Diagrams are generally illustration driven and designed to dissect the parts of an object or chronicle a chain of events. Diagrams represent a powerful narrative structure capable of taking the audience where photos or video cannot. Diagrams require detailed and informative textual and visual elements. Likewise, illustrations must accurately and realistically replicate form, proportion, color, and shading. This is no easy task. Good stories are built on a sound narrative structure, which plays an important role in an audience’s ability to understand purpose and meaning.
Beyond establishing a clear beginning, middle, and end, a good story provides rich description and accurate details. Powerful narratives focus on human characters, significant locations or interesting phenomena, and they illuminate opinions, expertise, personalities, physical traits, surroundings, and more. Visual stories are no different; they just achieve these goals in different ways.
In this chapter, we will address those strategies by exploring the principles that contribute to good visual storytelling. We will also look at different types of diagrams and hear from Nigel Holmes, an explanation graphics guru.
Developing a visual narrative: Finding a suitable topic for a diagram is rarely a difficult task. However, isolated facts thrown together do not make for a good narrative unless clear linkages among them are illustrated and or explained. Observing four key storytelling constructs – focus, organization, detail, and style – will help you to develop narrative structures that lead your reader through diagrams in a way that is cohesive, engaging, and easy to understand.
- Focus: Find your point and then get to it. An effective diagram establishes a single focus and maintains that focus throughout.
- Organization: The best advice anyone ever gave me when it comes to organizing information in a diagram, is to hang as much information as possible from your main illustration, and play that illustration big.
- Detail: One of the most important jobs of the graphics reporter is to simplify complicated information. And striking the right balance between simplicity and detail can be tricky.
- Style: The illustration style you choose for your graphic must fit the subject matter and tone of the content for your graphic to seem appropriate and believable.
Illustration styles: The stronger your artistic skills, the better illustrator you will be. However, even the most detailed diagrams are based on strong visual reference material. After you have found a reliable, accurate visual reference, you can develop your own illustrations.
- Sketches like the one to the left are effective for illustrating imagined scenes or objects invisible to the naked eye.
- Vector graphics can be created by tracing the basic shapes that comprise an object and using different values of a single color to represent light and shadow.
- Gradients allow you to control the intensity, angle, and shape of a gradient so that you can create a more realistic looking illustration.
Types of diagrams: Diagrams generally fit into one of two broad categories: passive or active. In short, passive diagrams break down and/or label the parts of an object with no implied action or movement. Active diagrams, on the other hand, go a step further by using visual cues to indicate movement or action. Chapter 8 explores what happens when graphics move into the digital space, where real motion and interactivity considerably change the user experience. But for now, let’s focus on static diagrams, which must use structure, texture, and symbolism to attract and move the eye.