Bye, design

I’ve been firmly planted on the editorial side of publishing since my early days as a volunteer writer and proofreader at my student newspaper in undergrad, but my first paid gig in publishing was in production and design: after I moved cities for my MSc, I got a job laying out the student newspaper once a week at my new school.

I absolutely loved it. Continue reading “Bye, design”

COVID-19

Four-frame cartoon. Frame 1: Male character holding coffee mug says to bespectacled editor, "What are you working on?" She replies, "A blog post about how people are styling 'COVID-19'." Frame 2: She continues, "Most outlets are using the hyphen now, but I'm seeing a lot of en dashes and a handful of em dashes. There are even some people using—heh—SPACED EM DASHES! Can you believe it?" Frame 3: Male character stares at her, unspeaking. Frame 4: He says, "Is this really the most pressing issue right now?" And she replies, "Look—I'm feeling helpless and desperately need to justify the existence of my profession, OK?"

Creative Commons License

This month’s cartoon is a bit of an experiment. I got an iPad to replace my decrepit laptop and am trying an all-digital workflow for the first time. I’m, uh, not thrilled with these results, but I didn’t have the time to redo it. I’ll keep trying until I figure out something that will work. I haven’t imported my custom fonts to the device yet, so this cartoon is a throwback to the days when I hand-lettered all the dialogue. (Maybe that’s why the whole thing looks amateurish—well, especially amateurish—to me. I hope you’ll forgive me!)

Anyway, what inspired this cartoon were conversations I saw among editors on social media, where a few of us wondered: As we face an existential threat and a massive shift in how we live and function, does it really matter if a compound is open, hyphenated, or closed?

Nitpicking about commas and applying house style seem like such trivial undertakings in the grand scheme of things, especially when compared with what essential service workers do. It’s easy to feel useless and even expendable, particularly when some clients are cancelling projects because of the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic.

But what these recent weeks have highlighted for me is that clear and accurate communication is more important than ever. We have the skills to help public health officials, health researchers, and policy makers get critical information to people who need it and, importantly, to strike the right tone.

This crisis is an excellent reminder that editing is about improving communication, not mindlessly applying rules. We have an opportunity to reassess how we approach a text and separate the edits that help the message reach its audience more effectively from those that do nothing other than uphold arcane notions of language, feed our ego, or waste our time.

Poor communication excludes, and when we all have to solve a problem together, we can’t afford to exclude anyone.

Thank you for coming back month after month! I’m grateful I still have a way to connect with colleagues even though I’ll miss seeing you at the Editors Canada conference this year. I wish you all good health.

Plain-o-matic

Full-page comic. In the first frame, a person stands at a lectern next to a machine labelled “Plain-o-matic” and is flanked by bespectacled editor and curly-haired editor. The speaker says, “…so I am deeply honoured to be the first to push the button on what promises to be a revolutionary invention—a device that will transform ALL language into PLAIN language.” In the next frame, the speaker’s hand approaches the button to be pushed. In Frame 3, an audience member stands up and yells “Stop! You’re about to destroy the careers of art critics everywhere!” The hand pushes the button, and that same audience member screams, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” In the bottom row of the comic, we see a speaker at an art critics’ convention. He points to the artwork displayed on screen and says, “…transcending the liminal strata that ontologically interrogate the poststructural unification of form and discourse while consolidating disparate evocations of aporia and positivist certainty.” In the final frame, after the button has been pushed, he continues, “And so, in summary, they made cool-looking art that inspired others to make art, too. Thank you.”

Creative Commons License

This month’s cartoon is dedicated to Erika Thorkelson.

Play along! What other fields would the Plain-o-matic wipe out? Here’s a blank where you can fill out:

  • the career,
  • the name of the convention,
  • the convention speaker’s words, and
  • the slide content.

(Someone make one for plain language editors, please!)

Tweet me your creations, and I’ll retweet them.

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What happened to October’s cartoon? My computer was out of commission for six weeks, and when I finally got it back in the middle of October I was too busy to put a cartoon together. Without my digital tools, I tried more traditional media by participating in Inktober. You can watch me struggle with drawing anything more complex than a rudimentary stick figure on this Twitter thread.

Two fraught dots

There’s no shortage of examples of missing or misplaced punctuation causing confusion. When used properly, most punctuation should add clarity. But the colon has the remarkable ability to add ambiguity—sometimes hilariously—even when correctly used:

Continue reading “Two fraught dots”

Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!

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Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Collapsing the dimensions of communication space

In June, I was lucky enough to attend Information+, a phenomenal data visualization and information design conference at Emily Carr University. One of the keynote speakers was Colin Ware, renowned for his pioneering work on visual thinking and cognitive processing. At the end of Ware’s talk, Yanni Loukissas, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, asked him: “Don’t we have an ethical obligation to consider people who have colourblindness or stereoblindness in our visualizations?”

Ware responded, “As a designer, I always want to use of all of design space,” suggesting that limiting the palette only to the colours that people with colourblindness can discern, for example, would be too restrictive.

I’ll come back to Ware’s comment in a bit, but first I want to focus on the concept of design space, which refers to the universe of choices—media, typeface, type size, colour, and so on—available to the designer. The metaphor doesn’t tend to be used outside of design, which is a pity, because it’s handy. I’ve found it useful to think of design space as a subset of communication space, which itself is a subset of creation space. Continue reading “Collapsing the dimensions of communication space”