authors & audience design & typography language & style

Drawn to War and Peace

I finished the 2167-page eBook version in about 100 days. About half the number of days it took Napoleon to advance toward and retreat from Moscow. I thought of the rich layers of data presented in the multi-flow map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

While the Minard map uses geography and temperature as part of the visualization, Tolstoy uses descriptive details and analogy to bring the struggle to life. “The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.” (p1456) Here are some favourite quotes that add another layer of data to the map.

On filling a role, “Our fire is mowing them down by the rows, but they hold on.” said the adjutant. “They want more! Let them have it!” said Napoleon. “And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhumane role predestined for him.” (p1455)

On preparing to die. “What are you saying about the militia?” “Preparing for tomorrow, your Serene Highness—for death—they have put on clean shirts.” (p1366)

On describing vacated Moscow, “It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.” (p1557) Paragraphs go on about what happens in a disfunctional hive. It’s so vivid, you could substitute names of soldiers and generals for each bee carcass.

On losing nine-tenths of his men, “Ney, who came last, have been busying himself blowing up the walls of Smolensk which were in nobody’s way, because despite the unfortunate plight of the French or because of it, they wished to punish the floor against which they had hurt themselves.” (p1896)

On cutting off invaders, “One can cut off a slice of bread, but not an army.” In December as the French retreated, the Russian army “acted like a whip to a running animal. And the experienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace than to strike the running animal on the head.” (p1903-5)

On reoccupation, “Besides the plunderers, very various people, some drawn by curiosity, some by official duties, some by self-interest—house owners, clergy, officials of all kinds, tradesmen, artisans, and peasants—streamed into Moscow as blood flows to the heart.” (p1970)

lists & tables terms & abbreviations

Buried alive: the markings of subterranean infrastructure

Maybe you’ve noticed paint marks sprayed on pavement. If it’s not a style of graffiti chances are you’re looking at code for a buried utility line.

utility lines
public utility lines

Depending on the colour paint, the unseen conduit could be carrying sewage or drinking water. How do you know which? Well, it turns out, excavators know which lines lay beneath. There’s an international colour code for utility markings. (ANSI Standard Z53.1) Learning industry codes, parts and processes make for another interesting day in the field of tech writing.

American Public Works Association color code
American Public Works Association color code
book types & parts design & typography production & publishing

Calls for Doc Plan limited, but if you need to create one…

Project managers verbalize the big picture in a project plan. This high-level document covers the scope and requirements. Alone it doesn’t answer all questions so the plan is complemented by subsidiary plans. Project teams manage their work through a set of formal planning documents. They cover details about department functions. Scheduling, staffing, cost, quality, risk, acceptance and communications functions are created as subsidiary plans.

I recall only a few times in the last decade when a project required a documentation plan. Depending on whether technical documentation falls under marketing or R&D will determine who manages documentation planning.

download doc plan
Documentation Plan
lists & tables

Professional programs compared

Hello, my name is Spring!

I’ve resurfaced, finally, after completing a long contract. Now there are IOU lunches to plan and vacation photos to edit, and after criss-crossing Canada, it’s a must-do to get back into the swing of professional development.

They say to carry a pocketful of business cards and memorize your elevator pitch. You just never know what can become of a networking opportunity. This week I scored four professional events happening in downtown Vancouver. It’s always instructive to observe, even better to hone the pitch, and totally awesome when your card is pulled for a door prize.

Offerings Agile Vancouver Editors’ Association of Canada International Association of Business Communicators STC Canada West Coast
Event Name Domain Driven Design Practices Plain Language Certification How to Network Effectively H.A.T. Tricks
Presenter Eric Evans, author Domain-Driven Design, Addison-Wesley 2004, thought leader in software design and domain modeling Katherine McManus, Director of SFU Writing & Communications Program Karen Lee, IABC Canada – Master Communicator, teaches for the University of Victoria in the Public Relations diploma program Neil Perlin, internationally-known online content consultant
Date March 18, 2013 March 20, 2013 March 21, 2013 March 19, 2013
Time 6:00-9:00 pm 7:00-9:00 pm 5:30-7:00 pm 6:00-8:30 pm
Topic Exploring and Distilling the Core Domain: An Anonymized Case Study SFU’s role in grant-funded project to launch international certification in plain language Industry expert advises how to effectively network your way through an event Overview of help authoring tools and history
Format Standup presentation, slides Standup presentation, slides, voice recorded, photographed Instructor led presentation (no slides) and networking practice Webinar, remote presentation
Networking Before and after Pre meeting dinner, before and after Before and after, and during as an activity Before and after
Venue Renaissance Harbourside Hotel YWCA Harbour Centre, SFU YWCA
Freebies Coffee and tea Door prizes, fruit, homemade cookies Door prizes, donuts, juice Tea, cookies, grapes
Registration Online thru Eventbrite, at door Online, at door Online, at door, by phone Online, at door
Seats Filled 80 33 20 12 (+9 remote)
Member $10 $0 $0 $5
Non-member $10 $10 $10 $20
design & typography

Font-challenged learners

If fonts were cars, the Arial Light would be fitting for night driving. I imagine it having a softly illuminated dashboard and headlight-cancelling rearview mirrors. Reading too should offer the same adaptations–flick a few switches to give us the best fonts in pleasing shades so we don’t ruin our eyes.

