Communicators unite! The parallel struggles of two professions.

A little while ago I made a pact with myself to quit the “graphic designers are misunderstood” rants in order to provide less angsty and more constructive content to this blog. Though my point of discussion today comes uncomfortably close to breaking that agreement, I think that the likeness between the history and struggles of technical communicators and graphic designers is fascinating. The profession of technical communication is at least parallel in some aspects and identical in others with that of a graphic designer.

My professors and more experienced colleagues have told me stories of how they adjusted professionally as PCs gained dominance in the workplace. From using rub-off lettering to meticulously laying down thin black lines in order to make a document “camera ready” for the printer, being a designer meant having amazingly adept hand skills and other areas of expertise which are different from what is needed to hold the same title today. When Macs with graphical user interfaces came along, my colleagues were immediately on board, many of them being the first in their company to have desktop publishing capabilities. As technology rapidly changed and improved, designers had to continuously learn new hardware and software. Often it was the same software to the same purposes as the technical communicators described in the first chapter of Rachel Spilka’s book (Spilka, 2010).

The Apple Macintosh, 1984

The Apple Macintosh, 1984

Yes, the basic concepts of design still hold true through changing technologies, just like the discipline of technical communication has always required the professional to use “words and images (whether stationary or moving) to inform, instruct, or persuade an audience (Scriver, 1997).” Still, the advance of new technologies have reshaped the day-to-day workflows of technical communicators and graphic designers. Learning new technology became a sink or swim situation. In the Communications Design BFA program at Syracuse University, our professors purposefully never taught us how to use the design programs we needed to become professionals, leaving us to figure it out on our own. They said that the technology will change in a few years anyways (and it did). What we needed more than to be taught the software was to learn how to be self-taught.

Returning to Scriver’s definition of the core skills needed for technical communicators, I would argue that the exact wording could be also used for graphic designers. Also identical between the two professions is the need to move beyond doing commodity work (which is easily outsourced or downsized) and instead shift towards symbolic-analytic work. Both professions must learn to, “analyze, synthesize, combine, rearrange, develop, design, and deliver information to specific audiences for specific purposes.” (Spilka, 2010, p. 54) Spilka even used the phrase “pretty it up” when describing the perceived commodity work that is asked of technical communicators by clueless colleagues. A customer recently sent me an email with a subject line reading “Make it spiffy?” Though creating aesthetically “spiffy” documents is within my job responsibilities and skill set, I would rather be thought of as an expert in crafting effective communications. (Now I’m getting dangerously close to my previous rant.)

I appreciated Spilka’s edict, that it is our individual responsibilities to make the true value of our work visible to the higher-ups. We must align ourselves with the management strategies of our institutions and fully embrace the changing technologies and philosophies as they emerge. We must find ways to advocate for ourselves and let the true symbolic-analytic qualities of our work become apparent to all. Spilka goes on to recommend strategies for the technical communicator to do just this by showing how their work contributes to cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement and intangible contributions (Spilka, 2010, p. 61). Though some of these tips can only be applied to technical communicators when taken at face value (such as “One method [of cost reduction] is to consolidate development of documentation, online help, and training to minimize the duplication of efforts in doing research, planning and designing communication.”)

Posted on September 28, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hi Allie, it sounds like you have seen a lot of change. As someone who is not really a graphic designer, I was surprised to read in Spilka’s book that once the layout was done, a photograph would be taken and then people would edit off that. Since PhotoShop did not exist back then to edit photos, what I imagined during reading that part were people in a dim, red-lit room, tampering with wet B&W negatives to make the final shot perfect or artsy. Sometimes I feel that there was a lot more creativity that went into that kind of work, more McGuyverish. Now days, you can enhance anything in PhotoShop in seconds, but if that is a day job, the work becomes more of an assembly line of correcting images, so the real art no longer exists.

    Because of the look that I’m sure that you could only achieve in the “camera ready” style, do you think that it could make a retro comeback? It seems like something cool that someone could create for an Etsy store or RedBubble design.

    • It’s interesting that you mention darkrooms! I have never personally developed film in a darkroom, so when the outdated techniques were discussed in a recent class I was surprised by how many terms I was already familiar with through my use of PhotoShop. Some of the intended uses of the tools I’ve been using for years were made clearer, even though I don’t always use them in the traditional way.

