Editorial September/October 2023

Guest Editorial—Visual Communication Awareness

Horton HeadshotDamrau Headshot

By Amanda Horton and Dr. Jackie Damrau | Fellow

Visual communication is an area of awareness that all technical communicators should know about. It is an area that helps those that are not able to read the written word, can listen to the written word audibly, or to be able to determine signs in a visual manner without the need for understanding a particular language. Most common visual communication is in the graphical signage that we see on the streets (stop, yield, street lights) and airport signs (baggage claim, restrooms).

Within visual communication, we can go back into art history and graphic design to see how visuals started making a presence. Amanda Horton kicks off this guest-edited issue on Visual Communication with her article on “Modernism Prevails? Researching recent trends in information visualization.” In her article she provides an insight into how graphic design is constantly shifting from being complex to being more minimalistic. The most prevalent forms of visual communication recently are seen in the “design of infographics or data visualization, identity systems for international corporations, and wayfinding systems.” The form of data that we visualize also has a basis on being qualitative that involves “self-examination, attention to others, and intentionality through the design process,” according to Christina Singer in her article on “Activating Qualitative Data and Building Equitable Visualizations.” She shares three actionable strategies—Extract Yourself, Embrace Others, and Expand Data Collection and Visualization Mechanisms—to help you in knowing how to activate your visualizations.

Kirk St.Amant takes visual communication to a more cognitive level by sharing in his article, “A Cognitive Approach to Visual Design” how technical content is “becoming increasingly visual in nature” through instructional videos and infographics. He says that while design expectations vary for the type of visual media you are developing, there is a “common set of underlying psychological—or cognitive—processes involving mental models of how individuals…”picture” information when performing a task.” Kirk shares the AICO method (actualization, identification, categorization, and operationalization) that will help technical communicators “create visual content that meets an audience’s usability expectations.”

Information visualization does take practice. Nikki Arnell’s article, “How to Create a Design System for Successful Information Visualization,” says that a “clear design must be formulated before consistently implementing it into any information visualization.” Much like we have a technical writing style guide when writing text-based materials, we should also have a visual design style guide that guides on the proper ways in which to depict information graphically. Nikki provides “guidelines [that are] easily addressed to create a design system” such as having a consistent system of shape, space, and color; using a visual hierarchy in message delivery; and using color wisely (remember, not all readers see all colors the same).

The final article in this guest-edited issue on Visual Communication is on “Audio Describing Tables and Charts” by Brett Oppegaard, Qiang Xu, and Thomas Hurtut. Their article talks about the “design and production of everyday tables and charts” and how that can be conceptualized in an auditory manner for those who cannot read the written word. One takeaway from this article is to consider how a table or chart that appears in your documentation can be described in audible terms to a reader who cannot see it. This article focuses on making us aware of how we should think about making our tables and charts more accessible to “all” readers.

We want to give a special shout-out to all our authors. The articles could not have fallen into place more easily than we had originally thought. Thank you to my co-editor and author, Amanda Horton, and our issue contributors, Christina Singer, Kirk St.Amant, Nikki Arnell, Brett Oppegaard, Qiang Xu, and Thomas Hurtut. Enjoy this issue on visual communication and let us know if this inspired you to rethink visuals in your own communication.