Chapter 4: Visual Elements

ENC 4293.0001 Technical Communicator's Survival Guide » Chapter 4: Visual Elements

Chapter 4 Student Writers: Brooke Braddy, Jade Rahim, and Robert Tipton

Today, visual communication exists everywhere. Billboards point travelers to the nearest hospital. Newspaper inserts announce holiday sales at the shopping mall. Movie posters invite fans to enjoy the next big sequel. All of these projects include physical components: text, images, and most likely, color. Yet, beyond their physical aspects, the visual design of these projects encompasses much more. Designers include personality and emotion into their fonts, their words, and their pictures, in hopes of making a point. But what encourages the viewer to respond positively to these presented messages?

It is a careful consideration of the visual elements. All effective visual communication can be broken down into parts, and all of these parts work together to convey an overall significance. It is through mastering the use of visual elements that allows a designer to convey information in the most beneficial way to their audience.
This chapter will explain how to use page layout, graphics, typography, and color to create a document that is both informative and visually engaging. Students will learn to consider their audience first, determine the nature of the project, and then how to use the design fundamentals to successfully complete a project. Students will be guided through how to organize information on the page, how to incorporate graphics and text in their documents, and how to use color to create a dynamic influence on their viewers.

Page Layout

From brochures to posters and websites to magazines, page layout plays an important role in communicating a message to an audience. Page layout is the logical organization of text and images on a page. An effective page layout illustrates a message that is concise and suits situational requirements. For example, the situational requirements for a health brochure may include statistics and neutral colors. Conversely, the requirements for a billboard may include larger images and vibrant colors. While these specific requirements differ from document to document, all layouts include two necessary design principles: harmony and emphasis.


Harmony refers to the aesthetic compatibility of the visual elements. In a layout, visual elements have weight. If one places text and objects at random, the page can look unstable. Therefore, the goal of page design is to integrate textual and graphical elements so that they exist harmoniously. To create this sense of harmony, none of the elements should overpower another. Text, art, and the spaces in between should have equal importance in depicting an overall message to the audience. One must structure a layout carefully so that each element interacts with the others. Grids are one tool a designer uses to create similarity and to organize space.


The most basic element of a page layout is the grid. Grids allow the designer to unify the elements on the page. A grid is a set of vertical and horizontal lines. Designers place content in the grid, which helps the designer create proper spacing around text and art. The designer is free to move the content around in the space until the layout conveys its message clearly.


Figure 1 - A multi-column layout.

Grids are usually composed of columns, which are vertical divisions of space. Columns keep the content of the page aligned. The number of columns included in a layout depends on the type of document that is being crafted. The easiest grid to work with includes one column. When creating a one-column layout, text lines will be very long, so it is important to use broad margins or a large font. However, as you can see in Figure 1 above, multi-column layouts include shorter text lines. When creating a multi-column layout, there is more flexibility available in placing content.


Another way to create harmony is through similarity. Similarity makes the layout predictable. To create a similar effect, elements must follow a logical pattern of function.

For example, if the designer uses Times New Roman, size 14, for a header, then this font and font size must be used every time. Follow the same logical progression with other elements like negative space around elements. For example, if there are two spaces between each heading and the body text in the document, make this consistent throughout the entire document. This similarity makes the elements look uniform and the viewer will be able to anticipate what comes next in a document. The same principle goes for placing art elements. If a section of a document begins with text and ends with a diagram to illustrate the information, it would make the rest of the document harmonious to do so for every section.


Space allows the audience to navigate through the content on the page. Space can be either positive or negative. Positive space is composed of the actual text and graphics in a layout. Negative space is the white space that lies between content. Positive and negative space work together to create focal points. If the elements of positive space are clustered together, there is less negative space between these elements. This draws attention to those objects. However, when the positive space objects are spaced farther apart, there is more negative space surrounding them. The negative space helps isolate the positive objects and also draws attention to them. A page is harmonious when there is a carefully planned distribution of both positive and negative space in the document.


