Describing Figures for ACM Publications

What are figure descriptions?

ACM publications include many figures. These are typically images that illustrate important concepts being described in the papers, helping readers to understand the ideas. Not all ACM readers can see these figures, and figure descriptions provide an alternative way to convey the same information to someone whether they are listening to a paper with screen reading software, using an audio interface while driving or walking, reading with a braille display, or accessing the paper in a low-bandwidth environment without image loading. They are also used by search engine crawlers for indexing images.

Figure descriptions are not the same as figure captions. Their purpose is to provide important information that is not already available in the caption or the main text of the paper. Every figure should have a figure description unless it is purely decorative.

Why are they important?

ACM is committed to publishing in an accessible format ( that permits all its readers to have the content presented to them in a thorough and useful way. ACM needs the assistance of its authors to help achieve this goal. It is important that ACM authors provide descriptions for figures in their content so that ACM readers with visual impairment and others in text-only situations can be given equivalent information for these important images.

How do I write a good figure description?

Most figures can be conveyed by writing a short description following the guidelines below. Use your judgment to decide what important information the figure conveys that isn’t explained in the text. If the figure is fully described in the text of the paper, the figure description can simply communicate this: “Figure 1. Fully described in the text.”

The following are some general guidelines for writing figure descriptions:

  1. Keep the description as short as possible, information over 2000 characters long (including spaces) will not be captured in a pdf.
  2. Use unformatted plain text. That means no lists and no LaTeX markup.
  3. Consider both the content and the function of the figure. Focus the description on the essential new information in the figure, beyond what is in the text.
  4. Make the first sentence (or the short description, if available) a ‘title’ less than 125 characters long.
  5. Go from general to more specific details.
  6. Use the same writing style and terminology as the main text.
  7. Don’t repeat information that is already in the text.
  8. The figure caption should not be part of the image, and the caption text should not be repeated. However, if the caption is part of the image, start the description with the caption.
  9. Write out abbreviations and symbols in full
  10. Only mention color if the specific colors are important or used in the text.

For guidance on specific best practices and example descriptions of complex figures like charts and graphs, screenshots, flowcharts, architecture diagrams, and photos, please refer to the SIGACCESS Guide on Describing Figures.

How do I add figure descriptions to my manuscript?

The instructions below describe the required steps authors need to follow in order to insert descriptive text for figures in LaTeX and in different versions of MS Word.

For figures that convey important and complex new information, a short plain text description may not be adequate. Longer or more complex alternative descriptions can be placed in an appendix and referenced in a short figure description. For example, provide a data table capturing the information in a bar chart, or a structured list representing a graph.


The command \Description[<short description>]{<long description>} should be placed inside every Figure and can also be used for Tables to provide an overview of the structure of a complex table. The short description is optional.

For example:

\subfigure{\includegraphics[height=1in,width=1in]{fly1}} \subfigure{\includegraphics[height=1in,width=1in]{fly2}}
\Description[Fly 1 and Fly 2 look identical]{Fly 1 and fly 2 comparison shows identical length, wingspan, and overall bodily structure.}


MS Word 2019 on Windows or Word 2016 and later on Mac:

  1. Insert a picture in the document.
  2. Right-click the image and select “Edit Alt Text”.
  3. In the “alt text” section, provide your text description of the figure.

MS Word 2013 and 2016:

  1. Insert a picture in the document.
  2. Right click on the inserted picture and select the Format Picture option.
  3. In the settings at the right side of the window, click on the “Layout & Properties” icon (3rd option).
  4. Expand Alt Txt option.
  5. In the “Title” and “Description” text boxes, type the text you want to represent the figure, and then click “Close.”

MS Word 2010/2011 for Windows:

  1. Insert a picture in the document
  2. Right click on the inserted picture and select the Format Picture option.
  3. Select the Alt Txt option from the left-side panel options.
  4. In the “Title” and “Description” text boxes, type the text you want to represent the figure, and then click “Close.”

Created April 30, 2020 by Craig Rodkin