For years, the production of technical manuals was compartmentalized. Technical writers wrote out manuals by hand or typed them on typewriters, adding specifications about how the text should be treated. An illustrator designed drawings to accompany the text. A designer wrote out specifications for the page layout. Finally, a compositor set the type, laid out the pages, and produced galleys for proofing prior to printing. The technical writer had little or no control over the final design and layout of the manual.
Then, something incredible happened. Personal computers and desktop publishing suddenly made it possible for one person to write, design, and publish a manual—at a fraction of the cost—and technical writers soon had the ability to typeset their own documents, create diagrams and drawings, and lay out pages. Technical communication classes quickly incorporated typography, page design, technical illustration, and all the rhetorical trappings visual design entails. So, too, Web design allowed technical communicators even more design flexibility than print could ever afford. The production of technical information was no longer partitioned.
Fast forward to the present day, where structured authoring systems, like DITA, and content management systems (CMSes) attempt to relieve the writer of design choices so he or she can focus on writing. And we’ve happily (some of us) bartered away control over design for the promise of single sourcing, reusable content, and easier content management. It seems technical communicators are returning once again to producing content rather than designing it.
As someone who is deeply interested in the visual design of information, I’m torn. I understand and agree with the arguments for structured authoring, but I lament the erosion of craft. We’ve spent the last 30 years training technical communicators the rhetorical importance of information design. How are we going to influence the design of our communications when CMSes take our content, reassemble it, and push it out to a variety of media, devices, and screen sizes? If we aren’t able to influence the visual design of information, what have we lost? These are the questions that influenced this special issue of Intercom.
The theme of this issue is “page design after print” and focuses on thoughts—both practical and theoretical—that grapple with this tectonic shift in our industry. The articles selected represent the breadth of ideas proposed.
First up in this issue, Dr. Clint Lanier takes a close look at the perceived credibility of information when it’s reconfigured to display on smartphones.
Next, Richard Rabil Jr. describes challenges and best practices for designing wiki templates and offers advice on maintaining credibility and usability.
Ed Marsh continues the theme of template design in his article on designing more beautiful help systems with Web fonts.
Finally, Dr. Crystal Elerson and Terry Smith look to the near future by examining how font selection affects the user work experience within virtual reality.
While this selection of articles reflects a variety of ideas, it isn’t exhaustive. I hope to see further discussion in Intercom on the theories and strategies of information design in this brave new world.