You don’t know what you don’t know . . .

web-design-service2How embarrassing.  I knew when I first started designing website that I really, no I mean really, did not know what I was doing but I thought my boss would teach me, which he did. Sort of. For the most part I taught myself. And then I am reading “Information Design From Authoring Text to Architecting Virtual Space” and realize just how much the two of us really had absolutely no clue how to do what we were doing, we just did it and customers seemed to be happy.  To be fair, my (old) boss started this business on his own five years before I came on with little to no training himself and was (and still is) doing quite well.  I think back on some of the sites I designed from scratch (none of which are still up and running due to businesses going out of business) and realize that there was always something missing.  I knew it back then but could not put my finger on it. I was not a graphic designer (nor would I ever be one) so I always blamed it on the images just not being quite right and therefore the effect of the site not being what I had hoped it would be.  I did at least always pride myself on my sites being easy to navigate with the appropriate information in the perfect locations. Now I realize that the reason the sites were not all they could be had so much more to do with the actual text and placement of information than I ever would have thought possible.

“Gurak and Warnick argue that to engage in digital literacy, one must have not only an ability to use new media technologies, but also a critical self-awareness that questions why and explores purposes digital communication technologies serve in culture.” (p. 103)

This quote would have never in a million years been something that I would have understood back then.  My job was more about getting our sites onto the first page of Google and manipulating text for that purpose based on the SEO standards of the time. We wanted the sites to be navigable and to have the information that was pertinent to the business (we would track page views through Google Analytics) but I am pretty sure we did not take into consideration the thought process of the users or how they were actually using the sites in the first place.  Again, kind of embarrassing to admit that those sites were public for a long time!  It does help to know that the early 2000’s were still a time of transitioning and exploring in the area of web design and its content.

The information in this chapter about “Technical Communicators’ Unique Contributions to Information Design in Industry”
(p. 106), is what can make the difference between a “professional” site and an amateurish one.  I think the fact that I was ignorant to design practices didn’t hurt me as much as it could have is because I have always been very visually aware of what looks right and what doesn’t.  We all have had plenty of experience browsing websites and you just know what looks right versus when something is just not settling about a site.  That being said, the fact that technical communicators are becoming more aware of the importance of the combination of visual design and content and the businesses they work for are taking it more seriously as well, is a great step forward in the field of web design: “Historicizing genre is significant, because it reminds writers that the ways in which emerging digital documents and virtual spaces are designed transmit values and reinforce or disrupt ways of working and communicating with one another.” (pg. 106-107).

This summer I worked on a small technical writing project for a company as part of ENGL-637. One of the first comments made by my connection at the company was how, at his previous place of employment, he was so tired of technical writers focusing more on design than content that he pretty much eliminated the department. I think this was very short-sighted of him but it also stresses the importance of technical communicators having balance between content and design and making it clear why the two are so heavily connected these days. “We are not merely writers any more. Now we are editors, information architects, usability analysts, interaction designers, project managers, client liaisons, and more.” (pg. 134)

I love that the world of technical communication is one of constant change – it is why I decided to take a second look at a career in this field (first look was


2o+ years ago), and started in this degree.  Little did I know just how important of a role technical communicators can play, especially during my naive years as a web designer. I can’t help but wonder, if I had known how all encompassing web design really was, if I ever would have stepped foot into the arena in the first place?  I would like to think I would have.  If not, I would have missed out on a great opportunity, no matter how high the learning curve was!

Posted on October 27, 2013, in Creative, Social Media, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. As I promised in the discussion boards, my blog comments post-midterm will make note when there’s a potential final paper topic in your post. I think I see that here! Historicizing the genre as well as your experience in it [especially the relationship between design and SEO standards] would be an amazing seminar paper to pursue.

    I also liked when you admitted, “I think the fact that I was ignorant to design practices didn’t hurt me as much as it could have is because I have always been very visually aware of what looks right and what doesn’t.” Teaching freshman always reminds me that they’ve been exposed to reading on the screen longer than I have and while they may not be designers, they know how to navigate and push back for content that appeals to them!

  2. Hi, Jennifer,
    I really enjoyed your post. I once had to work with our school web developer to design a webpage, and I wish I would have had more prior knowledge then. I, too, can relate to being ignorant to design practices, and the web developer would not budge when I suggested something that I thought might be more visually appealing. It was a learning experience, and I really like the idea of exploring web design more fully after having read your post.

  3. Thanks for sharing your ideas! I agree with you — most normal people just look at website and only notice something when it is incorrect. I don’t think (before this class anyway) I’ve ever looked a website and thought to myself, “This designer effectively used many visual elements.” I also think it is great that technical communicators are becoming more accountable for designing information in a meaningful way.

  4. Hi Jen,
    What’s that old adage? “If only I knew then what I know now…?” I can definitely relate! I was involved in a technology project about 8 years ago with a former employer and when I think back…oh, how I wish I could go back and apply what I have learned!

    I think your post this week was very insightful and inspiring as it can be difficult to self-reflect. But I think you also deserve a lot of credit! It sounds to me like you did the best you could with the tools you had – and a lot of those tools were innate which is a big deal because they are something that can’t be taught. Someone can go to school for website design, but if they don’t have the knack to recognize visual aesthetics, they are going to have a tough time succeeding in the field. You already have the intrinsic skills and now you will have all of the other skills & knowledge, too!

  5. evelynmartens13


    Great post! Like others, I admire your honesty. But I also am wondering how common your story might be — how many people started off like you, teaching themselves how to put together a website? Also, even today, I think a lot of people are still flying by the seat of their web-design pants, so to speak. At digitallandfil I read an article abotu 4 UX Myths, which suggested there are still a lot of “do-it-yourselfers” out there. I think your ability to engage in self-reflection serves you well.

    Also, I found your colleague’s comment interesting. I was recently working with someone high up on a marketing piece and he asked me “what’s wrong with this piece?” and when I started to point out some of the visual design elements (definitely a big part of the problem) he told me to focus “on the content,” as thought the visual were not part of the content. We still have a long way to go…

    • I think in the web design field it is very common to be self taught. It is pretty easy to call yourself a web designer and even easier to set up a little business out of your home. There are a lot of those types of companies out there!

      As far as the visual goes, if it looks good and is user friendly , I just think more people will actually use the manuals. The design of documents has just as much to do with aesthetics as it does with functionality and that is why he was so short sighted.

  6. I agree with your point of you don’t know what you don’t know. When you start a job that’s unfamiliar to you, you’re not going to know what questions to ask to ensure it’s done right. You take things at face value, especially what your boss says, and move forward.

    I think it’s funny one of your coworkers said tech writers focus too much on design. I worked at a place that didn’t think tech writing was important. Some people don’t realize how much tech writers do until they’re not with the company anymore.

  7. I think that your connection for the technical writing project had a point that we can all learn from. It really is so easy to focus on just one area, when we really need to look at the whole picture as well as the details. As you pointed out, there are so many areas that need to work together in order to make our work truly effective. Design is important, but so is content and usability and so many other factors.

    You were right too, when you called eliminating a technical writing department as short-sighted, because content will only get us so far, especially in our ever-increasingly visual culture. I know that I have personally chosen to skip websites because they were so text rich and lacked any visual appeal. We don’t see as many of those kinds of sites anymore, I think because people are realizing that design helps to deliver content.

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