Visual Communication

By Jamie Gillenwater | STC Senior Member

Before we read the first page of a document, we assess the quality based on the visual design. Effective design helps to guide the reader through the document so they may quickly find the information they need.

Designing the document is the fourth phase of technical communication development, after planning and researching, organizing and drafting, and improving the style, but before revising and editing the document.

Design Principles in Technical Communication Today
  • Balance, pages 447–455
  • Alignment, pages 455–456
  • Grouping, pages 456–461
  • Consistency, pages 461–466
  • Contrast, pages 466–467
Using Design Principles

The visual communication core competency includes a variety of methods for designing information to guide your readers. The techniques include balance, alignment, grouping, consistency, and contrast.


When designing a document, it is important to balance pages. This means that design features should offset each other so that the top is not heavier than the bottom and the left and right are balanced. To design for balance, keep in mind that items on the top of the page weigh more than items on the bottom. Likewise, items on the right are heavier than the left. Color makes objects heavier, as do irregular shapes. Certain design elements weight more than others. For example, a picture is heavier than a block of text.

What techniques can you use to ensure visual balance in your communications? Consider using a grid system for design. This grid should specify the number of columns, headers, footers, and the size of the page. Then you can use this grid to determine the best place for images, graphics, pull-out quotes, and text.


Alignment signals visual relationships. For example, vertical alignment signals hierarchy based on the indentation from the margin. Vertical alignment establishes lists and heading levels as they align throughout the document. Horizontal alignment connects objects based on the distance from the top and bottom of the page. This alignment helps establish items as a unit.

To incorporate alignment as a design strategy, consider indenting subheadings and lists. Ensure related elements have the same spacing from the top of a page. For example, the beginning of a technical article should align horizontally with the related image.


Our readers naturally associate items that are placed near each other as a unit. Grouping allows us to leverage this tendency by designing information to show relationship.

To effectively group information, use white space to frame items. Headings are an effective technique for signifying a new group of information. Also, consider parallelism in the sentence structure to create consistent wording patterns.


Your readers need to know what to expect throughout your documentation. You can meet their needs by consistently designing the information. Consistency means making design choices early in your design process and using the same design choices throughout the entire document, series of documents, or website. Consistency not only makes it easier for your readers to navigate your information, but can also strengthen your brand when used across multiple channels.

To check whether you are creating visually consistent documents, ask yourself a few questions: Do you consistently use the same font, color, and size for headings of the same-level? Do you consistently use the same grid design through your entire document? Do you consistently place elements, such as page numbers, on each page? Do you consistently use the same bulleting and numbering schemes?


The goal of contrast is to ensure your readers can quickly identify different elements and where they fall within a document hierarchy. Design your communication so that readers can quickly and easily see the differences in the communication. Then uses those differences consistently throughout your communication.

You can use a variety of methods to add contrast to your documents. The methods include using different colors, shades, highlights, and font sizes. These techniques mean that headings should never be confused for sub-headings. Navigation text shouldn’t be confused with body text. And graphic labels shouldn’t be confused with standalone quotes.

A word of caution: Do not use too much contrast. Consider using two fonts, often one serif and one sans serif. Choose only a couple of colors to represent your brand, and then use these colors for icons, headings, and other areas of emphasis.

Considering Transcultural Design

Depending on your audience, you might need to create documentation for multiple audiences throughout the world. Richard Johnson-Sheehan defines this as transcultural design. Transcultural design can be divided into culturally deep documents and culturally shallow documents.

Culturally deep documents reflect the culture’s language, symbols, and conventions. Culturally shallow documents follow Western design conventions, but make minor adjustments for the target culture, such color, people, symbols, and direction of reading.

If you don’t have the budget for culturally deep document design, follow best practices:

  • Keep human icons simple.
  • Use hand signals carefully.
  • Avoid culture-specific icons.
  • Avoid religious symbols.
  • Avoid animal symbols and mascots.
Selecting Graphics

In addition to the five design principles and transcultural design considerations, you must be able to select and use appropriate graphics to reinforce your text. To do this, follow four guidelines.