Emphasis refers to the placement of importance on an element. In a page layout, there is often content that must stand out more than the rest. To make the viewer aware of this information, designers emphasize it in some way. An object with emphasis is an object that deliberately draws attention to itself. Two ways to provide emphasis are through using reading habits and contrast.

Reading Habits

People read from left to right and from top to bottom. A designer can use these reading habits to create emphasis on important parts of their content. Creating a layout with a specific pattern provides control over which elements of the page are noticed first. For example, small text is read occasionally compared to large text. Small text portrays a straightforward message. Conversely, large text is read for a longer period of time and portrays a complex message. The choice of text should complement what a writer intends for the audience to gain from the document.

People spend more time reading a page or document that draws their interest. One way to create emphasis through text is to actively encourage this curiosity. For example, if a designer constructs a flyer to draw the attention of college students to an apartment complex, they can emphasize key phrases. Phrases like “close to campus” and “spacious rooms” may appear larger or brighter on the flyer. Designers choose which information to emphasize, so that the viewer walks away with a memorable message in their mind. For many college students, the convenience of being near the university and the promise of a large living space is appreciated. The college students would feel that their interests are being addressed.


Another easy way to create emphasis in a layout is to include contrast. Contrast is the amount of difference that distinguishes an element from the surrounding content. Contrasted content becomes dominant when compared to content that is similar. You can create contrast using both color and size, to emphasize graphical elements and to distinguish them from their surrounding material.

Color helps create contrast in a layout. It provides an interesting spin to the document and draws the audience in visually, especially if the rest of the layout is black and white. For example, imagine a white sheet of paper with a single red dot. The red dot immediately draws attention to itself because of the strong visual difference. However, a layout does not need a dramatic color scheme to have contrast. Subtle hints of color against a plain background still achieve the same goal. Designers can even use subtle color to isolate content they want the viewer to spend more time observing.

Size is another way to provide contrast in a document. Size distinguishes text from surrounding text, but it also distinguishes the art in a layout from the text. For example, if a designer crafts a page with small text on the top and a large, rectangular graphic at the bottom, the large graphic will draw attention. Similarly, layouts that are text heavy can include a large graphic as a background. A designer can also place a large graphic on one page to contrast the following page that includes text only. These contrasts engage your audience and give them numerous ways to interact with your message.


When creating a technical document, writers look for effective ways to reach their audience. In the 21st century, paragraphs of information alone do not hold the attention of most audiences. Instead, readers want text broken up and accompanied by graphics that help illustrate the author’s point. A graphic is any object included in a document that helps writers visually communicate information to a reader.

Graphics come in many shapes and styles and are vital in making documents interesting and visually appealing. The types of graphics covered in this section include charts, photos, screenshots, and promotional graphics. This section also incorporates technical information regarding graphics, such as design programs for creating graphics and the benefits of saving work in different file extensions.

Types of Graphics

Each type of graphic has a specific purpose and should only be used when it helps the audience better understand the subject being discussed. The perfect graphic can summarize paragraphs of information in one concise area, and in turn better illustrate a concept while engaging the audience more than standard text would. One of the most popular types of graphics used in technical communication is the chart.


Charts are one of the most versatile objects that can be included to accompany text. Charts are found in everything from highly structured government documents to promotional pamphlets for small businesses. There are three types of charts found in most technical documents.

First is the concept chart, which shows the interaction between subjects. Figure 2 below shows a common use for concept charts: displaying the hierarchy of power in a business. As shown on the chart, the most important category is at the top, with subcategories listed below.


Figure 2 - An organizational concept chart.

Other concept charts show how ideas relate to one another. The most common example of this type of concept chart is the Venn diagram. Figure 3 shows a sample Venn diagram using the letters A, B, and C to represent different subjects. The overlapping sections denote areas where subjects share common characteristics with the other subjects. The areas that do not overlap are exclusive concepts without common characteristics.


