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3.0: Introduction

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    In our third chapter, we’re going to be looking at the visual side of technical writing. It may seem a bit unusual that in a text on writing that we are going to be spending an entire chapter on visual design, but more and more the visual design of technical documents has become increasingly important for authors and users. With that said, this is not document design—we will be talking about document design in the next chapter, and document design is as important as visual design. In some ways they are the same sort of process, but for our purposes we’re going to talk about visual design first before diving into document design. To differentiate between the two, consider visual design anything that is primarily visual in nature added to a text—a graphic, an image, etc. Document design, on the other hand, is the visual nature of the text itself—the formatting, the colors, the paper, etc.

    One advantage that we have over past practitioners of technical writing is that we can actually spend time on visual communication and carry it out without years of practice working on our skills at actually drawing the visuals we want to use. Desktop publishing technology has entirely changed the way visual design happens in technical communication over the last three decades by giving almost anyone the ability to design competent visuals. In the last several years, with the boom in infographics and other design-heavy presentations of data, this process has only gotten easier and more friendly to newcomers, all the while become more advanced and powerful for those willing to put in the time to truly manipulate data and design.

    In addition, many technical deliverables are found in electronic form first, print form second. The advantage of this change in format conveys to visual design can’t be understated. Printing in color, especially vibrant and heavily colored texts, isn’t cheap (though it has gotten markedly cheaper and more accessible). Designing for the screen first grants us much more freedom to use visuals that have a robust palette of colors to indicate any amount of information—though if our text will also be printed in black and white it can add in new challenges.

    Why does visual design matter?

    One question that may be on your mind as you read this chapter intro is simply, why does visual design matter in technical writing? The answer is all around us really—more and more of our communication is visual. Think about how much time we spend on computers of any format—mostly phones these days. These devices are often almost entirely visual—there is very little tactile feedback outside of vibration.

    Concurrent with this rise in the visual is the rise in the prestige of certain visual designs. It isn’t enough to have a phone—you need a phone looks awesome. Sometimes, even the manufacturers of these phones get caught up in this, embracing trendy choices without necessarily thinking about the usability of something like a fingerprint sensor on the back of phone or a notch carved out of the top of the screen. This can go even deeper than visuals—think about how small your phone’s thickness is compared to a phone from five years ago. I wonder how much more battery life we’d all have if our phones were the same thickness but had the more advanced batteries we use today.

    The problem with visual design, as we’ve hinted at just now, is that what looks good isn’t always what works well for users. Too many times a design is created because matches an existing trend or has visual appeal—not because it makes whatever task the visuals are draping easier to perform.

    Now, just because visual design can become too central doesn’t mean visual design is bad. Visual design is vitally important because there is so much we can say with visuals that we can’t say in a compressed space with words. Think about the logo of your university’s athletic teams—when you see that logo, you see more than just the letters and images and colors, and what you see is controlled by your circumstance and your situation. In addition to brevity, visual design can also bring clarity. Sometimes you can more clearly see something than you can read about it, especially when you’re dealing with a very delicate task like soldering a resistor into just the right place on a circuit board.

    Visuals can also have an ethical case—some folks can’t read or can’t read the language that your text has been written in. With the use of visuals, you can make it more likely that someone will be able to understand your text and act accordingly. If you doubt the usefulness of visuals that work across cultures and languages, you’ve never had to go the restroom badly while visiting a country where you don’t speak the language.

    This page titled 3.0: Introduction is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Adam Rex Pope.

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