Drawing a Wall: Where “Technical Communication” Ends and Graphic Design Begins

Drawing on a graphic tabletThe oddly defensive term “technical communication” was created to challenge an imaginary wall between technical writing and graphics. Of course, most technical writers don’t just write for a living. Back when technical writers worked on typewriters, some of them hauled out rulers and protractors to create simple charts; more complicated graphics might be handled by a draftsperson or graphic artist. Today, no tech writer would refuse a job that requires basic design tools – you can find the tools in every word processing and spreadsheet program.

(If I were a cartoonist, this is where I’d draw a draftsperson displacing a tech writer from her office chair in mid-document so the draftsperson can insert a flow chart using Word drawing tools. But I’m not a cartoonist, which is the “hard wall” that I’ll get to in a minute. Stay tuned.)

“No tech writer would refuse a job…” That’s an exaggerated example. More commonly and less dramatically, a tech writer might have to remind a manager that it’s silly to pay the printer to update the manual cover, when all we really need is our own copy of Adobe Illustrator. Yes, Boss, it’s graphic design, but your friendly neighborhood tech writer can do that much.

This imaginary wall between writing and graphics is not necessarily our fault, but we’re the ones best suited to, well, not to tear it down, but at least to put it where it belongs. In the example above, the obvious wall between you and a few minor changes to the manual cover is purchasing software and learning how to use it. I’d call that a “soft wall”; we can all learn entry-level Illustrator pretty quickly. Other soft walls include (a) reminding your colleagues and managers that your skills don’t begin and end with writing, and (b) convincing Those Who Sign Checks that the software is a worthwhile investment.

Some walls are tougher than others. Even the best graphics software is limited by the actions that have been programmed into it, right? Well, no. If you’re willing to learn to script, you can create custom manipulations that no one’s seen before. Photoshop can support your scripts, and <canvas> was actually born to do so. Another tough wall is CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, which I humbly suggest has a steeper learning curve than graphics software. Those of us who write for complex hardware systems (jet engines, Roombas, etc.) use component images created with CAD software – not necessarily by us. I call these “firm walls” because there’s no royal road to their knowledge. But most of us, given the time, can learn these skills.

Remember the draftsperson and the cartoonist? For me, the differences between their skills define a “hard wall.” To a large extent, Visio (soft wall) is my draftsperson. When it comes to precision drawings of hardware components, you’d have to trade up to CAD software (firm wall). But folks, I am never going to be able to draw a dachshund, at least not a convincing one. Whenever a technical document requires original, freehand drawings, there’s a hard wall that I’m not going to break through.

To be clear, I’m talking about my own hard wall here. I’m sure there are a few tech writers who are also terrific amateur artists, and I admire that. But any good tech writer should be able to make it through the lesser walls, given enough grit and friendly persistence.


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