Figure 3 - A Venn diagram.

Statistical charts are also very important when creating a technical document. These charts show quantitative information, which makes them popular in research documents. There are several types of popular statistical charts, including bar charts, histograms, and pie charts. Bar charts show the audience the frequency at which something occurs using the vertical axis and the various data sets along the horizontal axis. Histograms also compare frequency, but they differ from bar charts because their data sets must be continuous.


Figure 4 - A bar chart on the left and a histogram on the right.

In Figure 4, the bar chart compares four colors. The order of these colors along the x-axis is unimportant, so a bar chart is an effective way to display their frequencies. The histogram on the right compares mass ranges. In this case, the order of the masses is important in making the chart understandable. Histograms are a good way to display many different data sets in a concise chart. For instance, even if there was a large disparity between the highest and lowest masses, as long as the mass intervals along the horizontal axis are changed, the chart remains simple and clear.


Figure 5 - A pie chart.

Another popular statistical diagram is the pie chart. Pie charts show percentages inside of a circle, with each piece of data occupying a wedge of the chart. One of the best uses for pie charts is for displaying percentages because its circle format easily represents a complete 100%. There are several variations of the pie chart, such as the exploded pie chart, the ring chart, and the three-dimensional pie chart. These charts display the same information, but look more attractive to the audience.

The final type of diagram covered in this section is the process chart. Process charts show how actions are related in time. Proposal documents often include these charts because they effectively show the planned schedule for a task. There are several common process charts, including the Gantt chart and flowchart. Flowcharts are one of the more popular types of process diagrams and display how a task progresses from its beginning to end by using arrows to lead the audience through the plan of completion.


Figure 6 - A Gantt chart.

Gantt charts also show how a task is going to be completed, but with more focus on time. A Gantt chart lists the various steps for completion along with a visual representation of how long the chart’s creator estimates each phase will take. The inclusion of a visual schedule makes Gantt charts popular in proposal documents because the audience can quickly see how long the overall task should take, along with each subtask.


Charts work great when an author is trying to compare a certain characteristic of various objects, but charts are also viewed as formal, which can deter some audiences from reading a document. Illustrations evoke a different feeling from the audience. Designers use illustrations to show how something looks, so instead of writing paragraphs of information to describe something, one illustration accomplishes the same task.


Figure 7 - The photo on the right is the enlarged version of the original image on the left. Notice how the enlarged image is lacking crisp details because of its pixelation.
Source: Flickr

The most frequent type of illustration is the photograph. In past decades, finding quality photos to include in a technical document was a chore. The public was in most cases unable to afford high quality cameras, and individuals had to deal with the hassle of developing film. In current times though, creating or finding a quality photo to include in a document is very easy. Using inexpensive cameras to capture publishable photographs has become common due to the progression of technology. Including photos in documents has become extremely user-friendly as well. Nearly all word processors make it easy to insert graphics directly into documents without help from an outside party.

There is one important guideline to follow when including a photo in a document. Be sure that the image you insert is high-resolution. When including a low-resolution image in a document, it becomes pixelated when readers view it online or in print. Pixelation occurs when an image is enlarged so greatly that the original elements of the photo become blurry and hard to see clearly. Pixelation is illustrated in Figure 7 above where the picture on the right is less detailed than the image on the left. Since the image on the right is enlarged from the smaller original, pixelation occurs.


Figure 8 - A diagram of the platysma muscle.
Source: Flickr

For a digital document that will be viewed online, images must be at least 500 pixels wide to insure they are not overly pixelated. Since printed documents are higher in resolution than digital documents, the photos included must be high-resolution as well. Before printing a document, use print preview mode and scale the document to 100%. This will give you a good indication of whether or not your images will appear pixelated when printed.

