Guidelines for writing image descriptions

Social media posts these days often include image descriptions, which is great.

But some image descriptions focus so much on describing every detail of the image that they obscure the main point of the image.

So below are a couple of links to useful guidelines about how to write a good image description, both of which include really useful examples.

For me, the key points are these:

  • Start with the most important thing in the image.
  • Choose an appropriate level of abstraction.
  • Be concise.

Here are links to two articles, plus my thoughts about a couple of examples from those articles:

  • This American Anthropological Association article focuses on differences between image descriptions, alt text, and captions.

    One phrase that I think is especially illuminating about levels of abstraction, from one of their examples: “a red swirling symbol.” If the details of how the symbol looks aren’t especially important, then you don’t need to describe the symbol in detail. You could write something like “Four reddish curves spiraling out from a common empty center, each curve drawn about 2mm wide, with a rounded outer end and a tapered pointed inner end”—but in most contexts, none of that detail is important or relevant, and a description at that level of detail is probably pretty hard to visualize anyway.

    Here’s another example of what I mean about appropriate levels of abstraction: Their example 6 starts out by saying “A map of Poland with voting districts outlined,” which I agree is a good way to start that description. You could instead start by saying “An irregular quadrangle divided up into 225 [or whatever the real number is] smaller irregular shapes. The first small irregular shape, at the upper left, is orange. The second one is the same shade of orange. The third one is a slightly lighter shade of orange.” And so on. That might be an accurate description of the image, but it wouldn’t convey to the reader what the image is meant to convey.

  • This UX Collective article has more of a social-justice focus.

    I have some minor disagreements with it, but overall I think it does a good job.

    One specific example, though, that I think illustrates the “start with the most important thing” idea:

    One of their examples starts out ‘A tattooed person holding a sign that says, “Teach your children well,” in a crowd of people.’

    To me, that description is a mis-emphasis. To me, the point of that image is the sign, not the person, and definitely not the person’s tattoos. I didn’t notice the tattoos until the description mentioned them.

    So I would have started that description by talking about the sign. I might have mentioned the person holding the sign, but I wouldn’t have mentioned their tattoos. (I also wouldn’t mention their hat or the style of their mask or the position of their hand.)

    This article also makes the good point that different audiences prefer different levels of detail; if you’re writing for an audience that wants a lot of detail, then it’s worth providing a lot of detail. So perhaps my third guideline should instead say “Be concise, unless you have a good reason not to.” But even if you’re intentionally giving a long description, it’s a good idea to start with the most important part so that an audience that doesn’t want the long version can skip past it.

…One thing that both of these articles indicate is that image descriptions are an art. If two people write descriptions of the same image, those descriptions are likely to be at least somewhat different.

So there is no one correct way to write an image description. But there are nonetheless some general good practices to keep in mind when writing one.

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