Images and Figures – Guidelines

There are plenty of times where words aren’t enough to convey a message. Like the concept of breaking up with someone over text, much can be left to missed tone and ambiguous reference. When this happens, people can get lost in translation. In the context of Standard Operating Procedures, people might not grasp the whole of the instruction from words alone. Including images or figures get us a bit closer to the desired understanding we were hoping to accomplish.

Imagery within an SOP is capable to drastically improve your audience’s understanding of any training. Not only do readers receive a visual of the tasks they are attempting to recreate, but there can be a more thorough understanding of the “hows and whys”. These steps can also highlight hazards in the work environment. On top of all this, consider: there are people who learn preferably through reading/writing and there are those that learn better by watching.

We’re such firm believers in including images in our documentation that we would almost guarantee they would improve documentation effectiveness.

Here are our best tips, for incorporating figures within an SOP:

  • Images should be focused on only those components involved in the procedural step.
  • Aim to have outside surroundings in the picture to see the context of the step, but not so much that the image turns into a “Where’s Waldo” of a procedure.
  • Figures and images should be centered on the page and fit within the standard document margins.
  • Color can be critically important in some procedure photos, but keep in mind that in many cases, procedures are often printed in black and white. Capturing photos that demonstrate proper contrast even in black and white is a practice.
  • In the instance of low-light photos or photos with poor resolution, it might be beneficial to outline shapes of objects and label items appropriately.
Figure 1: Blurry image for an SOP. Don’t do this.
  • Microsoft Paint/Gimp/Apple Preview – Free image editors to fit your document’s needs.
  • Items that are integral to a procedure should be highlighted, by arrows, circles, or some other method.
  • Captions at the bottom of an image/figure help in allowing procedures to reference images throughout.
  • Captions should be numbered sequentially, based on their appearance in the document. Figure 1 is an example of this captioning.
  • Images should always show good behaviors of people and realistic settings, even if unrelated to the procedure.
  • Text in an image should be rendered in such a way that it contrasts with its background, in both color and brightness. If it’s not possible to position text so that this can be accomplished, consider using text outside of the image, and use arrows to point to the items being described.
Figure 2: Contrasting text in a document’s image.
  • Never show personal identifying information within a photo for an SOP.
  • While having lighthearted photos can be fun and keep readers interested, avoid this with any procedure that involves health or safety. Nobody is going to care that Optimus Prime is holding the gauze if Billy is bleeding out on the floor.
  • Images are often used in SOPs concerning computer-related tasks, but remember: software changes much more frequently than machinery, which can render images obsolete. Consider moving to more regular updates of SOPs involving computer programs – perhaps every 1 year instead of every 3 – to mitigate this risk.
  • Rule of thumb: No more than 3 steps in a procedure should point to any one figure. If you find yourself exceeding that, it’s likely the photo is simply too complex.
Figure 3: Example limiting the number of highlited objects in an image.
  • In instances where complicated motions are involved, consider using a series of chronological images, to demonstrate step progression.
  • Charts or graphs provided in figures should be large and detailed enough for a reader to gather all appropriate information from them. They should also avoid color schemes that might be difficult for colorblind readers to see.
  • In a procedure with a lot of sections and images, it’s good practice to number figures within a section. (example: Figures 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 are in Section 1, and Figure 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 are within Section 2).
  • For images with large image captions, consider placing [image description], and linking to a section at the end of the paper, providing a description fo that particular image.
  • For figures: Label all units (x- and y-axis, legends, column box heads, parts of diagrams, etc). Keep data non-distorted.
  • Provide the source of the data and/or visual image if you did not create it yourself.
  • When referring to an image, it’s best to be specific about which image is being referenced – for example, “see Figure 1.1” instead of “see the figure below.”

Looking for figures and images used in the real world? CLICK HERE.


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