Professional Design, Amateur Design

I have just completed my third course in the SFU TComm certificate program; this one was about the Design and Production of Technical Publications.

Much like my previous courses in writing technical manuals and editing technical documents, this affirmed for me that:

  • This is a real, professional field.
  • There is a process to it, and an associated set of skills, all of which you can learn.
  • The expert practitioners out there have put in many years of practice to become experts in their trade (I have only scratched the surface).
  • If you just try to wing it, then you will end up making  an amateur hash-job of it.

There is tendency out there, in this “do more with less” world, to get rid of everyone except the “core people” and try to make do. Instead of hiring (or involving) a technical writer or designer, couldn’t you just hand the problem to the engineers and see if they can do the job in their spare time? Sorry, no.

Take a look at what happened when engineers, rather than restoration professionals, were brought in to restore a 1,000 year old fortress in Andalusia.

Or check out this interesting rant, by a designer, about the 2013 Yahoo logo redesign.

Interesting story – I sort of owe my job to that sort of thinking. The team that I’m in originally tried to produce its own documentation and IP by asking the technicians and engineers to simply write down what they were doing, as they were doing it. This didn’t work. Someone had the clarity to realize that they needed a technical writer, and it was decided that this role would sit within the engineering team. I was an engineer who was capable of writing, and I got the job. I remember being confused on my first day, when it came to putting in an order for business cards, because there was an (only half-joking) argument going on around me as to whether my job title should be “technical writer/engineer” or “engineer/technical writer”. My boss, you see, hoped that I would “figure out this documentation stuff” in maybe six months or so, and then transition from there into the “real work” of engineering. I have been working here for over 3.5 years, and I still keep hoping that I will hit the crest of the hill sometime soon…

Which leads me to the New Zealand flag redesign “process”, which has been widely criticized and roundly ridiculed, for good reason.

Pictured: Willful disregard for process

The New Zealand flag change process went something like this:

  1. Prime Minister John Key publicly announced, repeatedly, that he wanted New Zealand’s flag to change to something with a fern on it. To fit in with the fern designs that New Zealand’s sports teams use, and the new Fern Logo design that the Ministry for Economic Development commissioned to use to market New Zealand overseas.
  2. A “Flag Consideration Panel” was put together, consisting of advertising executives, former politicians, academics, board members, and sports people – but no designers or vexilologists. A former private secretary of the Minister for Economic Development was appointed as senior advisor to the panel.
  3. Members of the public were invited to submit designs, and 10,292 new flag designs were collected.
  4. The Flag Consideration Panel traveled the country, holding town hall meetings to hear what people’s views on what the country stands for. All of this effort seemingly went into a black hole.
  5. Advice from flag experts was ignored, even though the 2015 World Vexilology Conference was being held practically next-door in Sydney. The Panel did, however, commission four hours of advice from a Nike shoe designer.
  6. A long list of 40 flags was presented, with little indication of how the field had been narrowed, or why those designs were chosen in particular. One of the 40 flags was later retroactively removed due to copyright infringement.
  7. A few weeks later a short list of 4 flags was presented, with no indication of how the field had been narrowed, or why those designs were chosen in particular. Two of those flags were nearly identical, and happened to coincide with John Key’s favourite two designs (that he couldn’t decide between). A third flag was identical to the Economic Development Ministry’s Fern Logo. A fourth flag was almost universally hated and was immediately dubbed “hypnoflag”. All the designs were ferns – the fourth flag (a koru) represented an unfolding fern. The two designs which John Key didn’t want were both black and white.
  8. After huge outcry and various petitions, a fifth flag (favoured by the design community, and similar to a design that had previously won a flag design competition) was added to the short list.
  9. In a first referendum using preferential voting, one of John Key’s favourite flags came out as the winner. This surprised absolutely nobody, as the only design consideration which went into the whole process seemed to revolve around how to game the system to get John Key one of the flags he wanted.
  10. Now we are in the midst of a second postal referendum, asking New Zealanders to choose between the old and new flag designs.

If anything, the process was a marketing stunt, modeled on American Idol. The Flag Consideration Panel likes to brag about how many social media hits they have received, how many pageviews, hashtags and tweets. They call this “engagement”; I call it passive media consumption. At no point in this process was there any evidence of a two-way conversation. If the new flag gets voted in, then in time I will come to accept it – it appeals to lowest common denominator sentiment and is probably “ok enough”, though it will always represent missed opportunity.

What could have happened? Proven method for starters, which would probably have gone something like this:

  1. Public consultation
  2. Put together a design brief
  3. Let the designers do their job
Pictured: Missed opportunity

Update: it’s official, out with the new, in with the old.


Meanwhile, Toby Morris (the Pencilsword) came out with this opinion piece which summarizes the whole thing spectacularly well. Oh, and it turns out that I missed this fantastic comic which he wrote at the start of the whole affair.

One thought on “Professional Design, Amateur Design

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