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 THE TECHNICAL WRITER AS DESIGNER

This article is on the topic of visual design, and how writers can learn and apply the elements of visual design to enhance their message and the appeal of their written documents. According to the author, Beverley Stevens, good visual design can be learned without the need to attend formal courses in graphic design. For her tips on how to do so, read on...

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The Technical Writer as Designer
by Beverley Stevens, Documents by Design

This item was written for technical writers, most of whom make the design decisions themselves about the documents they develop. It may be of interest to other writers as well.

You are already a designer
As a technical writer you cannot help but make design decisions in every piece of work you do. You may make good design decisions or bad. You may make them haphazardly, or from an instinctive sense of what works, or from an informed base. So if you haven't already begun, now is the time to start educating yourself in visual design.

How you can benefit
Good design enhances your message. If you can not only structure a document and write well, but can deliver a document that stands out, and is attractive and inviting to read, you will find your skills in even greater demand. As visual design becomes part of your repertoire, you add another dimension to your work and can derive great enjoyment and satisfaction in doing so. 

Information Mapping
If you are using the Information Mapping template many, but not all, of the decisions have been made for you. This is always a safe option. But once you understand the reasons behind the Information Mapping page layout, you can branch out and be a little different whilst retaining effective design. 

Begin an ongoing process of self-education
You don't need to become a fully-fledged graphic designer, or even attend any courses unless you want to. Instead you can make the decision to become design conscious and start an ongoing process of self education.

* Notice your own responses to printed matter, rather as though you yourself are the user in usability tests. Notice what works, what takes your eye. Observe what you get drawn in to read and what you shy away from. Look to see what design elements provoked that response.

* Seek out books on desktop publishing and on graphic design from the library (look around classification numbers 650-686). I recommend 'Print That Works' by Elizabeth W. Adler. Bear in mind that the principles that apply to effective brochures, newsletters and advertisements also work for manuals and other technical or business documentation. 

* Browse in the non-fiction and technical sections of bookshops both for layout and formatting ideas and also for books on the subject. If you are in Auckland, visit TechBooks at 378 Broadway, Newmarket. 

* The Non-Designer's Design Book, subtitled 'design and typographic principles for the visual novice' was my first introduction to design with text. Just remembering the four design principles of proximity, alignment, repetition and contrast is invaluable. 

* Looking Good in Print by Roger C. Parker is full of soundly based guidelines and examples. I found it at the Technical Book Co in Swanston St, Melbourne, another good place to browse.

* Browse through the desktop publishing and design magazines to be found in bookshops such as Whitcoulls or Borders whenever you have the opportunity.

* Everyday magazines are another source. You may not attempt anything as complex as some glossy magazine layouts but you can borrow and adapt ideas. See how The Listener or Time magazines use graphics in their page layouts. 

* You can teach yourself a greater awareness of colour combinations and their effect anytime, anywhere—in nature, in fashion, interior design, house and garden magazines, newspaper and television advertisements, billboards and signs. 

* Experiment with a drawing package. If you have Microsoft Word or Powerpoint, then trying out the drawing functions which come with it is an inexpensive place to start. Concepts such as dragging and dropping shapes, arrows or lines, ordering (or layering), grouping and filling shapes with colour are common to all drawing packages though they may be referred to by different names. Once you know the basic concepts and capabilities of one drawing package you will easily adapt to another. For complex diagrams and flowcharts, use Visio which gives more precision than Word or Powerpoint.
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About the Author
Beverley Stevens is managing editor of Documents by Design. She has many years experience in managing, designing and developing a wide range of business and technical documentation for print and online. Beverley has a Bachelor of Social Science degree in psychology, and she is a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and secretary of the New Zealand Technical Writers' Association. You can find out more about Beverley at http://www.writerfind.com/documentsbydesign 

Last updated 18 Oct 2004 NZST