Viewpoint: Do illustrations enhance the accessibility of texts?

“I have written a serious text, so there is no need for any illustrations,” said an author to the publishers who requested me to illustrate one of his scientific articles. He, like several of his colleagues, believes that images imply that their texts risk appearing as lightweight. But where scientific texts are concerned, the image is one of the most effective instruments.

To analyse an image offers an experience that lives in the memory. There is no contradictory relationship between text and image, but large blocks of text give nothing for the memory to fasten on. The memory function is one reason to actively use images in scientific and pedagogical texts as well as in handbooks and technical or specialist literature.

A source of inspiration

Another more concrete reason is that certain things are not easy to explain in text. This is how the word spiral is described in Sweden’s National Encyclopaedia: “Level curve that goes around a fixed point an endless number of times and then either moves from the point or towards it.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to grasp all this, were the description accompanied by an illustration?

Illustrations are wholly necessary in scientific texts on botany, medicine, anatomy, astronomy, biology etc.

In handbooks on gardening, cooking, car repairs and such like, ‘this-is-how-todo-it’ illustrations are as indispensable as they are a source of inspiration.

In the cookbook thick with text entitled Good French Cooking, by Julia Child, there are only a few small black and white illustrations whereas contemporary cookery books are full of pedagogical and attractive pictures that can tickle one’s fancy and provide understanding.

Self-evident role

An image selected with awareness may have as its purpose to be precisely descriptive, clarifying and/or mood creating. When it is best it also supplies the book with an artistic value. But it should never be used solely to pad out the book.

An illustrator does not like it when the publisher or book designer says: “there was a void here, do something decorative.”

Images in children’s books are something we do not need to speak about here. They play such a self-evident role, from the first picture books with little text and many pictures to chapter books with a lot of text and fewer pictures.

Images can strenghten 

“The readers shall create their own pictures” is the current view of authors of belles-lettres for adults. In many cases this may be right, an image can settle between the text and the readers’ perception of it.

When a screen version is made of a book, as in the case with Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, then the book’s own images are replaced by the film’s personal gallery and settings.

Where books are concerned with a clearly defined geographical location in a certain epoch, images can strengthen the reading experience.

When I read books by Naguib Mahfouz, in connection with the award of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988, I felt the lack of images that described for me unfamiliar environments in Cairo and Egypt, where the action of the books is played out.

Illustrations as models for other media

It seems as if illustrations for adults were a more common phenomenon before. An author who often made use of illustrators was Charles Dickens. He collaborated with several other illustrators and it is striking that each epoch has its style of drawing; then as now.

It is hard to see the difference between the different draughtsmen, unless the signature is visible in the picture. The imag I chose as illustration for my text is by Hablot K. Browne using the signature Phiz, and is from The Pickwick Papers. The book was produced first in sections that were published in series instalments.

When the book was printed, this meant that for each chapter there is an illustration. In the impressive screen adaptations that the BBC made of The Pickwick Papers, and several others of Dickens’s novels, the illustrations are assigned such significance that they stand as models for scenography, costumes and screen. The reading experience is neither enlarged nor diminished by the images. Quite the contrary, the experience is enhanced by the spirit of the time and the environments.

The reply to the question of the heading is: “Yes, images can increase the accessibility of the text – often but not always.”Illustration: Hablot. K. Browne Photo: CC0

Freelance illustrator and textile designer