Resolved: Technical Communication IS Art

Because Technical Communication expresses an idea or experience through one or more media, and has form, function, and structure, it IS Art.

Editor’s Note:  Last week Yehoshua Paul made his case that technical communication is NOT art. This week Roger Renteria and Wanda Phillips join forces to prove that technical communication IS art.  We encourage you to add your thoughts on this debate by posting a comment or starting a thread on the email discussion list.

Is Technical Writing Art?Roger: We’ve been challenged to prove that Technical Communication is art. From the perspective of an individual who earned a Bachelor of Science in Technical Communication, I greatly appreciate the notion that my studies encompasses both science and art into one degree. Technical Communication is definitely an art because all forms of art and technology converge together to create documents.

Wanda: From my perspective, whether Technical Communication is art depends on how narrowly or widely you define both Technical Communication and art. I see Technical Communication as encompassing more than manuals included with products; it includes books written as reference, instruction, or explanation of a craft, field, or product and these books are sold online directly, or from a bookseller. It includes graphics, video, and audio. I was taught that art is the communication of an idea or experience through one or more media. Underlying all forms of art, is the core definition of communication; different art forms use different techniques to communicate to an audience.

Roger: The Encyclopædia Britannica Online defines art as, “The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” This definition encompasses many technical arts: audience, usability, and accessibility; visual and layout design; and organization and discovery of information. In addition, we leverage a certain degree of invention and art when designing projects or working on documents.

Wanda: Underlying all forms of art, we believe that the core definition is simply communication; different art forms use different techniques to communicate to a target audience.

Roger: Further, a technical communicator may benefit from a good grasp of aesthetics to ensure the product is both usable and attractive. In this international marketplace we’re facing, that aesthetic needs to be one that can be translated. In markets where the aesthetic is shaped by the technology, such as aeronautics, the technical communicator must be aware and able to adjust their presentation appropriately.

Wanda: You’re right, aesthetic is important and it has to translate, but it doesn’t just have to translate to the international market, where localization has overtaken translation as a method. You have to be aware of the audience, just as a composer has to be conscious of the intended audience. Where a composer needs to know what sounds and sound combinations are associated with feelings, we need to know what our audience responds to in terms of presentation and structure. How well you can speak to that audience depends on whether you have the skill in the appropriate domain and medium. You need to be able to understand enough about the product, the niche it’s filling, and the learning styles of the audience.

Structure and Movement

Wanda: There are two elements of art that come to mind: form and function.

Art is organized by the techniques and schools of thoughts based on a medium; artists working within a chosen medium follow a school or movement that best suits communicate their message. Technical communication is a multimedia form of art in which we work with everything from linear text to hypertext, from static images to video, and we mix and match the form to the school of thought in vogue at the time and place of our act of creation.

Roger: In addition, technical communication is extremely dynamic, so we are always putting our minds to work creating and producing pleasing and valuable technical documents (and we should clearly emphasize that message to our management team as well as current and future customers).

Tech Comm Is ArtWanda: There are thought-leaders, the masters of our field, who emphasize the need to be able to speak to both audiences: our corporate sponsors and the audience they’re paying us to talk to . Our schools of thought about technical communication are organized around educated masters and the smaller worlds, in which we perform our tasks and adopt elements from various sources which include marketing, sales, legal, product domain, and, in some cases, external regulatory bodies.

Wiggling our way through the constraints of the school of thought to actual communication is a creative element of technical communication, but we know that many occupations require some creative thinking to jump many of the same or similar hurdles and we would not call them art.

Roger: Exactly, we are not robots performing the same task with near perfection every single time like a line cook is tasked to produce the same meal consistently every time. The advantage of computers and technology is that automation can improve efficiency and there will be a technical communicator in place as a measure of quality control.

Wanda: The second part of our argument is function. Whatever the form of art, which could be music, painting, sculpture, or the written, and sometimes later spoken, word, they all share the same constraints of form. Succeed or fail, art is about communication.

Roger: For example, even being faced with the constraints of company or regulations may present an opportunity for creativity. Working within those boundaries may mean working smarter, not harder, and inventing processes that could streamline tasks and speed the writing of effective documents.

Breaking the Rules and Creating New Ones

Wanda: While there are schools of thought have sprung up and are taught, apprentices and journeymen learn and practice the rules of their craft. True masters of the field take the rules and bend them to create a process or technique nobody has seen or thought of before.

Roger: Even inventing a new technique in the process of technical communication, which can vastly improve the users’ experience, takes some imagination.

The practice of creating a new idea or method, or breaking the established rules, is the gateway to further development and innovation within our field.

Wanda: In the pyramid of each genre and school, there is the singular masters, against whom all newcomers are compared, and there are the dozens, hundreds, and thousands of artists who work quietly away at their craft.

