Technical Editing & Production



Foundational concepts

Design is a skill, not something than anyone can do by following a recipe. Learning that skill amounts to learning not only what the design guidelines are but also how to recognize which rules to follow in each design situation." - Jeff Johnson from Designing with the Mind in Mind, 2010


Those who have had me before will find that I've completely restructured how the readings are done. Basically, everything has been broken out into short items that address one concept or idea.

Foundational readings

Word formatting

Due: end of week 2

You must learn to control the word processor. Week 2 critical thinking paper should use what you learn here.

Word formatting

Critical thinking paper

Week 1

I'll claim that the following paragraph sums up this entire course. Now how does that relate to taking text from a writer and making decisions about how to arrange it? Does it involve more than just "prettying up" the text? How does it relate to the other readings?

Understanding a situation requires mentally integrating many pieces of information.  It requires understanding both that the information exists and how it is interrelated to the situational context and other pieces of information.  People often know something is occurring or that a particular piece of information exists, but they do not understand how it relates to the overall situation.  What they need from the data is to gain the knowledge required to understand the situation in its current context and make some type of decision about it.

Week 2

from Writing for the Web p. 280.

Readers are no more captive in print than they are on the Web. The decision to read is always a conscious one, and readers can decide to terminate their reading at any point—due to disinterest, inability to comprehend, boredom, lack of time, change of circumstance, or simply because they reach the end (Goodman 1985, p. 835). Authors such as Dervin (1983) recognize that information can’t be pushed onto captive audiences. Instead, readers will access what information interests them (or answers their questions) at the time that is most convenient to them and use the medium that they choose.


The users, not the information designer, decide how much time and effort to spend trying to find and understand the information they need.

How does these relate to the design of the information? Explain what these mean as it relates to how a reader perceives a text? Consider the writer who has produced what they consider a perfect text...it contains accurate and complete information and is grammatically perfect. Many manuals and reports fit these criteria, yet are considered unreadable. What's the problem?

Critical thinking paper background

I consider these critical thinking assignments the most important part of the course. Note that they sum up to 25% of the overall grade. I will also warn you that many of will get hammered when I grade the first few papers. You'll get hammered for not going deep enough or writing a paper that jumps from one generality to another.

Each week for most of the semester, you will have to write a short paper (or may have to produce a small design project) aimed at both increasing your ability for critical thinking and ensuring you think deeper about the concepts for the week. If you understand the material, you should be able to easily write 400-500 words (the word limit is to steer you away from writing 100 words, if you feel inclined to write 1000, go for it). If you find yourself saying the same thing over and over, then you need to think about the deeper levels of the question and put that information onto paper..

Some writing points:

Some readings that should help set the context.

What is critical thinking

Integrating critical thinking

Paul-Elder Critical Thinking Framework

Questions (post your answers on Blackboard)

Comment about answering discussion questions

Too often, discussion question answers are little more than "you need to consider audience because audience is important" type of response. Besides being a rather circular argument, it also shows little in-depth understanding of the material. If you could have given the answer before you read anything, then your answer is too shallow. I've tried to ask open-ended question that support different viewpoints and involve thinking deeply about the problem.

The Flexibility of the Four Stages of Competence

You have to figure out what stage you are at. The article also gives a basis for why I expect some critical thinking in the discussion responses.

I expect your initial post and responses to reflect an understanding of the material and not be a quick shallow response. Too many answers I see are quick responses that don't consider the implications. (If your initial post is only 100 words or so, rethink what you are saying and the depth of your answer.) Or worse, they tend to be a repeat of a previous post, which makes me wonder if you have read the material.

For many questions you'll find a weak answer similiar to what I have received in the past. That answer is too simplistic and providing answers of that quality assures you will be stuck at Unconscious Incompetence. And having you work at that level is definitely not a goal of the course. The weak answers are not wrong; instead, they are too shallow. The content is correct for the question, but it doesn't really say anything. It doesn't go beyond the obvious. It doesn't show you have any grasp of the material.

Week 1


Some sources talk about Information Design and information design (note capitalization). What do you consider the difference to be? Why is it important? Which of the two are this week's readings addressing? I will say that next few weeks are addressing the other one.

weak answer Information Design is an evolving concept that is considered a professional field or academic discipline of study. Information design focuses more on the practical elements, such as presentation and usability or the actual practice of creating a document. The scope of Information Design is much more profound than just merely making information pretty. This is important in order to prepare information that is efficient and effective.


(from a discussion list I subscribe to) car park design. How does this award winning design match against usable design? How would you determine if people could really use it? Waiting until it was all painted would be much too late because of the dollars spent. How would you handle determining this early in the process? How does this relate to design of printed/web information?

The car park design is also reflected in similiar designs, as seen here. A 3D version of an illusion, which depends purely on viewing angle is illustrated in figure 6-8. The image looks like a cube floating in space, but viewed from a different angle, the illusion is broken. Design teams need to consider how images will be viewed and ensure misleading illusions are not present. A video version is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skotd6g7etU Notice how little movement it takes to completly shatter the illusion; enough that if you didn't know it was a cube, you may not guess it was anything by random tape on the wall.

weak answer The car park design is a prime example of how documents are so ubiquitous that they appear invisible at times. In our reading, we learned that whether information is presented as a web page or printed page, at the particular moment of use, many factors are combined to present the information in a meaningful and effective way. Even though the car park design is not something a user would traditionally see, it still works because factors would combine and result as something the user could use. In a parking garage, you are looking for directions in, out, up or down, so the concept and document remains the same.