There are two other types of frequently used illustrations found in many technical documents. First is the diagram. Much like photographs, diagrams also show the reader how something looks. The difference is that diagrams depict something that cannot be photographed. One area where diagrams are often used is in science textbooks. In Figure 8, the author uses a diagram to show readers a certain part of the body. It would be nearly impossible to obtain am actual photograph of a person’s neck muscles, so a diagram is used to display this information to readers. Diagrams are particularly helpful because they allow the author to show readers information that would otherwise be difficult to explain using only words.

One other type of illustration used in technical documents is the screenshot. A screenshot is a copy of what is on a user’s computer screen at that moment. They are mainly used in instructional manuals to show readers how to perform a specific task on the computer. Designers use screenshots because they show the audience exactly what they can expect to see when working with a certain software program.

Survival Tip: Press the “Prnt Scrn” button on the keyboard (Command-Control-Shift-3 on a Mac) to take a screenshot, which will automatically be copied to the clipboard. Once copied, open up your desired image editor and paste the screenshot into a new document.

Other Graphics

Many technical documents include graphics that give the reader an important piece of information, such as note boxes, warnings, and sidebars. The purpose of these boxes is to catch the reader’s eye and point out information that they otherwise might not notice. In Figure 9 is a sample warning box that may be found in a document describing an electronic device. This warning is included to ensure that the user does not inflict bodily harm while operating the device.


Figure 9 - An electric shock warning box.

Working with Graphics

When adding images to a document, finding the right graphic is only part of the process. A technical communicator must know how to edit graphics to fit their document using the latest pieces of software. The most popular document editor for beginning technical writers is Microsoft Word. Word is a powerful word processor, but it also has basic image editing capabilities.

Editing graphics in Word 2007

Once an image is inserted into Word using the “paste” command, a “format” tab will appear along the ribbon at the top of the screen, which brings up options for editing the image. This tab features four main panels, but this section focuses on the properties, effects, and size panel.


Figure 10 - The Microsoft Word 2007 format tab.

The image properties section is located on the far left part of the format tab. These options allow the user to edit how the picture looks. The recolor button is particularly important because it allows you to change the saturation of an image. For documents that will be printed in black and white, setting the saturation to 0% is a good way to preview what an image will look like when printed.

The image effects section is located in the middle of the format tab and allows the user to add visual effects to images. The picture effects button at the bottom adds effects such as drop shadows, image glow, and reflections to images easily. These effects can be a good way to make images more visually appealing and adds uniformity to the document. For example, if you add the same shadowing effect or reflection to all the images in a section, the reader gets a sense of consistency from the document.

Sometimes a writer needs to isolate the subject of an image. To do this, superfluous material around the subject must be removed by cropping the image. Microsoft Word 2007 features a cropping function in the size section on the right of the format tab. By clicking the crop button, the user can drag handles to remove part of the image. Once edited, click the crop button again to apply the change.

File Formats

When editing images, a technical communicator must know which format to save an image. There are several common file formats including .JPG, .PNG, and .GIF. There are positive aspects to using each of these formats. The main differences include:
* .JPG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format compresses images to make the size of the file smaller. JPG can be used for any type of photo because the degree of image compression is selectable.
* .PNG (Portable Network Graphics) format is used mostly for web graphics. One of the benefits of PNG format is that images can include transparent elements.
* .GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) images are also mostly used on the web. Photographs should not be saved in GIF because the image compression causes too much loss of detail. GIF images can be animated making them ideal for small elements on a webpage.


Typography is communication in visual form. The typography of a layout is what invites the audience to engage with the presented visual information. Since typography encompasses words, lines, and even graphics, it can provide meaning to any document. Therefore, typography serves as a direct link between the audience and the designer’s message. Typography exists nearly everywhere and as subtle as it may seem, it plays a major role in promoting understanding for the viewer. All effective typography, whether large or small, upholds the design principles of legibility and readability. These principles are fulfilled when special attention is given to typeface selection, alignment and symmetry, and kerning, leading and line length.


