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May 1999





Feature Articles

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly About Desktop Publishing

The Visual Advantage

The Art of Photography

Undergraduate Research Conference

Writing for Newspapers


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Bulletin Board

Meet the Staff






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 results....no 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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The Visual Advantage

by Richard Rohlfing

In my company, we are moving from work instructions text work instructions to primarily graphical instructions. Although they are a larger investment, visual-based instructions have several advantages over text driven instructions.

Visual information takes up less space and is easier for users to comprehend. People tend to understand visual information more rapidly and tend to retain it longer. Visuals also speak to a wider audience range; they break down reading level differences and language barriers.

But despite the differences in the nature of graphics versus text, some of the same strategies used in creating effective text-based documentation can also be applied to graphical elements.

In text documents there are always some lines that are more important than others, headings and key points for example. To indicate this importance, writers use strategies like bolding, underlining, or changing the type size or color.

To be useful, drawings must emphasize certain features of an object or objects and downplay others. Emphasizing features in drawings can be done in many ways. Exaggerating the size, changing the angle of view, changing the line weight or type (e.g., solid versus dashed), showing only part of the object, increasing the size of part of the object with a lens, changing color or color strength, and using labels or other typographical cues are all ways to highlight features in drawings. However, when creating emphasis, the technical illustrator must be careful.

If the drawing doesn't represent the actual object closely enough, if the dimensions, features and relative proportions are different, users may not understand what they are looking at, causing documents to lose credibility.

In text, diction and sentence structure highly influence a document's tone. Writers choose tones that depend upon the purpose of their documents. Instructional drawings also have a tone. Orthographic (two-dimensional) views are generally considered formal. Although they are difficult to create, try to use perspective drawings (three-dimensional views with either actual or suggested converging lines) to make instructions more user-friendly. In my company, we also use exploded drawings to show how different parts are connected.

Good writers spend a lot of time researching and planning their documents. The same strategy is applicable for visuals. Since effective drawings can be a big investment in time, before sitting down at a computer, it is import that you devise a well thought out plan. Carefully plan the type of drawing, decide what features should be emphasized, and determine how the drawing should relate to other drawings in the instructions.

And like text, visuals should also be edited for clarity, and content. The drawing must make sense, both by itself and in relation to other drawings. The parts of the drawing must be coherent, and the users must be able to identify and interpret what they see.

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The Art of Photography

by Bobby McFall

Point and shoot, digital, medium format, automatic, manual, it doesn't matter what type of camera you use as long as you're able to compose pictures that command attention and deliver your message.

Whether viewing a website or printed material, our eyes are drawn to photographs first. For that reason, they must introduce and accurately represent their corresponding text.

In general, good pictures result from careful attention to some basic elements of composition and, in some cases, more than a little luck. There is no "right" way to make a picture. Three photographers recording the same scene may create equally appealing photographs with entirely different composition.

When composing a picture, the most important question you must ask is, "What message do I want my photograph to deliver?"

Here are a few guidelines to get you started:

  • Point of Interest: Identify a primary point of interest before taking the picture. When you've determined which area is most important to you, you can compose to emphasize it.
  • Viewpoint: You can often change a picture dramatically by moving the camera up or down, or by stepping to one side. One of the best ways to compose a prize-winning photograph is to find a unique point of view.
  • Simplicity: Be sure that only the things you want your viewer to see appear in your picture. Background clutter will garble your message. Imagine a photo intended to portray a serene, "back to nature" setting. All integrity is lost when your viewer's eyes are drawn to a power line intruding in the background. If you can't find an angle that successfully isolates your point of interest, use depth of field control to keep the background out of focus.
  • Contrast: A light subject will have more impact when placed against a dark background and vice versa. Contrast may be used for emphasis, but may become distracting if not carefully considered.
  • Framing: A "frame" in a photograph is something in the foreground that leads the viewer into the picture, or provides a sense of where the viewer is. For example, a pine bow framing a mountain scene effectively places the viewer into the scene, causing their eyes to meander through the entire view, just as you did when you composed the shot.
  • Direction of movement: When the subject is capable of movement, such as an animal or person, it is best to leave space in front of the subject so it appears to be moving into, rather than out of the photograph.
  • Balance: As a rule, asymmetric or informal balance is considered more pleasing in a photograph than symmetric balance. Place the main subject off-center for a more effective end result.
  • Rule of Thirds: This is perhaps the most important principle in distinguishing a good photograph from a "snapshot". The rule of thirds is based on the theory that the eye goes naturally to a point about two thirds up a page. Also, by visually dividing the image into thirds, either vertically or horizontally, you achieve the informal or asymmetric balance mentioned above.

The most important thing to remember is that your photograph must tell a story that accurately corresponds with your message content. Careful composition will capture your reader's interest and enhance your message. In upcoming Techniques issues, watch for more photographic tips.

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Undergraduate Research Conference


The First Annual Undergraduate Research Conference recognizes and celebrates undergraduate research and creativity activities at Minnesota State University, Mantkato. The URC was held in the MSU Centennial Student Union April 15 and 16, 1999. Below are two research summaries from members of the Techniques staff.


Choosing The Right Colors

by Brandi Maon and Angie Pinson


Color in website design is one of today's hottest topics. However, many people in designing web pages ultimately choose a color or colors that are very inappropriate and quite unattractive. The reason for this misuse of color is a direct result of there not being any clearly defined color principles that pertain to web site design. More importantly, there has not been any significant research done to dictate users' color preferences in viewing these sites.


