Are the rules of good art the same as the rules of good writing?

Front and side view of WW I Nieuport 28 Fighter

I’m a lousy artist, but I know a good illustration when I see one. For example, take this illustration, which appears on page 50 of Hat in the Ring, by Bert Frandsen (2003: Smithsonian Books). The drawing is by Charles Frandsen Architects, PC. Though I have no idea who actually drew it or what (if any) tool was used, I regard this as a fine technical illustration.

Professional illustrators speak of “visual grammar.” What are some elements of visual grammar, and can they be related to the rules of written grammar? And are there any commonalities in professionalism between writing and illustration?

This is a typical aircraft drawing showing front and side views. (Sometimes a third view, from the top, is included.) Both views are drawn to the same scale. (Sometimes a person’s silhouette is drawn for perspective.)

Looking at the callouts not as words but as drawn objects, I’m struck by how consistently they are rendered. All are capitalized, all have the same apparent size, none touch the drawing. Notice how the callouts are aligned. I think alignment is akin to parallel construction of lists. The vertical space between each callouts is almost the same. Curved lines with arrowheads connect each callout to the feature of the drawing being described. The lines are all curved the same manner, even when they don’t have to be, helping you to distinguish them from the lines of the aircraft itself. Callouts on the left side are connected by lines starting at the end of the callouts; callouts on the right side are connected by lines starting from the beginning of the callouts. These unimportant lines are also the thinnest. In fact, the callouts themselves are not the first thing you notice; they are appropriately unobtrusive.

Edward Tufte expounds the principle that visual information should be conveyed using a minimum of ink, and we wordsmiths, with our goal of concision, recognize the worthiness of this goal. This drawing follows that principle of visual minimalism; very little is superfluous. Even the lines that show the side of the fuselage and the shaded tail markings serve to remind us that the aircraft is a physical object with a surface and a three-dimentional volume. Every other line provides information, even the circle showing the disc of the spinning propeller and the lines under the wheels showing the angle of repose of the plane on the ground.

So, as a professional writer, what do I recognize and value as the principles behind this drawing? I am doubtless missing many things, but I see at least consistency, concision, and appropriate emphasis. What else am I missing?

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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