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).
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.”)