Legibility is the degree to which the letters of a word can be distinguished from one another. This does not mean that each letter must have identical features to be considered legible. However, letters must be clear and highly visible so that the information can be read at a glance. The design of a typeface is what determines legibility. For the most part, letters that have the most space in their open parts—such as the circle in the letter ‘o’—are the most legible. The relative size of text also affects legibility. For example, wider letters like ‘m’ are more legible than thinner letters like ‘l’. Another factor that plays into the legibility of text is the relationship between the text and the text’s background. For example, a dark text will be more legible on a bright white background than on a gray one. Text is also more legible when the material that it is printed on is less shiny than the text itself. Text that is printed on very glossy paper can prove to be quite difficult to decipher.


The designer must make decisions about the physical type. Readability is how the text is physically presented to the viewer, and it is measured by factors like line length, spacing, and leading. Reading is an activity that is completed almost effortlessly. A readable document should present no challenges to the viewer and should never draw awareness to the actual physical act of reading. The best way to offer a sense of readability is to make the document’s text predictable. The viewer should be able to recognize the letters within the chosen typeface. Therefore, keeping a consistent font style throughout the document will support readability. Headings, body text, and caption text should adhere to the same style throughout the entire document.

Typeface and Type Size

Designers must choose a typeface and a type size that convey their message effectively. Every document has a purpose and the designer’s choice of typeface and size must reflect that purpose. Since all typefaces have characteristics, the designer must choose a typeface that has characteristics that complement the intended tone of their message. When choosing a typeface, the designer must consider the document’s purpose, how long the document will serve its purpose, and the document’s medium. When choosing a type size, the designer must consider the document’s physical location and the message’s complexity.

Choosing a Typeface

A typeface is one font or more fonts that share stylistic similarities. Typefaces include the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks. Every typeface has its own qualities. Some typefaces are traditional and plain, while others are whimsical or unusual. Designers should carefully consider which typeface to use and exactly how it represents the information.

The first step to choosing the correct typeface is to determine the purpose of the document. To understand the purpose of the document, think of the intended audience and how long the audience will refer to the document. Is it a handbook that will be used frequently? Is it a flyer for a special, annual event? Once the purpose is determined, experiment with typeface families. Find type font families that suit the given situation. To narrow selections further, place the selected typefaces side by side and compare them. Since typefaces will differ in appearance depending on the medium, the designer must examine the typeface in whichever medium they intend to use for the final document.

Remember, while traditional typefaces may be considered everlasting, they might be too old-fashioned for a document designed to draw guests to a modernist art show. Similarly, a traditional typeface may be perfect for a business memo in the workplace. Once the designer selects the typeface, they must consider type size.

Choosing a Type Size

Type is measured in points. Even the smallest adjustment to a text’s size can make a document go from easily understood to confusing. Size guides the audience toward the purpose of the document, because it creates hierarchy. Hierarchy is the order of importance of each element of the document. Text size plays a different role, depending on the type of document. Sometimes, a hierarchy will allow small text to draw more attention than the larger text. However, in general:

Small Type Sizes Large Type Sizes
Are read within seconds Are read in minutes
Are set in narrow columns Are set in wide columns
Are read occasionally Are read frequently
Are read at close range Are read from a distance
Express simple messages Express complex messages

Alignment and Symmetry

Designers use alignment to create relationships between the elements on the page. Alignment unifies the document by creating spatial harmony among the document’s elements. The designer must choose an alignment that presents the information in the appropriate way. Whether the alignment is traditional or more dynamic, the alignment must always meet situational requirements. The designer must also consider symmetry carefully so that the document maintains readability and visual balance.


Alignment is the vertical and the horizontal position of text inside of the margins. It can be adjusted within the grid, but should also be adjusted outside of the grid to ensure balance. Text can be centered, flush left, flush right, or justified. However, justified and flush left are the most readable because they give the viewer a starting point. This is because the left edges are straight and provide a professional, traditional appearance. Compare Figure 11 to Figure 12. As you can see in Figure 11, the justified alignment creates an even shape that easily suits a professional document. Figure 12, the flush right alignment, has a more unusual shape. While this shape still suits a professional document, it can also be used to provide emphasis or to draw attention to the text.


