Color me this…

The following are a few extracts from my latest feature cover article for INTERCOM magazine on Communicating with Color


My red shoes went viral on the Internet thanks to a photograph taken at the Intelligent Content Conference in Palm Springs back in February. Over the last couple of years I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with Converse sneakers, and as of today have nine pairs in different colors, usually worn to match whatever shirt or jacket I’m wearing. The red ones always seem to draw comments or, it seems, the occasional photograph.
However my interest in color goes beyond my choice of sartorial footwear, as I’ve long been interested in the use of color as a design element in communications and storytelling.
Color has always been around us, used by both man and nature as a means to communicate.  The bright plumage of a bird, or the striped fur of a Tiger are not an accident, they are an integral part of the way that the animals interact with each other and their surroundings. The same goes for the human species. We have long used color to communicate with each other and as a part of various cultural traditions. So why not use color as part of our technical communications toolbox as well?
Of course adding color to your technical communications deliverables isn’t as simple as just picking a few crayons from the box and coloring in between the lines. The use of color takes a lot of thought, and a new set of skills that need to be considered. In fact the color theory knowledge and experience of an individual can make a big impact.   
Think about the colors you see around you everyday and how they are used. Red for Stop or Danger. Green for Go etc. Your company probably already has some color standards overseen by the marketing group on how the company colors can be used. Think about how they can be incorporated in to your technical documentation. Even take a look at the colors used in the product you are writing about. How can they be used?

The full article is available in the print edition of the STC INTERCOM magazine, or on-line here.

Looking forward to the STC Summit

Next week I will be in Sacramento, CA for the 2011 STC Summit. An event I’ve been looking forward to for many months.

Although I’m not speaking this year, I’ve been more involved than ever, as both Deputy Program Manager, and Track Manager for both the Web Technology and Education and Training tracks.

This will also be the first STC Summit since the publication of my book “WIKI: Grow Your Own For Fun & Profit,” which will be available at the conference bookstore and at the XML Press booth.
If anyone would like to meet up for a chat, or get a book signed, then the best places to find me (or leave messages) will be at:
  • The STC Program booth,
  • The XML Press booth,
  • The PTC booth.
I’ll also make sure to step into some sessions and visit the expo floor on a regular basis throughout the conference.
I’ll also be posting note on both my Twitter accounts during the conference, so feel free to follow, or contact me, via @4jsgroup or @alanjporter
I’m looking forward to meeting up with old friends and colleagues, as well as meeting lots of new people for some interesting discussions on Technical Communications and Content Strategy.
I think we have put together a great program this year, and if you are attending, I hope you find it both informative and stimulating.
See you in Sacramento.

The Global Language – A Preview

Perhaps the greatest advantage offered by the Internet and the World Wide Web today is the fact that it is truly “world wide,” and opens up an unprecedented international marketplace for the delivery of goods and services. Small companies can now sell into marketplaces never dreamed of before, while large multinational companies can streamline their internal communications; and cross-border and cross-cultural cooperation has become a reality.

However the global marketplace also raises a fundamental issue – that of global communications.

Global communication raises the idea of a common language that will easily be understood by all who use the information being delivered. It is still a common misconception that the dominant language on the web is English and is the de-facto language of business. This stems from the fact that the early days of internet growth was primarily from within the United States, but was quickly overtaken by other cultures, especially in Asia and the Pacific Rim.

While English is still the most popular language on the web[1] (only just – Chinese is close behind) it represents only 42% of all websites. On a global scale English is also in decline as a spoken language. The spoken language with the largest numbers of users is Chinese. As a written language it relies not on abstract symbols (letters), but on ideograms – pictorial representations of ideas. Perhaps this is where the answer to a global language lies. In pictures.

Scott McCloud, a leading theoretician on using graphics to communicate points out[2] that “pictures are received information (they) need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ – The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived, it takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.”

In the 21st Century it may be that visual iconography will finally help us realize a form of universal communication.

….. The above is the opening to an article on using graphics, symbols and icons in technical communications that I have just completed for the STC’s INTERCOM magazine. – Look out for the full article in the December issue.

[2] McCloud, Scott – “Understanding Comics” – Kitchen Sink (1993)

STC 2010 – A short walk from history.

For the first time in many years I wasn’t chained to a vendors booth during the STC Summit, which meant as well as presenting, I could actually take time to sit in on many other sessions, and have lengthy hallway (and coffee shop) conversations.

What struck me about this year’s Summit was how upbeat it felt in contrast to recent years. There was, at least to me, a definite feeling that the STC, and the industry itself, had weathered a crisis and was heading in the right direction. Yes there are still challenges to face, but there is definite light at the end of the tunnel.

There was less talk this year about jumping on to the latest production technology fad, and a lot more about considering our audience and answering their needs. As Anne Gentle put it during one panel, “it’s about answers, not about documentation.”

