Despite the problems we encountered while visiting the Metropolitan Museum site, the use of text as an important element in the site's visual and conceptual design is worth considering here. The Metropolitan Museum used informative text very effectively as a design element, rather than hiding it or throwing it away. Let's revisit these pages with that in mind.
A page we discussed at length in Chapter 7 presents a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum's vast collection of illuminated manuscripts. On this page, an onscreen caption provides useful information about the manuscript and its creator; this is presumably catalog copy. But there's more. An extended description is available on the same page, providing a vivid, detailed account of the image and its context. Here's a sample:
The 209 folios of "The Hours of Jeanne d'É vreux" include twenty-five full-page paintings with paired images from the Infancy and Passion of Christ and scenes of the life of Saint Louis. The figures are rendered in delicate grisaille (shades of gray) that imparts an amazingly sculptural quality, and the images are accented with rich reds and blues and with touches of orange and yellow, pink, lilac, and turquoise. In the margins, close to seven hundred illustrations depict the bishops, beggars, street dancers, maidens, and musicians that peopled the streets of medieval Paris, as well as apes, rabbits, dogs, and creatures of sheer fantasy. 
 From the Metropolitan Museum of Art's online description of "The Hours of Jeanne d'É vreux," accessed June 19, 2002, at http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/view1.asp?dep=7&item=54%2E1%2E2.
Making effective use of extended descriptions as elements in the visual design of a site requires more than font and color selection. It requires attention to the art and craft of prose, too. In the following section we examine some useful guidelines for describing complex images.
Alonzo's Guidelines for Describing Works of Art
The practice of describing extremely complex visual images has a long history in fields as diverse as technical communication and art history. Both fields make their contributions to Adam Alonzo's brief but excellent paper, "A Picture Is Worth 300 Words" , which offers useful guidelines for describing works of art.
Alonzo, the Accessible Arts Coordinator at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, suggests that extended descriptions of complex images should run 250-300 words. At 202 words, the complete description of the Hours of Jeanne d'É vreux is shorter than Alonzo's guidelines suggest, yet it's long enough to convey a lively sense of the illuminated manuscript from which the illustration came and short enough to function successfully as an element in the visual design of the page.
In his paper, Alonzo offers six guidelines for describers.
Alonzo's third guideline, "Be descriptive," gives a good sense of what a skilled writer can accomplish within a short space, offering suggestions for describing shape, size, texture, color, composition, and technique.
Visual descriptions should utilize a broad vocabulary of vivid terminology to describe various features of art objects. Some common terms are categorized below.
Shapes can be described as: square, cubed, rectangular, flat, straight, circular, spherical, cylindrical, curved, rounded, triangular, conical, pyramidal, angular, irregular, jagged, sloped, diagonal, horizontal and vertical. These words can be used not only to identify the overall shape of the object, but also to describe geometric patterns within it. Avoid the use of words that imply action (unless the object actually does move). For instance, use "curved" instead of "curving." Also avoid imprecise colloquial terms such as "squiggle" or "zigzag."
Size can be described as: small, tiny, short, miniature, large, tall, monumental, thick, thin, narrow, wide, life-size, true to size, large scale and small scale. The object's dimensions, provided with the catalogue data, will inform visitors of its actual size.
Texture can be described as: smooth, glossy, coarse, grainy, rough, worn, weathered, scratched, cracked, broken, rippled, grooved, patterned, striped, dotted and perforated.
Color can be described as: intense, vivid, bright, light, dark, dull, pale, faint, solid or blended. Do not avoid references to color on the assumption that they will be meaningless to visitors who are blind. First of all, descriptions will be used by people without visual disabilities. Second, many people who are now blind were able to see in the past and are able to recall colors. Third, colors sometimes have symbolic meaning in works of art. However, avoid interpretive phrases like "warm gold" or "angry red."
Composition (or the arrangement of elements in a work) can be described as: low, high, above, below, parallel, perpendicular, in the foreground (or background), to the left (or right). When referring to relative locations, describe objects from the viewer's perspective, unless referring to the left or right of a character portrayed in the work.
Artistic technique can be described as: realistic, abstract, unnatural, simplified, detailed, precise, imprecise, sharply defined, blurred, splashed, brushed or stroked. [Alonzo 2001]
This is not a license for complete imaginative liberty, of course. The writer is responsible to the objects she or he is describing, and the choices are constrained by the need to meet Alonzo's other guidelines as well as this one. You can't just be descriptive, for example; you have to be logical, too. Alonzo puts it this way:
In order to be easily understood, visual descriptions must describe objects according to a logical sequence. Descriptions should begin with a general overview of what the object is and what it portrays. Depending upon what type of object it is, it may be appropriate at the outset to mention its color and surface texture, and perhaps its construction.
Following the overview, the various portions of the object should be described in detail, in some orderly fashion such as left to right or top to bottom. After one portion of the work has been described, an explicit transition should be used to identify the next area and its spatial relationship to the last. If part of the object is extremely complex, describe each segment separately, perhaps in a numbered sequence.
Depending on their design, sculptures or other three-dimensional works will likely need to be described from more than one angle. Use a logical sequence when doing so, as if the viewer was moving in a circle around the object.
When using descriptive words such as adjectives, place them after the word they modify, so visitors know what the thing is before they are told what it looks like. For example, use "his fingers are long and thin" instead of "long, thin fingers." [Alonzo 2001]
Adapting Alonzo's Guidelines When Describing Charts and Graphs
Alonzo wrote his guidelines to help people describe works of visual art such as drawings, paintings, and sculptures. But you can adapt the guidelines to describe other types of visual material, such as the charts that are often important elements of Web content.
It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that all you need to do to "describe" a chart is to list the data on a separate page linked to the chart. There's even a tool (a very expensive one, in fact) called PopChart that automates this process. But there's a world of difference between a list of numbers and, say, a pie chart or a bar graph that's why Web designers use carefully constructed charts instead of simply listing a bunch of numbers. By the same logic, there's also a world of difference between a list of numbers and a description of the chart: the whole purpose of the chart is to help people see what the mere numbers really mean, and that's what you should aim for when describing the chart as well.
The following description of four pie charts was written by Glenda Sims of the Web office of the University of Texas at Austin for an accessibility workshop she copresented with John Slatin in December 2001. The text is a proposed description for a page maintained by the University's Office of Institutional Studies; the page includes several pie charts showing different aspects of the University's student body in fall 2000.
Four pie charts depicting UT Student Characteristics for Fall 2000. The four pie charts represent ethnicity, gender, permanent home address and student classification.
1) Ethnicity Pie Chart data are listed in descending
Asian American: 12.5%
African American: 3.2%
American Indian: 0.5%
(Note: the non-white wedges are pulled out of the pie chart, forming a 37.3% wedge.)
People who design visual displays of quantitative information (to borrow the title from Edward Tufte's influential book ) take very seriously the matter of deciding what type of chart to use. It's important, therefore, for verbal descriptions to include that information. Note, too, that the description indicates how the data are organized (in descending order), then concludes with a note about the pie chart itself and how it represents the size of the non-white minority segment of the University's student body.