Figure 11 - Text with justified alignment.


Figure 12 - Text with flush right alignment.

Symmetry and Asymmetry

Symmetry creates a sense of balance on the page. Symmetrical layouts are predictable and look stable in the eyes of the viewer. However, asymmetrical layouts provide a more dynamic effect on the viewer, giving life to dull, stationary words and images.

A symmetrical layout is created by using the same alignment throughout the document. The text is uniform and presented in evenly spaced columns. An asymmetrical layout is created by placing more than one type of alignment in the document, often on the same page. Asymmetrical text creates motion. If there is more than one alignment point on the page, then there are more options as to where elements may be placed on the grid. Although asymmetrical text appears less organized, the page must still be balanced logically.

Line Length, Leading and Kerning

Line length, leading, and kerning determine the text’s lasting impression. The amount of line length and the spacing between letters is crucial to the viewer’s understanding of the document. Line length must be considered so that the reader feels comfortable while processing the information. Leading and kerning must be considered so that the reader can process that information visually, with no confusion.

Line Length

Line length is how long each line of the text is. Most viewers are familiar with the typewritten page. The typewritten page has letters that all have the same width. However, when text is created on a computer, the text has proportional size. For example, the ‘o’ takes up more space than the ‘r’. Therefore, it is easy to place too many characters on a line, when thinking about the typewritten page instead of the printed page. For a viewer, reading a line of text should never be tedious. The best way to achieve maximum readability is to make body text about ten to twelve words long. This is about 45 to 70 characters, including spaces. Display text should be even shorter.


Designers also use leading to increase readability. Leading is the space between lines of text. The designer’s typeface choice determines how much space is needed between lines of text. Generally, lines that are longer in length require more leading to accommodate the reading process. Also, letters without serifs need more leading than those with serifs.

Remember, a reader may become disinterested if the leading is too wide because this makes the message looser and lessens visual continuity. Normally, the space between the lines must be bigger than the space between actual words.

To the left of Figure 13 is an example of closely spaced leading. As you can see, the words appear to overlap and are less readable. The right shows an example of looser leading. The words are much easier to read.


Figure 13 - An example of tight leading (left) and loose leading (right).


Kerning refers to the spacing between each individual letter. Kerning eliminates the possibility of letter collision and resolves the problem of unwanted space. Designers often use kerning in larger text because errors in spacing are more visible on an enlarged scale.
Proper kerning promotes readability because it allows a reader to spend more time absorbing the message, and less time being distracted by unusual patterns in the text. The easiest way to determine kerning is to examine the white space between the letters. Some letter pairs create more of this white space because of the shape of the letters.

For example, the letter pair ‘cl’ has more white space than ‘ce’ because the letter ‘e’ is more rounded than the letter ‘l’. The space between letter pairs must be fairly equal. This will ensure that the letters look uniform. Occasionally, the natural kerning of a certain typeface will appear uneven. The easiest way to correct this problem is to kern by hand. However, excessive kerning can also make the text look unnatural. Examine the letter pairs carefully and use personal intuition.


Along with typography and visual aids, if a technical document needs help in capturing the audience’s attention, a designer can employ color to their document or presentation. In a document, black and white fonts and graphics can only go so far in impressing one’s readers. Including color makes a document or presentation visually appealing it and creates an element that may help capture the designer’s audience’s attention.

However, in order to include color in future documents, the designer must understand what colors to use and how it affects the document. If the designer uses a plethora of colors, the document may look tasteless and unprofessional. With this, designers can further their understanding of the human perception of color and use it to their advantage.

