Making it Matter to Your Reader

Document design is a big part of technical communication. Unexpectedly, it is also a bit controversial. Design is an open topic, and one that is often overlooked.

As I studied rhetoric and composition, I read articles about the importance of design, and have even written about why design matters. For example, Diana George, in her article “From Analysis to Design” asks readers to think about how visuals affect the way we take in a document. Much of the time she focuses on graphic design, but she acknowledges that design could easily be referring to “the text’s heavy font, the cover design that reproduces the opening remarks of the first essay, or the ragged-right margins that call attention to page design” (2002, p. 23). I must admit that when I studied visual rhetoric and read arguments focused on design, I never imagined doing the daily work of a technical writer.

Design matters in technical writing similar to how interface matters to mobile application users, for example. When I create a document in my corporation, it must be branded. In my company, we use cute little multi-colored bubbles that get attached to absolutely everything that is delivered, both in-house, and to the customer. In order to make sure my branding works every time, I learned Building Blocks (video tutorials available through for university users), to create Custom Auto Text so I can insert my header, footer, and cover page branding in 3 clicks from my instance of Word2016. Had you told me last year that I would care about this, I might have raised a doubtful eyebrow.

When I deliver a document to anyone in my company (manager, co-worker, etc.), the document must look finished, or it tends to frighten the viewer: even if I tell them it’s just a draft. Document design is so important to readers that a poorly designed document will trump any useful information contained therein. If I take an idea to a meeting and it does not look presentable, questions flood in about how it will look, and I get very few questions about content. It is as though people cannot see first through the packaging.

An unfortunate trend I see happening in higher education is the writer who dismisses the need for document design. In English 101 and 102, I teach the importance of font type, size, and color; of margin and header; and of line spacing. Before I became a technical writer however, I didn’t understand exactly why that was so important. I told my students it was a presentation issue and fell into the delivery category. Turns out, I was correct, but were I to teach a course again tomorrow, I would have a much more meaningful reason to give.

I dismissed design most of my career in rhetoric as well – without even knowing I was doing it. Until now, I have never had excellent control over tables in Word. Because of that, my CV has always looked a mess. Because I had little eye for simple design basics, I never knew how much better it could look. Now though, I see my CV and my mouth curls up in disgust. I can’t believe I sent it out like that. The effort of taking the design from ‘just okay’ to ‘beautiful’ however, will take some effort on my part, and so has not yet changed here on my website. This kind of basic document design is not something ‘beneath’ the rhetorical scholar. When a document like a CV is designed crisply enough to make a practicing technical writer smile, it will make a potential employer smile as well: foot in door.

Of course I have plenty more to say about document design, and perhaps when I’m finished, I’ll put my current CV next to my beautiful CV to illustrate my point. For now, think about how you really feel about spending time in Word designing a simple document like a course paper so that you pay attention to every detail of the presentation. Who are you putting first? Yourself, or your audience?