[Although one technology fad that was pretty much a constant – was the use of Twitter – used as both a communications tool and a way to post notes and ideas from sessions it added another valuable layer to the conference experience.]

I was also pleased to see that on the whole the attendees realized that as the industry is changing, so they need to. There were very few with the crossed-arms defensive “I am a technical writer” posture; most of the people I spoke to, and the audiences in the sessions I attended, realized that this is the perfect time to make yourself even more valuable by adding new skills and re-evaluating and realigning your role. Be it Information Architect, Community Manager, User Experience Designer, Multi-Media Producer, or something else, there is great opportunity out there for skilled and open minded technical communicators.
Each time I visited the expo floor it seemed busy, and all the vendors I spoke to were very happy with both the constant traffic flow and the questions they were being asked.
When I set out for the conference I had delusions that I would get an hour or so each evening to sit in my hotel room and write – it didn’t happen. Literally from breakfast at 7:00am to crashing at 11:00pm each night, it was pretty much constant conversation and learning. All the presentations I attended were excellent and the two panels I participated in were great fun. I know the panel format was a bit of an experiment this year, but I hope that it returns for future conferences.

The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, and was just a couple of blocks from the infamous Dealy Plaza, site of the Kennedy assassination. (in fact I could see the plaza from my hotel room – see photo above.) Hence my title about being a short walk from history. But I also believe that the profession itself is now also a short walk away from its own history. It faced a crisis over the last 12 months that it has endured and come through, and we are now on the first steps of a new direction. What direction that new history takes, will be up to us as a profession, and us as individuals, as to how we adapt and embrace the new challenges awaiting us.

It’s STC not STW

There’s been a lot written lately about the financial and operational crisis that the Society of Technical Communicators is facing.

A lot of people have posted some great ideas on Twitter (Identified by the #stcorg hashtag), and bloggers such as Sarah O’Keefe and Tom Johnson have outlined several ideas and observations that I agree with, and don’t intend to repeat here.

However there is an aspect of this institutional crisis that I believe needs a little more exposure, and one I’ve raised during several recent presentations at different regional STC events.

The third letter in our professional organization is C. C for communicators. It isn’t W for writers, yet that society is overwhelming sold to technical writers, its publications are aimed at writers, and not surprisingly the vast majority of its members are writers.

But what about the other “technical communicators”? Where are the technical illustrators, the animators, the graphic designers, the video producers, the script writers, the podcasters, etc.?

When I’ve mentioned this before the answer I’ve invariably received is “Oh we have SIGs for them.” – Special Interest Groups – really?

They aren’t a marginalized “special interest,” they are the future of the industry.

When I joined my first technical publications department in the mid 1980s the ratio of writers to illustrators was 2:1, add in other people who contributed to the production of the technical documentation and the number of writers was actually less than 50% of the total departmental head count.

In the opening decade of the 21st century when more people receive information visually than ever before a Society of Technical Communicators should be full of people who think, and deliver information, visually.

If the STC is to survive, it needs to attract and embrace the practitioners of the visual arts.

The same goes for those who are as comfortable working in the sound medium too – and the training folks who are developing interactive documentation, and – well the more you think about it the more the list grows.

As a writer, I would be delighted to see the day when the membership of the STC resembles that technical documentation department I joined over 20 years ago – where writers are actually in the minority.

Remember the (STC) Alamo

Just over a week ago I attended what was simply the most open and stimulating regional STC event I have ever been to.

The Central Texas STC Fall Seminar, was organized jointly between the Austin and San Antonio chapters of the industry group and held at the excellent Hotel Valencia on San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk. (Home to many fine restaurants – including the one where we had lunch.)

But it wasn’t the setting that made it memorable – it was the participation.

In my experience a lot of these regional get-togethers end up in features and functions comparisons of tools, minutiae of the job, or arcane technical discussions about standards that only a minority of people use. Not so in this case.

The discussions ranged from using emerging new technologies, Web2.0 tools,, wikis, social networks, to how to develop and recognize metrics, to how to make sure that the documentation process is heard and accounted for in a Agile Development driven world.

But underscoring all the talk of technology was the realization that technologies will come and go, and the most important skill to develop was the ability to learn about new things, and communicate that in an empathic way.

There were several people who were attending their first STC event and they, along with everyone else, left with the impression that this is an exciting time to be in the corporate publishing world.

STE at the STC

The presentation on Simplfied Technical English at the Austin area STC meeting last week appeared to be well recieved. As well as generating discussion, both at the meeting itself, and at the dinner afterwards, I also received several follow up calls and emails over the days following.

Mary Conner if iMIS, who was in the audience, blogged about the event, and for those interested you can check out my presentation slides below.