Category Archives: Information Design

The Computer Programming Humanities Major

When I first played with Excel in High School, I noticed an interesting little code feature tucked away in the macro section. People with experience in Basic programming can set up basic codes to perform macros and automated functions. Having at the time just completed a Visual Basic class I considered this to be a valuable tool to explore later on.

Then eleven years passed…

…and fast forward to last week when I found myself needing to perform a big spreadsheet edit. Put simply, for a column in a list of product rows I needed to insert a “Y” if the product in the row was over a certain dollar amount, and a “N” if it was less. Performing this task manually was a problem considering the spreadsheet consisted of over 16,000 rows.

After consulting the great and mighty Google I failed to find an obvious solution. Fortunately one tech help page suggested to someone with a similar problem to write a macro. I realized I could do something similar to automate the process.

Although I never got past basic Java (recursion killed me) before committing myself to the humanities, I remembered enough to come up with a basic If-Then statement which, after some tweaking, solved the problem nicely. Trying to remember Basic programming took some time, but it was much faster then trying to manually edit the spreadsheet myself.

Moral of the story? Having the “tech” in Technical Writer pays off.

For the record, the code I wrote is below. I’m pretty sure it was more complicated then necessary, but it worked!

Sub PriceCheck()

Dim Cell As Object

For Each Cell In Sheets(“mdd1”).Range(“AN2:AN16860”)

If Cell.Value > 500 Then

Cell.Value = “y”

Else

Cell.Value = “n”

End If

Next

End Sub

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Templates – The Fickle Shortcut

In the world of information design, templates exist for everything under the sun. Blogs, resumes, websites, everything under the sun has a shortcut that will, in theory, do the design work for you. All you have to do is plug in your information, and viola, all done. Templates are vital shortcuts.

Templates are also dangerous. Very very dangerous.

We use templates because we want to increase efficiency and maintain consistency. Fantastic! I agree, templates are great for that. The danger of templates comes in the form of preexisting templates. I’ll clarify with this bold statement: the best template, nay, the only template you should ever use, is the one you design yourself. For all the thousands of preexisting templates for whatever project you have, they will ultimately hamper your work for two reasons:

1) Preexisting Templates are Unoriginal

If you use the first template on the list of templates, your work will look the same as everyone else who chose the same template. You don’t have to create a resume or website so radical the likes of which no ones ever seen, but you will be far from unique. Originality stands out in today’s society.

2) Unsatisfactory Design Flaw

Everyone differs on the idea of a perfect template. Mainly because everyone’s individual needs differ. Your individual design ideas do not have the 100% eHarmony compatibility match somewhere on the internet. Although several templates may come close, one or more lingering small details will always haunt you during the entirety of your project’s lifespan. Your project will not be perfect if you are not satisfied.

Fortunately, an easy solution exists.

Note in my bold statement that I said “design” and not “create.” Templates, much like programming and website coding, don’t need to be made from scratch. The simplest way to create a template is to borrow ideas from pre-existing templates. By taking individual features you enjoy from multiple templates, you create a design that not only works 100% for your needs, but also looks a bit less cookie cutter. Just because you are selecting a template does not mean you cannot change it. The template police will not hunt you down.*

Being willing to get technical helps a lot. A willingness to edit a few simple fields (color, font, size) goes a long way towards change you enjoy. Resumes are easily tweaked in word/OpenOffice, for the blog/web page designer, a little CSS editing is all you need. A simple Google search points the way.

Templates are important, and taking some time to make one you are happy with will pay off in the long run. A happy template equals happy projects. 🙂

*Though you should not use copyrighted/protected work without permission, of course.

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Unlearning the Essay

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of the English Literature degree. Here’s another reason why I believe it inadequate preparation for most professional careers:

The 1,000 2,000 3,000 any number above 350 words essay.

Every English Literature class requires the essay, an overly long piece of writing that accomplishes three goals:

  1. Prove that you actually read the required material and pay attention in class.
  2. Prove that you are capable of coming up with a clever and sophisticated argument.
  3. Prove that you can analyze scholarly essays by using an overly complex system of citation (MLA, APA, or Chicago, pick one) and pretending to sound original.

These points hold merit in developing skills you will use in the real world. Yet the execution demanded by English Literature professors through this essay holds no merit whatsoever. An essay is a long drawn out series of black words on white pages. For scholars and professors this boring presentation is fascinating. In the real world, your thousands of words will go ignored.

Real-World Example: In the ecommerce world I work in, if I want to make my point to a customer I not only require a nice design, I also require brevity in words. I can, and often must write a product description in less than 350 words (one standard page). If I go beyond this length, prospective customers  must scroll down excessively, and I risk them losing retained information and interest in the product. Essays often require at least 5-10 pages, usually more on the upper levels of literature classes. I can count the number of times I’ve written something that long at work on one hand. And I can spare a few fingers in the process.

Whew, that was a long paragraph. Still with me? My point is, although commonly used and hated by students everywhere, the long essay is too frequently used in the college level. Students need to learn to be brief and make their points quickly. Their future bosses don’t want an introductory paragraph, thesis statement, support, and conclusion. They just want the thesis statement.

Incidentally, the essay also fails in a design standpoint as well. If I used any of the above formatting tricks in a paper in college I’d lose points. Yet they actually help me design my information, which technical writers need to consider when drafting a document. If technical writers designed all of their documents like essays, they would not get very far. My blog design is white letters on a black background for a reason.

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