Mitch the Technical Communicator: “I’m a rhetorically trained, human-centered communication specialist.”
Family Member: “Oh, you work with Greek robots. That’s cool man!”
Mitch: “What? No, I contribute to the development of usable, human-scaled virtual information spaces and advocate for user needs in emerging digital spaces.”
Family Member: “So you’re like the dude in Avatar? I thought that was fake.”
Mitch: “Avatar is fake. Um, let’s see… OK, what I do most of the time is pay attention to context by transcending sentence- and paragraph-level content and the design of written communication intended to be placed on paper. But recently I’m being asked to understand how search engines and databases work within specific contexts to organize access to information, and how I can also consider context as I assign keywords, create summaries, and otherwise prepare documents for a searchable future.”
Family Member: “Dude, why didn’t you just tell me you’re an information designer? You ashamed or something?”
Mitch: “An information designer? What the hell is that? I’m a technical writer. Maybe I’m a very confused technical writer, but that’s what I am -- at least that's what I think I am. Is it still an open bar?”
Aside from the unnecessarily complicated descriptions of information design (ID) and technical communication (as disciplines and practices), the essay provides an excellent survey of the development of ID and its relationship to tech comm and the technical communicator. Most useful, I think, is the lexicon that Salvo & Rosinski (S&R) present because it gives us a way to discuss the outcomes or products of ID. Carliner earlier referred to blueprints; Albers and Mazur made reference to guidelines. S&R’s lexicon allows us to label and identify specific aspects of ID so we can place certain ID activities within the work (current or future) of the technical communicator.
Most interesting of the lexicon is ambience. “Effective ambient design helps users understand the purpose and content … with a quick glance” (120). This is a brutally difficult challenge; at least it is for me, which is why I rely so heavily on exceptionally talented graphic designers. Here's the funny thing about ambient design and the example of the quick guide for the office chair: Getting the user to use the guide isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s often more about getting the user to remember that the quick guide is right there in the arm of the chair.
As part of our body of knowledge, S&R make two principle claims that allow us to continue on with the historical and professionalization narratives we’ve been working through: 1) That technical communicators have a role (actually a stake) in shaping the field/practice of information design in the present and immediate future, and 2) Technical communicators are in an ideal position to continue doing what they’ve been doing for a long time – implementing good designs in their information products, but now the emphasis is on digital media.
Here are two asides from the essay:
- I found it interesting that in defining what they mean by critical literacy, S&R are also describing some of the competencies required to be an effective information designer. Full participation in a community, which they call critical literacy, “requires that one comprehend not merely the words, but also the purposes or uses for the selection of those words in a given context” (103). Then again, that's probably why the essay is included in Spilka's text.
- At what point did we start referring to the “early years of the World Wide Web” (106) as if they were halcyon days?