Skip to content

Body Text, Meet Image: You Two Should Spend More Time Together

Thoughts on how callouts & captions can make images easier for readers to understand

Don’t you find it annoying when you have to flip back and forth between a page of text and a picture it describes a few pages away? Consider, for example, this passage from an art history book on how Michelangelo combined doodles, text, and drawings:

At the top [of the illustration, a few pages away]…is the horizontal sketch of a leg universally credited to Michelangelo and apparently belonging to a woman or a boy. At the left of the open top of the leg, the artist has written Am and fig, the latter actually appearing inside the outline of the upper part of the limb.

The text is on page 37 (of Michelangelo: A Life on Paper); the figure that the author, Leonard Barkan, refers to, meanwhile, is over on page 39, looking like so:

Michelangelo drawing in art history book with brief, uninformative caption

So you traipse back and forth between explanation and image, first trying to identify the items in question, and then trying to register why those things are worthy of commentary.

What a pain. What a drag on the reading flow you’ve established, thanks to Professor Barkan’s otherwise incisive writing. What a pain for him, having to describe in text what would be trivially easy to point to were he standing next to you and the illustration. And how ironic, finally, that in a book devoted to the interplay between words and image so much of the author’s commentary is segregated in body copy away from the actual figures. How much more useful and easy-to-follow would his comments be if they were bolted onto the figure, like so:

Same image as above, with body text added in margins next to image

You want my guess as to why things weren’t done this way? Two reasons: Professor Barkan uses Word rather than a page layout program like InDesign (no shame in that—those programs are awfully tough to learn). And the workflow in place at the publisher, Princeton University Press, doesn’t easily let authors mark up figures with custom placed captions. The end result: a diminished reading experience.

Tools don’t equal talent, goes the saying. Too bad the tools most of us use don’t capture the simple things most of us would say if we were talking to each other.