Why I write AND design (long)

Subject: Why I write AND design (long)
From: Kat Nagel/MasterWork <katnagel -at- EZNET -dot- NET>
Date: Tue, 7 Nov 1995 12:12:59 -0400

Whenever possible I prefer to do both writing and design. I started
designing for three reasons.

First, it's just as much fun as writing. I find it satisfying to use
-all- my talents. I don't think it enhances my reputation as a
professional writer to turn off half of my brain when I sit down at the

Second, it is difficult for me to feel confident that my writing is
correctly crafted for my particular audience unless I can see the document
the way the audience sees it. When I deal with a concept that is awkward
to express I need to use the design, as well as the words, to clarify the
material for my readers.

But I also design in self-defense. I have been burned --- BADLY burned ---
by 'professional' designers with good reputations who took my carefully
crafted material and turned it into totally useless trash under the guise
of 'making it look like it was professionally designed.'

Oh, it looked terrific, but it was unusable:

Cute little cartoons substituted for clear line drawings.

Illustrations separated from explanatory text.

'Attractive graphic elements' that interrupted the
flow of information.

Snappy quips substituted for clear-but-dull headings.

Pseudo-headings in separate frames but using the
same style definition as real headings, which ---
combined with the above --- made the TOC useless.

Unreadable display fonts used for text, instead of
boring old (but easy to read) classics.

(The list goes on...)

I've also worked on projects where a new type of document had to be mooshed
into a clever design that was developed for a completely different purpose.
The reason? 'Because we have to follow our corporate style. It was
developed by professional designers'. The result can be dreadful.
Sometimes the words can be tweaked to improve the situation, but often it
is the design that interferes with the document's usefulness. And it can
be difficult to get a 'professional' designer to pay attention to the needs
of the audience.

I have worked with good designers, of course --- folks who understood that
the purpose of technical prose was to -communicate something- , not to
win innovative design awards. I'm quite happy to work with them,
concentrating on the text while we collaborate on layout.

But the good designers are in a minority and getting harder to find,
especially in corporate structures where their main responsibility is
advertising art. I cringe whenever I'm told "Oh, don't worry. You'll be
working with our best designer. He won the XXXX award last year." The ad
biz has a different set of priorities and requires very different talents.
The guy who gets his promotions by producing dramatic, innovative magazine
spots is NOT always the right person to design an instructional manual.

If you (or your company) have/has a competent document or screen designer,
and that designer is willing to work with you to tailor the design for the
needs of the audience you are currently writing for, then congratulations.
Most of us aren't that lucky.

@Kat_____ Kat Nagel
MasterWork Consulting Services Rochester, NY
LIFE1 (techwriting/docdesign) katnagel -at- eznet -dot- net
LIFE2 (vocal chamber music) PlaynSong -at- aol -dot- com

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