      I know that screen printing is a trendy technique among the designer population, as is using printing presses and engraving techniques on wedding invites and other fancy projects. Though I’d doubt that “camera ready” is going to make a comeback (that was a technique used with HUGE machinery that would be tough for a hobbyist to bring back) maybe something similar could be approximated. Sounds like fun!

  2. natashajmceachin

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and I have also been guilty of making “clueless” requests from graphic designers similar to your coworker. I think many people use the titles graphic designer and artist interchangeably, many people don’t see a difference other than one uses a computer instead of a paintbrush.

    I honestly do agree with your “graphic designers are misunderstood” philosophy, not until I began the MTPC program did I consider graphic design a real part of technical communication. I am now at the point where I value the profession so much, I feel my skill set is incomplete without formal graphic design training. My very next mission is to gain some sort of training, and hopefully make a little more money.

    Great post

    • Thank you, Natasha! I appreciate the camaraderie. Good luck with your design studies!

      In my experience, having even a little experience trying to do a task makes it so much more relatable. I recently took a class for digital photography using a DSLR. I went into it thinking that being a photographer could be another career choice for me. I came out of it with a much healthier respect for professional photographers and the effort and training that goes into taking quality photographs.

      I hope your training helps you master the skills you need! Enjoy!

  3. Mary Van Beusekom

    I agree that technical communicators, whether graphic designers or writers or editors, need to be seen as bringing value and strategy to the table. Too often, our work is undervalued because it is seen as rote and task-oriented, when we have real contributions to make that can serve the entire organization. I often work cross-departmentally, and this helps increase my visibility. Also, I’ve found that a lot of people like to think of themselves as graphic designers or medical editors when they’re not–at all. It’s like they think that writing, editing and designs are not real disciplines that take years and years of training. I’m working to change that at my organization by being more public with my credentials and earning my Medical Writer Certified credential at this year’s American Medical Writers Association Conference.

    • You hit the nail right on the head! Designing/marketing/writing is so tough because people assume that since they have aesthetic preferences/are a consumer/read that they can do what professionals do. Driving a car doesn’t make you a mechanic.

  4. Hi Allie!
    I must say – rant – rant away! I honestly think for my first year in my master’s program, I consistently ranted as to the struggle of technical communication. One of the most interesting things that I have been thinking about lately is why we have this struggle? Do other career areas struggle so much with feeling so “misunderstood”? It hit me when I also read a book by Ann Handley called Everybody Writes. It made stop and think, boy isn’t that true – everybody does write. Everyone can write an e-mail. Everyone has their own voice, which they try to showcase in their writing. The same can be said with art, or graphic design in this case – everyone has their own taste.
    I think with this recognition, because people can write and have their own artistic say, they feel they are their own subject matter experts. But is there a cure, per se? I think you really called out one of the driving points when you stated that “we must align ourselves with the management strategies of our institutions and fully embrace the changing technologies and philosophies as they emerge”.
    I think through continually aligning our communication strategies, we have the opportunity to really begin to refine the roles of both technical communication and graphic design.

    • Lots of surveys have been conducted about tech comm folks “feeling misunderstood,” and I wonder if one reason why is because most of these surveys say that people in this field only “write” 15-30% of the time. The other time is spent collaborating and adapting to industry changes and workplace cultures. I know the switch of university program names from technical writing to technical communication or even professional communication has opened the eyes of many. Just something to ponder as we rant! 🙂

      • Chelsea Dowling

        That is a really interesting point. When I first started my role as a “communications coordinator”, I think people just wanted someone who could write and tell the rest of the business what is going on. Through my research in establishing my role, I often look to what other roles are responsible for. At one point, I remember reading about technical writing thinking that was exactly what my role would align to – when in fact it was definitely not what I was interested in, nor was it what was needed. I could also see why the percentage is so low too – while we write for 15-30% of the time, others in the organization are word-smithing what we’ve already written (which takes up the 70-85%) 😉

      • The name change is a fantastic shift, though I have to admit that in my ignorance I entered this program thinking that it was aimed towards a broader group of professionals who communicate through technology (including graphic designers). It was a shock reading the intros posted during the first week, and realizing that most of my peers were writers in a program that was heavily structured around writing. I stayed in the class because I am still learning so much about communication, and I have been trying my best to perform to the caliber of my peers. It’s been… a learning experience. I’m growing quite a lot.

        Meanwhile, I also have started paying attention to alternative wording for my job description. I’m liking something like Visual Communications Specialist/Strategist. Let me know if you come upon any other good titles!

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