An image with an impact

If good writing is the foundation on which technical communication is built, then visual elements provide the curb appeal.

Even though most of my training and experience are in writing, not illustrating, I’m keenly aware of the huge effect — for good or ill — that visuals can have on content.

I pay close attention to how the artist chooses to present data in maps and graphs, because that choice can strongly influence the reader’s perception.

I like to spotlight images that are informative and well-executed — like the map in ProPublica’s story on last summer’s Houston floods and the Tampa Bay Times‘ 2015 infographic about the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Unfortunately, the Times has removed the infographic from its site, but a small piece of it survives in my post.)

Then there’s the recent op-ed by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in the U.S. In an article full of bar graphs and maps, one image in particular made my jaw drop.

Wishing to point up the lack of research into gun violence, compared with research into diseases like cholera and diphtheria, Kristof had a Times artist compare two data points for each problem: number of people affected and number of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health over the 40 years ending in 2012.

As you scroll down, try to set aside your political views — whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — and evaluate this image on how effectively it delivers its message.

graph juxtaposing 4 million gun-violence cases and 3 research grants

I’ve seen very few images that delivered their messages so startlingly, so resoundingly. The numbers are impressive, but the huge red circle and the three tiny boxes thunder out the message: gun violence, while a serious threat to public health, is woefully under-researched. (Kristof says that’s because of lobbying by opponents of gun control.)

Feel free to disagree with the message. But don’t tell me that it wasn’t delivered effectively.

5 thoughts on “An image with an impact

  1. radaghastblog

    The difference between the # of disease cases and the # of gun violence cases is so great that this static diagram makes it *harder* (at least for me) to quickly see the point. But once the reader “gets” the meaning of the red dots’ sizes this diagram works well.

    I think the problem is that the huge size of the gun violence dot immediately demands attention.

    One way to handle this problem might be to create a serial “reveal” (an active GIF?) that shows the smaller dots first. That gives the reader time to absorb the framework before being blown away by that gigantic last dot.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      That’s a good point, Mike. I suspect that the image was created with the online viewer in mind: the viewer, scrolling down through the article, would see the smaller red circles first and then be surprised by the larger one. A poor man’s “reveal,” as it were.

      That didn’t work for you, however, and surely you’re not alone. It might not have worked so well for people who read the print article either.

      It did work for me, reading the article online. But I see your point, and I concede that I have no easy answer. Technical art is complex, and the proliferation of viewing formats has only made it more so.

  2. Pingback: An image with an impact – Technical Writing World

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