TECHNIQUES - Archives May 99

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly About Desktop Publishing
by Dr. Gwen Griffin

With all the great software packages and economical home computers available today, almost anyone can claim to be an "expert" desktop publisher. Advertisements for these software packages claim to help users "take a quantum leap in the production process!" Desktop publishing workshop brochures promote "the easiest, fastest, and smartest ways to create professional projects that get attention and matter what your skill level—and in just ONE day!" These messages promise hope for many technical communicators pressed to produce more documents and stay on top of rapidly changing technology. However, many businesses have the idea that desktop publishing is simple to learn and use, resulting in serious negative impacts for technical communicators and for the workplace. This ease-of-use belief along with the notion that design and writing skills are not necessary for effective desktop publishing leads to mixed results in business and in the classroom.

Desktop publishing originated in the military between 1957 and 1969, the product of initial studies done in human-computer interaction. "Computer hackers" took over where the military left off in 1969 and developed hardware and software in a non-military climate that developed into one of the most competitive industries in the world today. The attraction of desktop publishing revolved around three basic themes: 1) Desktop publishing would expand access to the means of print production; 2) Desktop publishing would change the way people work; and 3) Desktop publishing would alter the aesthetic appearance of printed materials. With goals of increasing production and decreasing costs, desktop publishing has been and continues to be introduced into every level of graphic production. And, unfortunately, the perceived simplicity of desktop publishing results in the assumption that everyone will quickly become an expert without the effort it takes to effectively use complex programs and stay current in the field. Inevitably, one or two people become experts and the rest of the organization relies on them for their skills and knowledge about software packages or hardware options.

The good news is that desktop publishing has produced several positive and long range effects. First, it allows for immediate and actual visual feedback (WYSIWYG formats) which help writers and designers refine their ideas instantaneously. Secondly, turnaround time decreases significantly, especially for long repetitive jobs like newsletters and magazines. Writers can see the results of their design decisions and quickly respond to feedback. If that feedback is good—regardless of whether it comes from other writers or, in a classroom situation, from an instructor and peers—writers can receive an almost immediate sense of accomplishment and gratification. Finally, in a classroom, students can apply their knowledge of the conventions of typography and design in their assignments.

A template or a one-day seminar will never replace the valuable skills that all technical communicators have: knowing the audience, understanding the message, and analyzing the situation. In addition, knowledge of the workplace and its perception of desktop publishing skills will prepare the technical communicator for the situations they may face in the industry. Experience in the classroom with different computer platforms and with a wide variety of software packages will supplement writing and design skills inherent in the goal of desktop publishing—to create an effective document. Just like the experts!

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