I am still up to my virtual armpits in graphics. For a month and a half I have been translating, transferring, resizing and redrawing graphics. While I have often designed graphics for different projects, the past few weeks have provided me with more intensive graphic application experience than I have ever had in my career. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the great number of graphics to be worked on is that I don’t have the time to explore and understand the reasoning behind each graphic. This means that most of the fixes I can make only improve a few aspects of the visual language of the graphics. For those who don’t know, the basics of visual language are as follows:
This is the order and organization of the visual elements within the graphic. The goal in technical documents is to arrange the information so that it is as helpful and informative to the reader as possible.
In most cases, I can only make small adjustments to the arrangement of these graphics. I might move a line of text to where it is more readable or separate two graphic elements by a wider margin so that the image does not look as crowded. Because I don’t have time to investigate the reasons behind the graphic, a complete rearrangement is out of the question. One influence I can have on arrangement is standardization. Often a graphic will contain similar shapes of slightly different sizes (usually the effect of drawing each item separately), and I will often standardize the sizes to give a greater uniformity to the arrangement.
Clarity means that the graphic is easy to understand and interpret. This means such detail choices as what words are used, and how an object is drawn. The information must be presented in a manner that is clear and understandable.
This is a part of the graphic I can make the most progress on. I can change fonts, redraw lines or shapes and generally sharpen the image so that it is easier to see and read. Often the SMEs (subject matter experts) who design the documents have low graphic application skills. I can make an image clearer just by adjusting line weight or redrawing the graphic so that the circles look like circles instead of rounded diamonds.
Conciseness deals with the complexity of the image and the information presented. The goal is to present exactly the right amount of information. You do not want to give the reader information/clutter they won’t need or use, but you want to make sure every element that they do need is contained in the graphic.
I have very little say over this part of the process. Because I do not have time to interpret each drawing in detail, I cannot add or remove information at will. I have to trust that the SMEs know what it needed and what is not. Generally, I can only make adjustments to conciseness by adjusting emphasis.
Some parts of a graphic will be more important than other parts, and a good visual designer will make sure that the most important aspects of the graphic are stressed. If the key purpose of a graphic is to show a linear progression of events, for example, that part of the graphic should be emphasized, perhaps giving less weight to individual events than to the line that connects them.
This is a part of the process I can make a guess about and influence, but often I have to live with the SME’s choices. I might choose to make one line weight greater than another, or individual text larger than other text but I cannot make major changes. As long as I do not eliminate or change information, I have some leeway here.
Ethos is, in essence, the credibility of a document or graphic. When a reader looks at a graphic they should be convinced that it is accurate, useful and important. Is the information correct? Can the reader use it to accomplish a task or interpret data? Does the graphic satisfy a relevant requirement? An important part of ethos is presentation. A well-drawn graphic will seem more credible than a poorly drawn graphic, even if both present the same information.
I have no say in whether the graphic is useful or accurate. I can correct spelling or grammar and improve the look of a graphic, but I do not have the time or information to decide if what is presented by the graphic is credible or useful. I must trust the SMEs (shudder).
The tone of a graphic helps present the information. A tone may be serious, humorous, authoritative, persuasive, casual, formal or technical. For example, a technical image used in a sales or marketing presentation would generally be presented with a different tone than an image used for a technical manual. In that same sense, the images in a user’s manual for a video game would differ in tone from the images in a hardware reference manual or a technical proposal.
Tone is also something I have little say over in this case because I cannot redesign the graphics even if I must redraw them. However, because the documentation is highly technical and meant for engineers and programmers, it benefits from the fact that the SMEs are engineers and programmers. Their visual design skills are very straightforward and plain, which fits the general tone of the documentation.
As you may have noticed, these elements of visual design are interconnected. A change in conciseness or arrangement may influence clarity, a change in clarity or tone will influence ethos. Each element of visual design should be looked at separately as well as in the way it connects to other elements.
Visual design is an important skill for technical writers, and it is one that I am still working on (as anyone who visits my web site will attest to). I have taken a class in visual design for technical documentation and I have worked with and learned from graphic designers. I know how to use a variety of graphics programs such as Visio, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Paint Shop Pro. My skills are far below that of a graphic designer, but they are generally appropriate for a technical writer.
All technical writers should make some effort to learn visual design. I recommend that anyone interested in visual design start out with this simple and inexpensive book — The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. Once you feel comfortable with its contents, you might move on to the more in-depth (and expensive) Designing Visual Language by Kostelnick and Roberts.