Part 6: Visual communication

6.2 Drawings, diagrams, and photos

To depict objects, place, people, and relationships between them, you can use photos, drawings, diagrams, and schematics.

In the realm of illustrations and photographs, the types run from minimal detail to maximal. A simple line drawing of how to graft a fruit tree reduces the detail to simple lines representing the hands, the tools, the graft stock, and graft. Diagrams are a more abstract, schematic view of things, such as a wiring diagram of a clock radio (which hardly resembles the actual physical thing at all). And of course photographs provide the most detail of all. These graphics, supplying gradations of detail as they do, have their varying uses.

Formatting requirements

When you use an illustration in a report, there are several requirements to keep in mind.

Just about any illustration should contain labels words and phrases with pointers to the parts of the things being depicted.

If the illustration has certain shadings, colors, line styles, or other such details that have a special meaning in the illustration, these should be indicated in a key or legend in an unused corner of the illustration.

Ideally, you should place illustrations, diagrams, and photos just after the point where they are needed. However, sometimes because of the pagination (the way the text falls on the pages) and the size of the illustrations, diagrams, or photos, this close placement is not possible. In these instances, you can put the graphic at the top of the next page.

Again, ideally, you want illustrations, diagrams, and photos to be between one-half to one-quarter of the vertical size of the page. You should fit them on the page with other text. What you do not want is to append the graphic to the back of the report!

Make sure that your illustrations, diagrams, and photos fit neatly and comfortably within standard margins. You don’t want them spilling over into the right or left margins. You want to allow the equivalent of at least two blank lines above and below the graphic.

Illustrations, diagrams, and photos should have titles, and these titles should be numbered (Figure 1, Figure 2, and so on). The titles and figure labels should be placed below the graphic.

Illustrations, diagrams, and photos should be referred to from the relevant point in the discussion, and you should do more than just tossing in a “See Figure 2.”  Discuss the illustration to focus the reader’s attention on the key details of the graphic.

Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any illustrations, diagrams, and photos that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Graphics” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.

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