A graphic should tell a simple story. Your graphic does not need to convey the entirety of your information, but it should tell a simple story. Can you reader immediately identify that your line graph shows how temperatures have changed over the last century?

A graphic should reinforce the written text, not replace it. Keep in mind that your graphic should never provide the only explanation of the information. The text should detail the information, using the graphics to provide a simple and clear picture.

A graphic should be ethical. You’ve likely heard Evan Esar’s famous quote about statistics: “The only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions.” Graphics can be manipulated in a similar fashion. Consider your scales relative to the information you are conveying. Is it reflecting the information ethically?

Figure 1. A Graph that Reinforces the Written Text
The Story to be Told
Best Graphic
How Data Are Displayed
“I want to show a trend.” Line graph Shows how a quantity rises and falls, usually over time
“I want to compare two or more quantities.” Bar chart Shows comparisons among different items or the same items over time
“I need to present data or facts for analysis and comparison.” Table Displays data in an organized, easy to access way
“I need to show how a whole is divided into parts.” Pie chart Shows data as a pie carved into slices
“I need to show how things, people, or steps are linked together.” Flowchart Illustrates the connections among people, parts, or steps
“I need to show how a project will meet its goals over time.” Gantt chart Displays a project schedule, highlighting the phases of the work

Figure 2. Choosing the Appropriate Graphic

A graphic should be labeled and placed properly. To ensure your graphic is easy to interpret, you should display units of measurement clearly, label columns and rows or axes, identify important features, and identify the data source for each graphic.

As you select the graphics for your communications, consider the story that needs to be told, along with the type of data you have available for display. Never attempt to manipulate your readers by using misleading graphics. Provide information in a clear and easy-to-interpret graphic to motivate your readers.

Mastering Visual Communication at the Foundation Level

To earn the Foundation-level CPTC, you must be able to recall and recognize important concepts and terms from Technical Communication Today. For the visual communication core competency, these concepts and terms include:

  • Five principles of visual design
    • Balance
    • Alignment
    • Grouping
    • Consistency
    • Contrast
  • Transcultural design
    • Culturally deep considerations
    • Culturally shallow considerations
    • Keep human icons simple.
    • Use hand signals carefully.
    • Avoid culture-specific icons.
    • Avoid religious symbols.
    • Avoid animal symbols and mascots.
  • Four guidelines for using graphics in documents
    • A graphic should tell a simple story.
    • A graphic should reinforce the written text, not replace it.
    • A graphic should be ethical.
    • A graphic should be labeled and placed properly.
  • Graphic types, including best use
    • Line graph
    • Bar chart
    • Table
    • Pie chart
    • Flowchart
    • Gantt chart
  • Design choices
    • Formats
    • Fonts
    • Graphics
  • Presentation design

For additional study on visual communication, consider the following resources:

Johnson-Sheehan, Richard. Technical Communication Today (5th Edition). Boston: Pearson Education, 2014.

Knaflic, Cole Nussbaumer. Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals. New Jersey: Wiley, 2015.

Oestreich, Linda. “Information Design for Technical Communicators.” Presentation, STC Summit, Columbus, 2015.

Williams, Robin. The Non-Designer’s Design Book (4th Edition). Peachpit Press, 2006.

JAMIE GILLENWATER is a skilled technical communicator with more than a decade of experience in the communications industry. She is an independent consultant with clients in oil and gas, pharmaceutical, and real estate industries. She leads a variety of courses, including business writing for federal employees, training for the Certified Professional Technical Communicator certification exam, and Adobe InDesign courses as well. Jamie is also the Career and Leadership Track Manager for the 2017 STC Summit. She is an incoming member of the STC Nominating Committee. Visit Jamie’s website at www.transcendtext.com.

Download the Apr 2017 PDF

2017 PDF Downloads