Writing a working headline in the concept stage of a graphic helps to focus the graphic, says Monica Moses, a visual journalism faculty member at The Poynter Institute. If you can’t boil down the purpose of the graphic into a few words, you’re not ready to make the graphic. Moses recommends the following elements for effective graphic headlines.
A Link to the Images in the Graphic
If your graphic shows a train, you help the readers get started if “train” or “railroad” is in the headline. Determine what shape or image the reader will see first and make sure the main headline pairs that to make a coherent statement. The reader will look first at the largest image, then to big display type, to decide if the graphic is worth spending time with. If the link between the two is too obscure, the reader might lose patience and turn the page.
It’s much better to have a straightforward headline than one readers have to puzzle over. There should be a clear purpose in the graphic — say, explaining how to make a soufflé — that is reflected in the headline. “How to make a soufflé” is better than “An eggs-cellent dessert.” Good headlines may play on words or movie titles, etc., but not at the expense of clarity.
The headline should reflect the main focus of the graphic — as narrowly as possible. Specific headlines are more interesting and accessible. If your graphic is about how termites attack a house, don’t headline it with “The pest you can’t forget.” That suggests you’ll be giving mostly general information about termites. The headline — and graphic — should be as specific and focused as possible.
If a graphic presents a lot of complex data, a headline that helps the reader understand that data is helpful. For example, if you’re showing how congressional representatives voted in all 50 states, use the headline to sum up the vote; “Southern Democrats made the difference,” for example. That way, the reader doesn’t have to study dozens of little dots to find trends.