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The Visual Advantage
by Richard Rohlfing

In my company, we are moving from work instructions text work instructions to primarily graphical instructions. Although they are a larger investment, visual-based instructions have several advantages over text driven instructions.

Visual information takes up less space and is easier for users to comprehend. People tend to understand visual information more rapidly and tend to retain it longer. Visuals also speak to a wider audience range; they break down reading level differences and language barriers.

But despite the differences in the nature of graphics versus text, some of the same strategies used in creating effective text-based documentation can also be applied to graphical elements.

In text documents there are always some lines that are more important than others, headings and key points for example. To indicate this importance, writers use strategies like bolding, underlining, or changing the type size or color.

To be useful, drawings must emphasize certain features of an object or objects and downplay others. Emphasizing features in drawings can be done in many ways. Exaggerating the size, changing the angle of view, changing the line weight or type (e.g., solid versus dashed), showing only part of the object, increasing the size of part of the object with a lens, changing color or color strength, and using labels or other typographical cues are all ways to highlight features in drawings. However, when creating emphasis, the technical illustrator must be careful.

If the drawing doesnÕt represent the actual object closely enough, if the dimensions, features and relative proportions are different, users may not understand what they are looking at, causing documents to lose credibility.

In text, diction and sentence structure highly influence a documentÕs tone. Writers choose tones that depend upon the purpose of their documents. Instructional drawings also have a tone. Orthographic (two-dimensional) views are generally considered formal. Although they are difficult to create, try to use perspective drawings (three-dimensional views with either actual or suggested converging lines) to make instructions more user-friendly. In my company, we also use exploded drawings to show how different parts are connected.

Good writers spend a lot of time researching and planning their documents. The same strategy is applicable for visuals. Since effective drawings can be a big investment in time, before sitting down at a computer, it is import that you devise a well thought out plan. Carefully plan the type of drawing, decide what features should be emphasized, and determine how the drawing should relate to other drawings in the instructions.

And like text, visuals should also be edited for clarity, and content. The drawing must make sense, both by itself and in relation to other drawings. The parts of the drawing must be coherent, and the users must be able to identify and interpret what they see.

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