Much of a technical communicator’s job is devoted to making documents consistent and user friendly. Let’s consider an often-overlooked concept and misconstrued concept:
- User friendly documents
- These are documents that attempt to make it easier for users to navigate a process.
- User-centered documents
- These are documents that start with the users’ perspectives and try to present the information (e.g., navigating a process) based on the user’s needs.
- System-centered documents
- These are documents created by experts–often the people who created the system itself–that don’t take the users usually non-technical backgrounds into consideration.
Have you ever encountered the following “dialogue” box?
I know it seems silly, but we actually perceive things based on light reflection and responses to visual stimuli. What we see is based on how our brains (through stimuli received by our eyes) interpret patterns of light. We distinguish colors, patterns, and entire objects through perceptions of light. While we could get very complicated in our discussions from biological perspectives, we won’t go that far. However, most programs have accessibility checkers that can help you rethink your design choices. For instance, you should consider the following when putting together an online document:
- Figure-ground contrast: black text on a white background is very readable
- Notice how difficult it is to read this yellow text on a white background. Not good figure-ground contrast.
- Red-green color perception difficulties: Sometimes referred to as “color blindness,” some individuals have difficulty distinguishing between red and green colors, so this highlighted text would be very difficult to distinguish.
- Basically, you don’t want to camouflage your designs
Being the cultural, social creatures that we are, much of our visual world is shaped by our experiences. I know some don’t like to hear this, but we are rarely able to free ourselves from the cultures into which we’re born. Even the choices you think you have are simply choices on a cultural menu, a group that’s socially constructed.
A former professor of mine told our class that people hate being told that their culture is based on societal constructions and has no connection to absolute truth: (paraphrased from memory) “cultural pride deals in absolute value or worth—they don’t want to hear it’s contextual” (Thomas Van).
But there’s good news about cultural constructions and perceptions. Because members of a culture share commons backgrounds and ideologies, designers can tap into that shared knowledge. You might not be conscious of it, but, when you use idioms, refer to Seinfeld episodes, and use language, you’re engaging in socially constructive activities.
Some topics for us:
- Visual cues
- Language conventions (visual language)
- Intercultural Communication
- Semiotics: how meaning is constructed or understood; signs and symbols for objects in the referential world
- Language and hegemony
- Ethics or “Why so many American flags in advertisements?”
It’s also important to remember that not all “things” translate the same way interculturally. Those of you who know multiple languages are aware of false cognates: words that sound similar in one language but don’t have the same meaning in a different language. For instance, the following cognates are accurate in English and Italian:
- embarrass = imbarazzo
- federation = federazione
- system = sistema
- university = università
The following words are false cognates:
- English to Italian
- “preservative” is not preservativo
- English to Spanish
- embarrassed” is not embarazada
Check Google translate for more information and why the above false cognates could cause much confusion interculturally.
Likewise, you probably know to be aware of pointing in other cultures and turning the peace sign (✌) around, but you should also avoid the following gestures because they don’t universally mean “ok” or “a-ok”:
What might you have to consider when using this emoji?
Ok, I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t rhetoric just BS…empty political speech? While empty political speech is a definition of rhetoric, it’s too reductive a definition for enlightened college students such as yourselves. Rhetoric is much more involved than the unfortunate popular definition. For this class (and others) you should have a broader view of rhetoric. I like to define rhetoric as “what builds meaning into something.” That something can be an object, belief, event, or system, but, whatever it is, meaning is attached personally and culturally.
Take the following words for example: Communism and Feminism. Both have denotations and connotations. The denotative definitions (from the dictionary) are below.
- Communism: an economic system based on total equality and ownership of the means of production.
- Feminism: a philosophy recognizing and attempting to change women’s subordinate status in patriarchal society; a philosophy promoting the equality of all people.
Connotations are the feelings, allusions, and values a group (such as a culture) associates with certain words. Likewise, conscious and unconscious rhetoric describes what gives messages (even visual ones) their meaning–explicitly and implicitly.
Some topics for us:
- Ethos: presentation of one’s character or credibility.
- Pathos: appeal to emotions; evoking emotional responses.
- Logos: appeals to logic or facts in a message.
Fonts and Typefaces
There’s no need to go into serious detail on this subject, but I’d like to mention several conventions for typefaces:
- Be consistent
- Sans Serif is good for short readings—headings, short letters, titles
- Be consistent
- Serif is best for long readings—body text
- Be consistent
- Decorative font is normally cheesy unless it’s on a diploma
- Be consistent
- Bold, italics, underline,
strikethrough, 21st, H2O
- Be consistent
- Make headings grammatically consistent (parallel)
Hey, visuals are our friends. They do all kinds of stuff. In fact, we’re going to talk about what they do for your documents. Let’s focus on the visuals below. I’m going to call on one of you to answer the benefits or reasons to choose one of the following:
- Tables (p. 113)
- Column Graph (p. 118)
- Bar Graph (p. 118)
- Circle Graph aka. Pie Chart…yummy (p. 120)
- Line Graph (p. 123)
- Organizational Chart (p. 125)
- Flow Chart (p. 127)
- Project Schedule Chart (p. 129)
- Diagram/Illustration (p. 131)
- Photographs (p. 133)
- Infographic (p. 134)
- Video Clips (p. 136)
- The biggest tool that has changed how we delivery information has been videos–they’re ubiquitous now. Although videos have been used to instruct people for decades (even your grandparents had videos for instructed them on how to drive a car), the number of videos is staggering.
What are some important aspects of visuals according to your reading? Also, discuss the reasons behind NOT using a particular visual for a particular representation. For instance, would you use a pie chart to show changes in temperature over time?
Book Exercise #4 on pp. 143-144 asks you to consider what changes you might make to the document “Protect Yourself and Your Students from the Flu…” if you had 15 minutes. Consider the changes you’d make. That image (Figure 6-21) might be difficult to see online, so you may want to view this document and consider changes you’d make: “Teen Distracted Driver Data”
Ethics and Visuals
We’ll discuss this more when we cover ethics in technical communication, but, for now, take heed of the authors’ warning about using three-dimensional bars and columns “because readers have difficulty visually comparing the relative lengths of the bars and the relative heights of the columns” (p. 114).
Take a look at the visual below. It’s a graph that was included in an old business writing textbook as a good example of an area graph. What do you think? What does the graph represent?
Most bizarre, huh? This “image” comes from the following Business Writing Textbook:
Murphy, Herta A., Herbert W. Hildebrant, and Jane P. Thomas. Effective Business Communication. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1997: 575.
As a side note, ENGL 4182 “Information Design and Digital Publishing” devotes an entire semester to the topics of Information Design and Visual Rhetoric, and we teach it in fall semesters.