Technical Communication Poll: Is Tech Comm Art, Craft, or Science?

Art, Craft, or Science of Technical CommunicationDefining technical communication as art, or craft, or science often boils down to philosophical debates, the kind you have first in university classes full of wide-eyed innocents, and later over beers at a favorite pub. Such debate may not seem to have much practical use, but in fact understanding how technical communicators view their profession can go a long way in determining how it will evolve, and where each of us fits in.  We decided on this theme for October because an exercise in self-identification can be a good thing, and also as a great way to tie technical communication to our second annual Tech Writer Horror Stories event.

The question did start a fascinating discussion among the writers who contribute to TechWhirl, who we fondly refer to as the Special Writers Unit.  On Monday, Yehoshua Paul distilled his thoughts into a formal position on why “Technical writing is NOT art.” Tomorrow, Wanda Phillips and Roger Renteria tackle the other side of the question.

Today, we ask you to weigh in.  So our first stop in formulating this week’s poll was Wikipedia, which notes “The first and broadest sense of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to “skill” or “craft.”  But they also point out (using Encyclopedia Britannica as their source) that art often refers to visual arts.

Wikipedia defines science as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” And finally, just for good measure, we looked up craft, which is defined as ” a profession that requires some particular kind of skilled work. In a historical sense, particularly as pertinent to the Middle Ages and earlier, the term is usually applied to people occupied in small-scale production of goods.”

Hmm… whether you choose Wikipedia as a starting place, or some more venerated reference, defining technical communication as art, science, or craft is not as easy as it might first appear. So think about it, take the poll, and if you’re ready, make your stand by posting a comment.  Do you believe we work in a community of artists, scientists or craftspeople?

Is Technical Communication Art, Craft, or Science?

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Mark Baker

11 years ago

It is all three, and all three specifically in the sense that craft builds upon knowledge (science) and art builds upon craft (the ability to execute). This relationship is perhaps most clearly illustrated in music, where the foundation is music theory, upon which is built the ability to play (craft) which is essential to the production of art (the music itself).

In the science -> craft -> art relationship, the science may be tacit and the the art may be banal, but all three are always at work, in technical communication as in anything else.

Chuck Martin

11 years ago

While it has characteristics of all three, technical communication is most properly an engineering discipline. Define is such–and there are many, many rational and logical arguments to do so–and differentiations such as this vanish into a cloud of practical reality.

Steve Janoff

11 years ago

It is art. The mental process involved is a form of invention. The best technical writing transcends. What we do shares principles with design, architecture, and other visual arts. The only reason we do not see ourselves as artists is because of the limitations of the corporate setting. If we had creative freedom, technical communication, technical writing, would be a very different thing. In many ways bad because of personal taste. But the artists would emerge. Picasso would not have become Picasso if he’d worked in a design firm. An impractical, unrealistic view, I know, but there it is. (Actually, some of the great visual artists did design work. But then they let go. Just because you have constraints doesn’t mean you’re not doing art.) I’ve had a few opportunities in my career to have creative freedom (mostly early on). It was joyous and wondrous and incredibly successful, in one or two cases more so than I’d even imagined. And the sophistication that comes with a long career adds seasoning to your art. Don’t belittle or sell short what you do. Perhaps we are artists manque more than anything. But we are still artists. Wear your beret tomorrow! :)

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