Color theory is the guide to understanding the mixing of color and the impact of color combinations. Technical communicators use color theory to create visually appealing blends of color in documents and presentations, provide clarity, and consider cultural associations throughout their document. A designer needs to be aware of color associations and color actions, whether they be active or passive in order to avoid confusing the audience.

The color wheel is a tool used to understand this theory. In its most basic form, it is constructed of six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. These colors are categorized based on the colors they create or are created from and how effectively they attract attention.

The Color Wheel

Primary colors consist of red, yellow, and blue. These are the base colors for every other color in the color wheel. Writers use primary colors to create a sense of urgency or to automatically capture the reader’s attention. Each primary color evokes a stirring emotion in each person. For example, red is associated with stoplights, blood, danger, and tends to be the most “attention grabbing” color.


Figure 14 - The primary color wheel (left) and secondary color wheel (right).

Secondary colors consist of orange, green, and violet. Secondary colors are created when a primary color is mixed with another. The locations of these colors on the color wheel are an indication of which primary colors created them. These colors do not attract as much attention as primary colors, the emotions brought on secondary colors are more calming than that of primary colors and can be used more often technical writing document. For example, the color green is associated with the environment, freshness, and growth and does not exactly make the reader stop in their tracks.

Tertiary colors consist of orange-yellow, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, and red-orange. These are the in-between colors that are created with the mixing of a primary color with a secondary color. The mixing of tertiary colors can create innumerable color combinations. The number of colors created can also give the reader countless impressions in a technical document.


Figure 15 - The tertiary color wheel.

Complimentary colors are the colors placed directly across from the other on the color wheel: red with green, blue with orange, violet with yellow. They are called complimentary because the heavy contrast between the two will cause them to jump off the page. Use combinations of these colors to capture the reader’s attention and leave an impression.

Analogous colors are the primary and secondary colors placed right next to each other on the color wheel. These color combinations are: red with orange, blue with green, yellow with orange, green with yellow, blue with violet, and blue with green. These colors have little contrast between each other and using combinations of these colors creates a calming effect for readers.

Types of Color

Different types of colors are grouped into categories based on the effect that they have on audiences.

Warm colors are red, yellow, and orange. A designer would use these colors to give their audience a sense of warmth in what they are reading.

Cool colors are blue, green, and purple. A designer would use these colors to give their audience a sense of serenity in what they are reading.

Neutral colors are gray and brown. Though they are not a part of the color wheel, these colors are considered “neutral” because they do not contrast with anything. Designers use these colors most often, and because of this, they evoke a comfortable feeling from the audience.

Color Schemes

When combined, whether in mixing or just placing one color next to the other can create countless impressions on an audience. A designer must know how to combine colors using various color schemes in order to create a good sense of balance for the reader.

Monochromatic color scheme is when the various forms of tone in a single color are used. The use of this color scheme creates a soothing effect on the reader’s eyes. This scheme is used most often because it is the most balanced. The monochromatic color is often combined with neutral colors like black, white, or grey.

Complimentary color scheme is when the colors placed opposite each other on the color wheel are used together. For example, red with green, blue with orange, violet with yellow. They are called complimentary because when they are used together the heavy contrast between the two will cause them to jump off the page. If a designer were to use these color combinations, the contrast would be a great start in capturing the reader’s attention and will help leave an impression.

Split complimentary color scheme is when color of the two adjacent colors of its complimentary are used together. For example, orange with blue and blue-violet. This color scheme does not offer as much contrast as complimentary. The split complimentary color scheme would be used if the designer still wanted to make an average impression on their audience.

Analogous color scheme is when the primary and secondary colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel are used together. For example, red with orange, blue with green, yellow with orange, green with yellow, blue with violet, and blue with green. If a designer were to use these color combinations, the little contrast would create a calming affect for their audience.

Triadic color scheme is when three colors that are spaced evenly on the color wheel are used together. For example, blue, green and orange. This creates a very strong contrast and retains balance. Since the triadic color scheme is used popular with artists, the designer could use this scheme when the document or presentation is aimed towards a more creative audience.