Our research study was based on finding these user preferences in hopes of evaluating the most effective and eye-catching color combinations in producing online documentation. The way we went about finding this information is by setting up a online color combination questionnaire. We combined two separate colors per page, and asked that our research subjects fill out surveys explaining if they liked the color combinations or disliked them. And if they disliked them, we encouraged them to tell us why, to allow us to gain extended insight as to why these combinations do not work.


The conclusions that our research provided to us were: Users prefer white backgrounds with dark colored text, links, and any other informational objects such as blue or black and also users dislike dark colors such as purple or green as background colors regardless of text and link colors.


Hopefully our research project summary will provide you with insight as to what users like and do not like when they look at web sites. Keep in mind that even though your site may have a lot of great information, if it is unattractive and distracting in color, many users will disregard it right away and lose interest in the company or its products.


Are You Informed

by Cyndie Davis and Ann Freir


Do you feel it is important to keep up on current events? If so, where do you get your daily news from? This was the focus of our research project. The title of our project, which was presented in poster form, was "What Source of Media are Adult Americans Attracted to for Their Daily News and What Are the Reasons for the Attraction to a Particular Source?"

Our project involved 130 randomly selected Minnesota State University, Mankato students that were kind enough to fill out our questionnaires and also we selected five students to participate in a videotaped focus group to discuss the issue.

What we discovered was that most students remained current on public events through the use of two or more sources (television, radio, internet, etc.), with television being the primary source for staying on top of the news. The reasons students opted for the television is they felt television is more convenient and accessible. When asked what they perceive the future of the media to be, students overwhelmingly felt that the internet will take over as the primary news source for people.


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Writing for Newspapers

by Soren Erickson

Writing for a news publication can be an excellent and enjoyable way for one to polish his or her writing skills and pad their resume. Smaller publications, particularly school papers, are usually very accepting of potential writers and copy editors with strong English and technical writing skills. However, there are many differences in style and organization that potential first-time news writers should keep in mind.

Organization is likely the most challenging thing for new writers to grasp when working for a news publication. Without a doubt, the lead paragraph is the most important ingredient of a successful news article.

There are basically two types of leads:

  • delayed
  • direct

Both leads should be no more than two sentences long, however one sentence is preferred. Delayed leads generate interest in the story and should be catchy. While delayed leads generally do not tell readers much about the article's topic, they make readers curious enough to read on. Delayed leads should be avoided when writing about serious topics. Most news articles begin with an informative lead. Use the most important point of the story so readers know what happened even if they do not finish the article. Unlike an introduction to a non-fiction paper or technical document, leads should get right to the point.

Another organizational standard for news writing is the inverted pyramid. When writing a news article use the most important information toward the beginning and background information at the end of the story. This is done for two reasons. One, people tend to read only the beginning of news articles and want to get the gist of the news without digging through background information. Secondly, when editors cut stories to fit the amount of space they are budgeted for, they often cut from the bottom up. Keeping this in mind, do not save important information for the end of your article as it may be cut later.

Styles vary from paper to paper but most news publications use Associated Press style. An AP Stylebook can be purchased at any bookstore for a reasonable price ($10-15). If possible, writers should familiarize themselves with AP style. Copy editors, however, must be fluent in AP, and should keep their stylebook by their side at all times. More often than not, questions on style can be found in the stylebook in a short amount of time.

Being aware of things such as whether to indent paragraphs, how many spaces go after a period and other details that vary from publication to publication, are good ideas for writers who want to impress their editors.

Also, from both a reader's and an editor's standpoint, the most important part of news writing is accuracy. Misspelling proper nouns is a cardinal sin and doing so can cause legal as well as ethical problems and should be avoided at all costs.

Working for a news publication is a great way to meet people and improve your editing and writing abilities. Each day is a new learning experience and students, or anyone else looking to work as a writer or editor should strongly consider working for a newspaper.

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Bulletin Board

by The Techniques Staff


If anyone has suggestions for articles for future Techniques issues, please email any one of the editors with your ideas.


In case you need further proof that the human race is doomed these are actual label instructions on consumer goods:

  • On Sears hairdryer: Do not use while sleeping. (Gee, that's the only time I have to work on my hair!)

  • On packaging for a Rowenta iron: Do not iron clothes on body. (But wouldn't that save more time?)

  • On Boot's Children's cough medicine: Do not drive car or operate machinery. (We could do a lot to reduce the rate of construction accidents if we just kept those 5 year olds off those fork lifts.)

  • On a child's superman costume: Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly. (That's right, destroy a universal childhood fantasy!)

  • On a string of Chinese-made Christmas lights: For indoor or outdoor use only. (As opposed to use in outer space?)

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Meet the Staff


Karen Luepke


Karen Luepke is currently a Minnesota State University, Mankato senior. Karen is majoring in Psychology and double minoring in Technical Writing and Therapeutic Recreation. She will be graduating in May with a Bachelor of Science degree.


Karen is involved in the Psi Chi Psychology Club, Alpha Sigma Alpha Sorority where she acts as President, Techniques where she is a writer and copy editor, and she is also a member of STC.


In her free time, Karen works at Harry Meyering Center, and spends time with friends and her pets. Karen's work experience includes working at a Psychiatric hospital for adolescents, and also as a waitress at Happy Chef restaurant. After graduation, Karen hopes to travel to either Europe or England for two years. After that, she would like to return to the states to attend graduate school to pursue her Master's degree in Psychology at the University of Minnesota.


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Last Updated: 10/20/2005