Making Things Special: The Art of Technical Communication

My current research for the arts-and-recreation-on-Mars book is titled What Is Art For? by Ellen Dissanayake, an ethologist, who has written several books on the survival value of creating art. One of her central points is that humans have a tendency to make things special as a way to call attention to them. This resonated with me a bit, so I thought I’d explore the idea in the context of my book and doing tech writing work.

Ethology and the Mars Book

What does ethology have to do with creating art on Mars? That’s easy: I’m trying to show how art is an ancient practice (I’ll be researching the ancient uses of recreation, too), and that creating art out among the planets in the future will be as important as it is here on Earth now.

Dissanayake’s concern is demonstrating how art has a survival function. The behavior(s) we describe as “artistic” vary so widely that nearly anything can be called “art.” The behavior of “making something special” means, obviously, to call attention to it. We use decoration to call attention to sacred objects, to our bodies, to our ideas, our movements, our words, our homes, our tools, and other things. In such ways, by applying increased symmetry, color, elaboration, and other means, we cause others to noice them the way animals will make physical displays to call attention to themselves or their actions so that others pay attention to them.

On Mars, art can serve to make interior spaces more pleasant and welcoming; make emergency situations easier to navigate; articulate shared values among those who migrate there; build a sense of community by creating works that everyone can admire; provide individuals ways to distinguish themselves from others; and much more…just like Earth. A world without art would be very dull indeed.

Making Things Special in Technical Communication

Technical communicators have developed their own methods of “making things special” (making them art, if you prefer), we just don’t call it that usually. One of the things we do is take care to use clear and helpful language to make our reader’s reading experience easy and constructive. We apply headings to make the ideas in a multi-part document easier to navigate and understand.

In situations where we are writing cautions or warnings, we will employ more emphatic language and often call attention to the words by using bold or italic fonts combined with content boxes to make the warning content stand out from the rest of the document. In some cases, we will add actual “art” (photographs, charts, and other graphics) to illustrate our points better.

The technical communicator’s way of “making things special” is to use the best presentation possible to make ideas clearer and more useful to others. That is our art, and it’s a useful one. It is how we contribute to growing our civilization, here, on Mars, or wherever our journeys take us.

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About Bart Leahy

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