Tetradic color scheme or the double complimentary color scheme is when four colors, arranged in two complimentary pairs are used. For example, red with green and blue with orange. This is the hardest color scheme to create, a designer would have to have a vast understanding of color in order to present this to an audience in order to not create the wrong impression.

Color Models

A designer must have the knowledge to know how to use color in all its formats. Aside from the mixing of colors, each color is based on three fundamental characteristics. These characteristics are based on the human perception of each color and form the HSB model. “HSB” stands for hue, saturation, and brightness.


Figure 16 - the HSB color model.

* Hue is the characteristic of color that distinguishes it from one color to another (i.e. the shade of the color). Hue is determined by the dominant wavelength of light upon it. Hue excludes the colors black, white, and gray.
* Saturation is the measuring of color strength or purity. When a color is “fully saturated”, the human eye perceives it as extremely vibrant. When a color has experienced “desaturation”, it experiences a color loss and comes close to being a neutral color.
* Brightness is the amount of white in a color. The more white that a color contains, the “brighter” it is.

RGB color model is the technique of mixing of color based on light. Thanks to advances in technology, the RGB color model is used more often. This color method is used when reflected on computer monitors, iPod display screens, and television screens. “RGB” stands for red, green, and blue. These are the three primaries with green replacing yellow. By combining these colors, all other colors can be produced. If a designer creates a presentation for a large audience on a display or computer screen, this color model is kept in mind.


Figure 17 - the CMYK and RGB color models.

CYMK color model is the technique mixing of colors based upon pigments. This method is used when printing is concerned and is also a way of mixing paints. “CYMK” stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and the “k” stands for black. With the combination of these colors, a majority of colors can be produced, however, when compared to the RGB model, the CYMK comes up short in the number of colors it can produce. If a designer has to present their document as a hard copy, the CYMK color model is used to the designer’s advantage.

Pantone color or Pantone Matching System (PMS) is another technique of mixing colors for printing. Pantone Corporation developed this method based upon a list of colors they created. Each color in this PMS system is created individually for purity.

Other Color Terms

There are other characteristics of colors used to determine the variation of one color from another.

* Value is the measurement of black in a color. The more black that a color contains, the greater the value is.
* Temperature the measurement of the three primary colors (red, green, and blue) when they are represented in a light source. Color temperature is typically measured in Kelvin degrees.
* Contrast the recognizable difference between two colors. When a technical writer uses contrast in text or background, the most contrasted element in the document should be the most pressing part of the document. If there is little contrast in the document, these should be for the more monotonous parts of your document.
* Tint is a variation of color. When white is added to an original hue such as blue, green, red, etc., the lighter version of the color is the “tint” of the color.
* Shade is another variation of color. When black is added to the original hue, the darker version of the color is the “shade” of the color.


To be a successful technical communicator, it takes more than good writing skills. In order to effectively reach readers, technical writers must have a foundation in in visual elements. There are four major aspects to successful visual communication: page layout, graphics, typography, and color.

Good page layout is vital for an author because it sets the tone for the entire document. With an appropriate page layout, the audience should know what type of document they are reading, just by looking at it. By using the principles of harmony and emphasis, an author’s work should look uniform throughout the document. Page layout is only part of using visual elements effectively.

Typography and graphics work together to catch the reader’s attention. Graphics are included in documents to inform the reader. Charts show the audience important information regarding statistics or structure, while illustrations and photographs show how something looks. Graphics can also make certain information, such as warnings or tips, easily visible to the reader. The goal of typography is to make reading a document enjoyable for the audience. By using appropriate typefaces, kerning, and leading a technical writer can ensure that their document is legible and readable.

The final aspect of visual elements is color. Color helps to make certain documents standout by emphasizing elements. Though printing in color is more expensive, it can be a worthwhile step to take to make a document stand out. By understanding the proper use of visual elements, a writer can supplement their text and make their documents attractive as well as informative.