Drawing the Line: Where Technical Illustration Fits in Tech Comm

Bobbi Werner

Bobbi Werner

All of us who attended “Tips for Graphically Challenged Technical Writers” can agree that the presentations were informative, and the exchange that followed was lively and full of useful tidbits. Special thanks go to John Freiberger, Matt Reiner, Dara Barley, and Laurie Fiaretti for sharing their insights and helpful hints. Because my laptop froze in the middle of the program, I was unable to participate in the discussion as I would have liked. This post addresses some of what I couldn’t say during the program, which I’ve organized into three separate themes.

  • Don’t discount the design professionals. I know many writers don’t have access to illustrators where they work, and that reality actually motivated us to develop this program. We chose panelists who would share principles or tips to help writers create and  deliver graphics to support their texts, and just as expected, attendees had plenty to share as well. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the quality presentations and the subsequent discussion.
    Despite those high points, I think we need to pause and recognize the limits of what writers can do, especially those who don’t have a designer’s eye. While a couple of our panelists noted that often the best choice for technical writers is to get help from an illustrator or graphic designer, I want to emphasize that seeking the help of a graphics professional shouldn’t be our last resort. Illustration and graphic design constitute a specialty, an expertise, and our profession should recognize and value that. It’s more than a little presumptuous of writers (and businesses too!) to think writers can do it all. As writers we can certainly learn design principles and apply them as we prepare our documents, but we would be remiss not to acknowledge when some writer creations are inferior substitutes for what an illustrator could do.
  • Be bold regarding illustration needs. I recall one attendee discussing the problem of unclear job descriptions for contractors and how this vagueness often disguises the need for illustration work in addition to technical writing. When this happens, I urge contract writers to bring these needs to the attention of companies who hire them and request additional support for illustration. If they say there is no budget for illustration, realize that you have other options to deliver what’s required. While you might be able to create graphics that will meet the need, that won’t be so easy if the requirements reach beyond your skillset or available time. What do you do then? Hire your own professional! If you’re working on a time and materials basis, simply add the cost to your bill as additional hours. You also have the option to spread the cost over multiple invoices. I did this many times when I worked as a contractor, and the results were mutually satisfying. This was especially important when working on a first contract with a client and wanting to make the best possible impression. In one or two cases, I actually absorbed the cost of illustration work to deliver quality product on budget and to be considered for future jobs. In every case, that investment in professional illustration was worthwhile.
  • Hire illustrators and expand their responsibilities to ensure retention. I have had the good fortune to work with staff illustrators for more than a decade, and I can’t imagine delivering the documentation we create any other way. Having said that, I know that if the illustrators on my team had only line drawings on their list of responsibilities, neither one of them would be full-time, and they would be vulnerable to job cuts. To provide greater job security, we keep our illustrators busy with other tasks that now fall under a rather wide illustration umbrella. At Hillrom, our illustrators create and update product labels; they update packaging designs; they update CD labels and setups, and then create ISO images of our literature to burn to CD; they design templates for documents as part of our rebranding effort; and so much more. Our two illustrators justify their existence as full-time team members every day, and we sometimes share the overflow with a contract illustrator. By creatively defining an illustrator’s role, you can make a strong case for bringing them onboard and then retaining them.

Reviewing what I’ve just written, I see a clear defense of technical illustrators. How ironic for someone who has worked more than 30 years as a technical writer! Suffice it to say that those three decades have taught me a few things, and my last two years working as a manager have deepened my appreciation for the different skill sets required to produce high quality technical communication. I certainly understand and empathize with writers pressed to deliver graphics and who naturally look for guidance to meet that demand, but I also want to validate technical illustrators and their significant contributions to Tech Comm.

As we work to empower our writers, let’s not neglect our illustrators. We can start by looking at our community rosters. How many technical illustrators do you see on the list? How much attention do we give illustrators in our programs and conferences? How can we validate them and help them see Tech Comm and STC as a professional home? I urge all of us to recognize the substantial value and the years of training and experience technical illustrators bring to the table. By suggesting that writers can do their job, we undercut their contributions and their value. No matter how many tools we have access to, the best most writers can do is dabble–we simply lack the perspective and mindset of an illustrator. Let’s learn from one another and make the most of some difficult work circumstances, but let’s also acknowledge and respect our illustrators and enlarge their reach in our profession.