance) of your technical documents in order to better communicate your messages to your readers. Graphics (e.g. tables, figures, and graphs) should be used complement your text, especially when describing your data. Illustrations can help visualize, simplify, and clarify data findings. The list below includes some general guidelines relevant to the production and use of illustrations in technical documents.​

A. Graphics should be used to simplify information

  1. Graphics should tell a story about your data in a clear, concise, and uncluttered way. Avoid using complicated graphics that may confuse readers.

  2. It is more effective to include your tables and figures after explaining them in your text. If you include the visuals before explaining them, your readers may become confused about what those visuals mean, and they will try to either: 1) read and understand those visuals by themselves, which may overwhelm them, or 2) scan your text for explanations, which may lead them to skip over important information.

B. Graphics should reinforce written text

  1. Graphics should complement your text. Do not include a graph, table, or figure that you do not mention or explain in your running text. The written text should explain to the graphics, and the graphics should support the text. Include extra tables and figures in the Appendices.

  2. Graphics should be used to support the written text, but they cannot replace it altogether. Do not just refer your reader to a graphic. If you cannot explain something in writing, the graphic won't be able to either.

  3. Keep in mind that different types of visuals present information in specific ways and for specific purposes. For instance, tables work better with quantitative/ descriptive data, and graphs work better to show qualitative trends. You should not include the same data in more than one type of display (either a table or a graph). Pick the best format based on the type of your data.

C. Graphics should be ethical

  1. ​Do not use graphics to hide, manipulate, or exaggerate information. Be honest to your readers.

  2. Make sure to cite graphics obtained from secondary sources. In-text citations should be included in the caption and full citations should be included in the list of references. For example: Figure 5 Typical Gradation Curve for Sand (Source: Mehta and Monteiro, 2006).

  3. If you modify any aspect of the visuals, include “Adapted from" in your in-text citations. For example: Figure 5 Typical Gradation Curve for Sand (Adapted from: Mehta and Monteiro, 2006). 


D. Graphics should be labeled, formatted, and placed properly

  1. ​Always number and include a title for your visuals (titles go above tables and below figures). Refer to your visuals by their specific numbers in your text (avoid phrasings such as the table below and the figure above—use their specific numbers to refer to them).

  2. Because you need to include a title in the captions of your figures, the graph title inserted automatically by Excel is redundant. Remove it when importing your graphs into Word.

  3. Tables should include headings and units for the values included in the rows and columns.

  4. Axes on graphs should be labeled descriptively and should indicate the units. Axes should also have tic marks that are reasonably spaced, and the last tic mark should be at the end of the axis. Space on graphs should be used efficiently, and wasted space should be avoided.

  5. The number labels on the axes should be large enough to read. You may need to change the default settings on Excel and check if those settings change once importing your graphs into Word documents.

  6. Define all the markers and trend lines on your graphs through a clear legend.

  7. When possible, remove the gridlines on your graphs to achieve a clearer display.

  8. Colorful backgrounds on displays look nice on screens, but technical information tends to be lost when the figure is printed in black and white. Use a white background for all graphs.

  9. It is not always easy to distinguish among the default colors and symbols when the graphs are printed in black and white. Selecting open and filled markers is one way to distinguish one data set from another. Different line types may also be used. 

  10. Make sure that your visuals, especially tables, are not broken across multiple pages. Also, modify the default settings on Word to create engaging and easy-to-read tables.


​Figures 2 and 3 below display some of the above guidelines. Notice how the suggested guidelines can improve the clarity and efficiency of graphs and tables in technical documents.  For further information on the use of visuals in technical documents, refer to the APA Guidelines.


  

Figure 2 Graphical representation of data



Figure 3 Tabular Representation of Data ​