Reader Response: Liberal Arts as a Path to Information Development

I was clearing out my Heroic Technical Writing email this past Monday when I found a 2017 message from Nevin in Ireland (absurdly late–my apologies!). He shared with me two articles he’d written for Johnson Controls (here and here) about how varied backgrounds often prove idea for careers in information development. I thought I’d share some thoughts…again, just a tad overdue. Thanks for sharing, Nevin!

Eminent Minds from History

Nevin brought up two individuals in connection with technical documentation:

  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Joseph Chapline

The first one on that list–da Vinci–most people know. When someone considers the phrase “Renaissance man,” da Vinci’s monumental output of art, engineering, poetry, and other products reflects a mind of broad interests and capabilities. Joseph Chapline was a name I’d not encountered before, but he is alleged to be the first technical writer of computer documentation for an external customer (up until that time, computers had been developed and used by the same people). Chapline, too, had a mix of interests, earning degrees in both history and political science, while going to work as a research associate at the School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Both da Vinci and Chapline were able to achieve renown thanks, in part, to their documentation of technical work.

Information Development as a Career

What is one to make from those biographies?

It might help to take a step back and answer first, “What is an information developer?” In essence, an information developer is akin to a Jack/Jane of all trades, incorporating knowledge of software design and user experience to create more effective program, site, or other computer-based experience. Given a technical writer’s interests, skills, and experiences, it can be seen as another career path when the writer is seeking career development opportunities.

A couple career changes ago, I designed the information flow and even the screens of a company website (using Microsoft PowerPoint). I couldn’t do the coding, but I could organize the information and design screens that suited my internal and external customers. And once I was done with the mockup in PowerPoint, I could explain the website’s architecture to the person who was doing the coding. If I had been able to the coding, I probably would have qualified as an information developer.

Embracing your Inner da Vinci

Information development (I’ve also heard it called information design) requires the individual to be able to think in multiple ways, incorporating logic, software design/coding, and visual design. The role requires you to be able to think like a designer, programmer, user, artist/designer, and yes, a writer. It strikes me now that I’m paying for my lack of interest in or patience for coding (two C- grades in C++ convinced me to go for a master’s degree in tech writing instead). However, if you’re someone who can think logically and clearly with a clear attention to the keystroke-sensitive machines we call computers, information design might be for you.

Belated thanks, again, for Nevin for bringing this field to my attention.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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