Making the best illustrations for knowledge articles
The saying goes: an image says more than a thousand words. When writing knowledge articles, you aim to explain (often complex) information to your readers as quickly and simply as possible. It follows, that illustrations can greatly help support those goals: Make the information quicker and easier to take in by adding another way of presenting it. To achieve this, of course you want to provide the best illustration to your readers you possibly can.
We have assembled some tips to help you do that, so your illustrations are helpful, intuitive and will stick with your readers as a positive experience.
To illustrate or not to illustrate?
Our first tip is in some contrast to the rest of the article. In the beginning, ask yourself, is an illustration helpful at this point or not?
Of course, illustrations are great helpers for explaining complex topics or strengthening recall. But it can be tempting to use them just as eye catchers or to “prettify” your article. So, try to avoid using an image that adds nothing to the page, as this is a waste of space in knowledge articles. Instead, you can use other means to draw attention and structure your page. (For some pointers, take a look at our article Guide the Eye).
On the other hand, many articles also suffer from the opposite problem. When an illustration could really help clarify many points, but there is none. So, if an image will add to the information value in your article, let’s look at how to make the best illustration to go with it!
What type of illustration?
Now, it’s time to pick the right type of illustration. For some content it might seem obvious, but often enough we see illustrations that aren’t ideal for the information displayed. That makes it harder for the reader to interpret them and also harder for the creator to figure out how to best put the information into this sub-par format. Here’s a few frequent types of information and the best illustration to go with them:
Processes, sequences of events
Journey map / road map
Circle / cycle diagram
Connection between parts of a whole
Connection or comparison between different parts
Of course, this is just naming a few options. The whole palette is plentiful and especially when it comes to numerical data, we could go into a lot of detail on which type of chart to use for what type of information you want to present. But if you’re unsure, it’s always good to research first what other people use to display a specific type of information.
Create the illustration
Now that you’ve picked the type of illustration you want to use, it’s time to actually make it.
1. Draft on paper
If it’s not an extremely simple illustration, first draft it on paper. This will help you finetune the best way to display the information before you start lining it up in some software, where bigger changes can be time-consuming and frustrating.
One important point to keep in mind at this point is how much information you want to put into one illustration. Illustrations are helpful tools for explaining complex information, but if your illustration itself takes half an hour to fully understand (or cannot be understood at all without outside help), rethink. Can you use several simpler images instead?
Also, run the draft by a colleague and ask them if it is easy to understand. That will help you identify possible weaknesses you can fix on your way to the best illustration.
2. Decide the file format
Once you have a plan in mind, it’s time to settle on a file format. This will help you pick the right software for the job.
For most knowledge article illustrations, the choice boils down to PNG and SVG. The main advantages of SVGs over PNGs are:
- They scale up without loss of detail.
- You can mark text in finished SVGs and copy-paste it out of the image.
- SVGs can be used with some code-additions to animate, display elements at hover, or provide other interaction.
So, if you want particularly big illustrations, interactive ones, or if the illustration will contain a lot of text, go for an SVG. Otherwise, you can choose freely between the two formats.
Every basic software for image creation and editing can create PNGs. With SVGs, most software supports them by now, but it’s worth checking first so you can still switch software if needed.
(If you’re creating diagrams, there’s plenty of software that can support you by offering matching building blocks and automation, so you don’t have to create the diagram from scratch. So take a look and see if there’s a software that can do some of the work for you!)
3. Stick to a uniform style
If you make more than one illustration for all your knowledge articles, try to stick to a uniform style. This will help your readers more easily orient themselves, as they will recognize elements more easily.
Ideally, you even have a style guide between you and your co-creators. That way, you can use the same best illustration practices, which will increase usability and present a professional, concise look. (Don’t underestimate the value of creating trust in your readers via a consistent and intuitive design.)
4. Visibility and understandability
Speaking of style and design: There’s a few things you can do to increase how easy your illustration is to see and take in.
- Size matters: Make things big enough to be read easily. Keep in mind the image might be embedded in a smaller size or might be viewed on smaller devices.
- Contrast and fonts: We keep stressing this in articles on different topics, but it remains just as relevant: Choose good color contrasts for high visibility (use a web tool for contrast checking for objective input) and fonts that are easy to read and match your article.
- Labels and keys: Especially for graphs, but also some other illustrations, make sure everything that needs explaining is labelled or there is a key to explain unintuitive icons. The best illustration does not help if it leaves open questions. Again, this is a good point to ask a colleague for input, to help you find any parts that do not speak for themselves.
- Declutter: At the same time, keep things as simple and clean as possible. This might seem to clash a little with the previous step, but try to find a good balance as not to overwhelm your readers with the illustration.
Use the illustration in the text
Now your illustration’s all done! But even the best illustration can be hindering if not used right. Here’s a few more points to keep in mind once you use it in an article.
- Size, once more: We already talked about size when creating the illustration. But as you embed it in your article, continue making sure it is big enough on different screen sizes. A good auxiliary option for bigger images is to make them zoomable, so they can be viewed at full screen size if necessary.
- Explain the image: Unless your illustration is extremely simple, make sure to explain what it’s about in the text. This has multiple advantages, but the most important are: The information is available to tools like screen readers (making it accessible to a wider audience) and it is also available to search tools.
- Use the alt-attribute: Depending on the publishing tool you are working with, you might also be able to enter Text as alt-attribute for the image. This partially serves one of the purposes we just mentioned for the explanation: It makes an image available to screen readers. If you have an explanation in-text though, it is still helpful to use the alt-attribute. Should the image not be displayable for technical reasons, the alt text can still inform the reader what they would see here, eliminating some possible confusion.
Now that you’ve made the best illustration for your latest article, do not put this topic out of your mind right away! Stick to it, see which other articles might profit from an illustration or which old illustrations you could improve. It’s time to elevate illustrations from superfluous decorations to truly helpful tools for passing on information.