57.1, February 2010

Editorial: Redesigning Technical Communication … Behind the Scenes

Redesigning Technical Communication … Behind the Scenes

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor


“From the moment that readers pick up this first redesigned issue, it will be apparent that this is definitely not the same old Technical Communication. ” This is a quote from the August 1997 editorial by George Hayhoe, introducing the former redesign of this journal. Indeed, the changes made were spectacular back then. Thirteen years later, a similar sentence could be used to introduce the current issue of Technical Communication. It is the circle of life applied to graphic design.

In my November 2009 editorial, I had to leave you with many uncertainties about the way Technical Communication would develop in 2010. Essentially, the plan was to transform a hybrid journal (print plus online) into a somewhat less hybrid journal (online plus print-on-demand), to take the opportunity to further improve the presentation of articles, and to drastically improve the journal’s online presence. Much has happened since then. I am proud to present the new format of Technical Communication to you. Now that all anticipated changes have materialized, I realize that the changes made may actually look overwhelming. Let me tell you the story behind the journal’s redesign.

By the end of December, STC signed a contract with EEI Communications for the production of the online journal. About the same time, a small redesign task force was formed with four Editorial Advisory Board members—Thomas Barker, Avon Murphy, Ginny Redish, and Kirk St.Amant. The goal was twofold. A design format would be developed for our print-on-demand subscribers and for the institutional subscribers who have access to the journal via the Ingenta Web site, with PDF and HTML versions of all articles. For the STC members, a more comprehensive and interactive online presence would be developed for the STC Web site. The process started with the layout of PDFs.

Several professionals at EEI Communications contributed to the redesign of Technical Communication. Alix Shutello was the senior project manager involved. She was the one who supervised the process, contacted all parties involved, helped us make difficult decisions, and meet deadlines. Erika Abrams, an experienced graphic designer with expertise on campaigns, magazines and books, was responsible for the page design. Jason Watkins, a graphic designer who has led the redesign of a dozen newspapers and magazines throughout the USA, did the cover design.

I just suggested that the story began in December 2009, but in fact it started as early as in December 2007, long before I even dreamed of becoming the editor of Technical Communication. At that time, an outstanding STC Task Force on Publications presented its final report to the STC Board. This task force consisted of Ginny Redish, Thomas Barker, Carol Barnum, Susan C. Becker, Michelle Corbin, and George Hayhoe. Their report provided many insightful recommendations to improve the journal. Ever since, we had been waiting for an opportunity to implement their recommendations. This year’s transformation of Technical Communication was the ideal opportunity to do this.

The recommendations by the STC Task Force on Publications covered many different aspects of the journal—editorial policy, content alerts, online features, and article format. The recommendations in the latter category included a redesign of the layout of articles, the use of structured abstracts, and the introduction of a “practitioner’s takeaway” at the beginning of each article. These were suggestions we readily adopted for the new format.

The process that followed made me aware of several characteristics of these types of redesign processes. First, throughout the process it appeared to be essential to have concrete design examples to react to and talk about. Building on the original article layout and the specific aspects we did not like (anymore), examples of other online journals we liked, and general wishes and demands about the content and look-and-feel, Erika Abrams made rapid prototypes of the page layout of an article, and the Book Review and Recent & Relevant sections. These first versions proved to be crucial for us all to be able to fruitfully discuss our preferences.

Second, it was a privilege for me to be part of a team of technical communication experts and witness the body of knowledge that is actually present in the minds of technical communication professionals and scholars. All four members of the redesign task force as well as the other Editorial Advisory Board members—Michelle Corbin, Caroline Jarrett, Carolyn Rude, Karen Schriver, and Sherry Southard—impressed me with the insights they shared about designing a journal. Their insights reflected their ability to take the perspective of potential readers, as well as their knowledge of relevant research findings on graphic design and document use. To me, the process illustrated how research findings can be an integral part of technical communication expertise, and how specific findings can be used to inform design decisions.

Furthermore, the process showed how different experts can really complement each others’ contributions and build on each others’ comments. It made me aware of an important shortcoming in earlier research. On the basis of several studies I conducted in the past, all analyzing and comparing feedback given by individual experts, I used to say that experts disagree. Disagree about what? Well, about everything. My experience in this process led me to rephrase this position: experts complement each other. It would be a wonderful exercise to further study how technical communication expertise manifests itself in collaborative processes.

Third, the old technical communication adage “keep it simple” was one of the recurring themes in the feedback given on the page layouts. In all cases, the page layouts we ended up with were considerably simpler than the initial ones—simpler in terms of fewer different fonts used and more consistency between sections. In such processes, simplicity is not something you start with, it is what is left after all unnecessary complexity has been removed.

In my next editorial, I will be able to say more about the development of Technical Communication ’s online presence on the STC Web site—a process that is still going on at the moment I am writing this. Let me conclude by citing George Hayhoe’s 1997 editorial again, because it applies to this redesign as well as it applied to the 1997 redesign: “Although the majority of the redesign work has now been completed, we expect there will be some tweaking over the next several issues before we will be able to say the job is finished.”

In this issue

This issue of Technical Communication contains four articles. In the first article, Nancy Coppola documents the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge project (TCBOK) and its history. What a great way to start the journal in 2010. Ever since I heard about this landmark project, I have asked members of this group for a contribution in Technical Communication . Nancy Coppola volunteered to write this first paper, focusing in particular on the process.

In the second article Brian Ballentine discusses the benefits of using narratives in software requirements specifications. In the context of the design process of a Web-based radiology application for the medical industry, he demonstrates how the use of narratives may contribute to the functionality of software. The third article, by Martine Cour´ant-Rife, draws attention to issues of copyright, plagiarism, and authorized and unauthorized use in Web-based communication. She studies the knowledge and understanding of technical communication teachers and students on these topics, both quantitatively (survey) and qualitatively (interviews), and identifies several misunderstandings. The last article in this issue is by Christian Wagner and Andreas Schroeder. The article, which is based on a thorough literature study, discusses the use of enterprise wikis for collaboration and communication processes within organizations.