Roger: This method of working smarter can make the technical communicator’s workflow more synergistic with other co-workers’ within a company, as well as help management’s argument to reduce expenses, generate revenue, and increase profit.

Wanda: It may be argued that, unlike technical communication, these practitioners create and then sell (or don’t sell) their art. If this were untrue of technical communication, there would be no books on programming, boating, housebuilding, and technical communication, to name but a sparse few of the non-fiction instructional and educational topics found on bookshelves. Further, some works are commissioned for various instructional and educational products or we’ve developed them out of an urge of demand and marketed until either a publisher picks it up or the artist self-publishes and seeks their audience.

Our Field is Dynamic and Constantly Growing

Wanda: We argue that no form of art is entirely free. Freedom is created where there is structure. Chaos is what happens when there is no structure. All artists are constrained by the chosen medium and by their own education in a particular school.

Roger: Because our field encompasses writing, each word is carefully chosen to convey the message and each editing pass refines the writing process to maximize its effectiveness. The writer must craft each sentence as carefully as a sculptor, while in editing mode, a technical communicator has to be creative to arrange text in a clear, concise, and professional manner that meets the needs of the audience without altering the message. The end result is quality products that inform the target audience. That is our form of art. It does not need to be presented in a museum; this form of art will show up as examples in conferences, textbooks, websites, and training materials that can be shared with others.

Besides words carefully chosen to provide knowledge and instruction, technical communication is an ever-changing field combining many other forms of art into the final product. Document design, graphics, rich documentation, video, animation, and gamification (to name a few) are integral branches of the field. The pen and paper, typewriter and book, computer and handheld device: all are examples of the progressive evolution of technical communication. Now the trend is moving toward data-driven content strategy and digital media. No longer are we confined to writing the 15 page manual; our work now includes the 15,000 page website, 3,000 page manual, or Facebook page liked by 1.5 million people. It takes someone with a vision in project management, communication, and ideas to make a concept into a deliverable that customers want. Often, people with that sort of vision are known as artists.

Masters of Art–the Big Influencers of Our Time

Wanda: Great historical masters of art, such as Paul Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, William Shakespeare, Isadora Duncan, Edgar Allen Poe, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart took their craft to new heights and were accorded great, and lasting, fame. Modern artists follow their lead and either find a comfortable niche following the rules of the schools built around the techniques of the great masters or branch out and experiment. Some become masters, defining new paradigms within their field of art.

Roger: There are some well-known professionals in our field who influence our thinking with new ideas, methods, and techniques we may not have known otherwise. They are creating new opportunities in our field and expanding the reach that our field has in information technology, science, engineering, marketing, education, government, military, and entertainment.

Whether or not one of our colleagues becomes the next Mozart or de Goya, Technical Communication is definitely an art and science. We argue that our field is an art with plenty creativity behind it and our daily writing and other tasks are valuable resources for all levels of business–from the customer level to upper management–that everyone can appreciate.

Wanda: Because we communicate the underlying value of a product or process rather than skipping through fields of daisies looking for inspiration does not make us any more or less free than an artist. Just as my visual-artist sister set her focus on documenting the juxtaposition of architecture and nature, some of us choose to focus on a science or technology with which we have become familiar or even expert.

Roger: Conversely, the idea that technical communication is not an art is not necessarily true. There is an element of creativity even at the most basic level of technical writing, such as writing documentation or editing projects, that it is indeed an artform.

There are many more examples showing technical communication as an art.

Wanda: Others of us accept the commission work provided by corporations and, occasionally, one of us produces a quality of work that could be our version of Mozart’s Requiem, a commissioned piece of work.

Roger: While our field is not aiming to introduce the next Monet or Matisse, the collective results of our labors may be seen by millions of people every day. Even aspiring artists will produce their form of art, and may receive as much attention as a technical communicator may get.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, we greatly appreciate being in the field because our skills meld a variety of art forms together to create a final product. It is not going to be the next popular art, but our documents can be shared with customers to create a better end-product experience. Striving to create a welcoming and positive experience through the use of technical communication for our customers is the ultimate goal in our profession.

Roger is relatively new to the technical communication field; however, he works extremely hard to network and develop professional relationships among colleagues. He also posts articles regarding technical communication on his blog at WriteTechie.com. If you are interested in hiring Roger, feel free to view his resume on LinkedIn.

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Wanda Phillips

Wanda has worked for nearly 25 years as a Technical Communicator exploring the means and methods of making it possible for users in various fields to almost understand and use the expensive products their management bought for them. Her passion is generating content that makes everyone feel they've gotten money's worth. Her last great win involved introducing DITA to help her fellow writers and editors juggle the increasingly heavy workload, to ease the product users into the complicated interface and features of the ever increasing number of options and systems, to trick the translators into doing less work, and, finally, to allow her manager to create an award-winning spreadsheet comparing the costs of DITA content against the traditional approach.

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