Question: What can research tell us about whether graphics (pictures and tables) should be placed to the left or right of the text?
Print and online differ!: Are you talking print or online? If online, it depends on what you want people to notice on the page or screen. People notice the upper left and center before they notice other parts of the screen, and they notice graphics before text. Therefore, if your graphic is telling the story and is the most important element, place it in one of the high visibility areas. If the text is telling the story, place it in the high visibility area with the graphic to the right (upper or lower), where it will carry less emphasis.
A good book on graphics is “Graphics for Learning: Proven Guidelines for Planning, Designing, and Evaluating Visuals in Training Materials,” by Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons (who is an STC member and has contributed to Intercom several times). Other good books about print placement of graphics is “Print That Works” by Elizabeth Adler and “Before and After Page Design” by John McWade. Although they may be out of print, these books can be found at Amazon.com.
For online page arrangement, there is a good research report recently published by Marketing Sherpa, called “Landing Page Handbook”. It includes graphic illustrations of eye travel on Web pages from the author’s research that run counter to many common perceptions. It’s expensive, but very worthwhile and based on research results, rather than educated guesswork.
You also need to realize that graphics placement is culturally-based. Since most societies read left to right, and since a textual description usually precedes graphics, it would be natural in the flow of communication to place graphics after the text – that is, to the right or below.