Week 2


A factor in designing effective documents is compatible levels of visual literacy between the designer and the user. Designers have to present the information in a way that is understandable to the user; the user, in turn, has to be able to interpret the signs and symbols used. There has to be a shared comprehension of symbolic conventions, whether it is language, icons, colors, or other markers that have cultural or regional significance. So what does all of this mean, beyond lots of academic jargon? How do both the designer and the reader require some level of visual literacy in order to make the mental integrations of the information and use it in a situation? How does it play out in actually creating designs? How do you determine what the "shared comprehension" is and how do you handle any gaps?

weak answer The designer must have a strong enough understanding of the client’s content to accurately design a document that conveys the information in the correct nomenclature. In the same vein, the user must have a strong understanding of the terminology used in a specific document to access the information they need. The issue of intercultural communication, addressed in Document Design, also shares a close relationship with visual literacy. If a designer is creating a document to be used across multiple cultural barriers, the designer must take into account the varying understanding of the different cultures.


Attracting users to a document is half the battle in effective communication. Robins, Holmes, and Stansbury suggested that "it is possible that if a user first impression is a positive one, that he simply likes the look of the site, that he may be more disposed to believing the information on the site".  Which design elements do you think are most impactful in drawing attention? Which (if any) of those elements do you believe can be counterproductive by diminishing the credibility of the information? What suggestions would you offer for 'finding a happy medium'?

weak answer Credibility can be defined as the extent of which a user perceives information as trustworthy and believable. The authors’ study indicates that visual design plays a significant role in a user’s perception of credibility. First impressions count in document design. A user must be attracted to the document in order to spend enough time with it to find that the information is useful and accurate. Organized content is a design element that I think is very impactful in drawing a user’s attention. I think it’s important to use a readable and consistent font. Also, the use of titles, headings and paragraphs contribute to well-organized content. A well-organized content makes it easier for a user to follow the flow of information or find information that is important to them.


Thoughts to ponder


Early research by Nielsen found that people read slower on a monitor (and you'll find this cited constantly in web design discussions). While this is still sort of true, as the displays get better that difference is going away. The 50% slower figure used the old monochrome monitors (anyone remember those). Research with special video drivers and monitors set for 300 dpi found the same reading speed as paper. With the 96 dpi of a modern monitor, the difference is much closer to paper reading speed.


Multiple authors mention that

Even if writers work within a linear structure where the words are written first and decisions about format and design happen after the copy is finalized, this is not the way that readers approach texts. Readers do not separate content and design—they experience them simultaneously. Content, format, and design work together to create a complete package for readers.

This is a serious problem with many design situations. The designers fail to remember that they are not the audience. The team starts to design for them and design for team politics, rather than for the readers. It's a forest and trees thing.


I define three levels (data, information and knowledge). Be careful in discussions with people because they will often be using data and information interchangeably. If you are mentally separating them and the other person is not, it can make for confusion about how to present stuff. What do they mean?


Here's a comment about the green on traffic lights and the use of green turn arrows. And this allow feeds into the recent use of flashing yellow turn arrows around town. The bold font is mine and it creates issues that will haunt you for the entire course (and your career).

That's a great example of a common design problem I see non-trained interaction designers (graphic artists, developers, web designers, and other wannabe designers) make all too often. They base many of their designs on what THEY know not what the USER is likely to know. In this case, THEY knew that a green disc, at this type of intersection, meant proceed on your own judgment. THEY knew that there was also a green arrow that was used. Most users unfamiliar with that type of intersect might rightly assume that green means go, and thus upon seeing the green light might assume that the other direction has a red light. And why not? After all that's how it works at all other intersections right? Moreover, how were they to know that there was also a green arrow? If it's not lit, its invisible.

Situational deviations from a common standard are often not expected by users and consequently create usability issues. Too many designs are dependent on what users DON'T know instead of what they do know. Users have expectations and any design that fails to meet or even violates those expectations is prone to fail and it's the designer's fault, never the users. This is what we mean by the psychology of interaction design, understanding the cognitive expectations of users so that we can design for them and avoid violating them.


From a CNN blog that appeared soon after Steve Jobs’ death.

One of the oft-quoted Jobs-isms deals with focus groups.  In BusinessWeek (May 25, 1998), Jobs said, "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."

I want to dispel the myth that Apple and Jobs did not consider the experience of their users, however.  I think that what Jobs intended in this quote was that users usually can't verbalize what they want when you ask them, especially when you ask them to imagine a future product that doesn't yet exist.

Underlying misconception that really urks me here is the idea that user research simply means asking what users they want and giving it to them. Preliminary user research (and the beginning phases of user-centered design) are more about understanding the user’s pain points.

Your comment about user research not being “ask users what they want, then give it to them” reminds me of the session at Product Camp where we talked about the Model T.

You should ask users what they need / want to DO, then use your expertise to figure out the best way to help them do it. The WHAT is their job, the HOW is yours.


When I first read Spool's article from last week The Flexibility of the Four Stages of Competence, I thought for a while about how too many design courses and designers treat design as a cargo cult (a term he doesn't use). Rather than understanding how to do it, it involves the simply repeating what has been observed or quoting mantras without knowing the logic behind them. Many of the five point how-to-design articles operate at close to this level; they don't have the space to explain the WHY, so the point is simply stated as DO IT and the reader is expected to adhere to it.

Likewise, corporate xecutives in other companies often instruct their design teams to copy the work of big and famous companies under the assumption that the big boys must be right. But are they right? Should a website look like Amazons or should your documents look like Microsoft or IBM.   They don't know why the design was done the way it was, so they can't change it rather than just copy it.  And by not understanding the assumptions, they can't make informed decisions about whether any changes will improve the design.

Poor design might be a cargo cult, but good design is not. You need to gain the skills to understand the why. This course is not in-depth enough to full explain the concepts, but it will give you the knowledge to find it yourself.


Design by Michael J. Albers Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.
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