Figures– including diagrams, visual or geographic maps, graphs and other visualizations– can bring the narrative to life. As is the case with many things, good figures add meaning to the thesis or dissertation, article, chapter, book, while inadequate figures can seed confusion or distract from the text. In a presentation, diagrams can engage the audience by replacing bullet points with visual interest.
I recently submitted the manuscript for my next book, and it is now going into production. The next stage involves re-working and finalizing the figures. As someone who is a visual communicator and a researcher who uses visual methods, I have a lot of experience. Nevertheless, a new task is an opportunity to reflect and learn. I’ll share my thoughts and practical steps, as well as examples and observations from the literature in a series of posts. This post focuses on discerning the figure’s purpose; subsequent posts will focus on production for print or online delivery, and on options for production.
Why use a figure?
If we are not clear about the purpose of a figure, we can’t expect others to understand it. Depending on your own thought process and style, you might draw a diagram as a way of organizing your ideas before writing. Or you might look at the text you’ve written and realize that a figure is needed. Either way, its essential to think through how the figure(s) will help your reader or viewer grasp your points. That means we need to be clear about what points we want to convey! What is the overall objective of the article, book, or presentation?
We can use figures to show theoretical frameworks, to highlight relationships between concepts, or to present findings. Figures can illustrate a process, or show results of a process. What do you want to show?
In the book I am completing, the overall objective is a practical one. I hope readers will be able to use the Taxonomy of Collaboration to design and assess collaborative learning experiences.While this Taxonomy was generated through empirical research, it does not serve as a visualization of findings per se. Instead, it has a practical purpose and I want reader to use it. It is a visual model, comprised of a visual vocabulary educators and students can use to map a collaborative project. This means one purpose of the figures it to introduce and define the visual terminology. In addition to placing these visual components in the book itself, I will offer the figures for download. This means I need to not only show and discuss each one, but also explain how the reader can use them.
Synthesis is a second purpose for figures in this book. Figures are used to show in a clear and concise manner how ideas presented in the written text fit together. The figures become a shorthand for communicating complex ideas and relationships. Again, I hope readers can refer to the figures when trying to apply the ideas presented in the book.
What is your visual purpose? Use the comment area to share links to examples of your work, and discuss the purpose you tried to achieve.