Twelve-point Comic Sans MS, if it’s not banned outright the silly font just might be critical to learning. A psychologist at Princeton University found that the harder a font’s readability, the better the recall. A block of text set with 50% leading is easier to read than text having no line space where ascenders and descenders touch. The point size can be used as a unit of measuring type and line space. For regular newspaper and book text, 8pt to 12pt usually satisfies.

Economist article, Learning Difficulties: Making something hard to read means it is more likely to be remembered.

design & typography

We value your opinion

Surveys are meant for collecting data. The analysis says how one measures up to other survey takers. But sometimes the data is useless. A simple error in survey design proves why.

If you’re a customer responding to a satisfaction survey, you’d assume “1” to be low on a scale of 1 to 10. The question goes something like this; How satisfied are you with your purchase? Very satisfied? Somewhat satisfied? Not at all satisfied? Phrased another way, on a scale of 1 to 3 where 1 means not satisfied and 3 means very satisfied, how satisfied are you with your purchase?

In this survey, the only sure rating is “5”.
on a scale of 10 to 1

We would value your opinion if we hadn’t redesigned the rating system.

design & typography

I am Courier

An app I stumbled upon pegs anonymous quiz takers to one of 16 typefaces. It’s a twist on the game asking what kind of animal you are. To analyze yourself, typographically speaking, you must answer four questions.

Question 2 asks:

Does something feel right or does something have a 1 in 2 chance of being right?

The analysis tells me I am Courier, the typeface designed to resemble typewriting. It has rhythmical insistence, is democratic for its even spacing and stands steadfast with its slab serifs. I am just your common character, amused by the personality of type.

Curious about your typeface?  I’d love to point you to the quiz from Pentagram but it no longer exists. Sorry.

design & typography production & publishing

A blogoversary sparks a makeover

My starter project, Shorter Documents, turned three years old this month. To celebrate I give it a makeover. Why a makeover? Self-paced publishing is fun until mechanical glitches hit — links break, colours fade, tags need tuning.

What stays, what goes

The vision stays — write commentary about technical writing. What began as a collection of anecdotes grows by the week. Still, I’m keeping it short — in scale and name. Oh, and the blog naming thing? That toys with my height.

A grand redesign takes shape

I approached this makeover in three stages and imposed a one week deadline to get it done. Here’s what I did.

First, deal with data. Analyze categories and tags for duplicates, relevance and one-offs. Control categories using 7 ∓ 2 rule. Manage tags as subcategories or rethink tagging later.

Next, deal with content. Observe how headings breathe, text flows (around images), tables break. Test links, image enlargement, media playback and revise postings that uncover these problems. Pause to assess effort and roadblocks before deciding whether to tweak your template or swap it for something newer.

slide-o-matic home
slide-o-matic home May 2008

Preview, preview, preview. Hunt for the perfect WordPress theme. There are thousands to choose from so look for functionally that fits. How many columns do you need? Choosing the right grid system is like choosing the right sized stock pot. Leave enough room to add your own rhythm and spice. Voilà! Your data and content are remixed.

Koi home
Koi home May 2011

Counting down to the fourth blog anniversary.

book types & parts design & typography production & publishing

Fast food transformation

An operations manual is a 24/7 reference tool. It helps guide someone unfamiliar with your business through the day-to-day operating procedures. In 1958 McDonald’s Corporation created a 75-page operations and training manual. It specified how each menu item should look—french fries cut exactly 0.28 inches thick, hamburgers placed on the grill in six neat rows.

Fast forward fifty-plus years where fast food cooking instructions are designed into kitchen equipment. Crew members rely on panels of images. Instructions that must be printed are written at a fifth grade reading level in English and a second language.

Your operation functions without you

To transform the production-line prototype, redesigned kitchen equipment had to be intuitive. R&D obliged by developing cookers that work only one way. The easier equipment is to use, the easier it is for global fast-food restaurants not to have to train workers. Recognizing high turnover within fast food establishments, fast food execs aimed for “zero training” as documented in Fast Food Nation.

lists & tables tech light

A sorted mess

Imagine you are searching through job postings. You’ve got a list and now you opt to sort by date, or location or other relevant category. Each column can be sorted. Typical options are some kind of logical progression. A job seeker might sort jobs to list the newest ones first.

I recently saw a job listing whose sort routine made sense only in theory. In practice, the result was neither sorted nor logical. However you sorted it, the list was a sorted mess.

Here’s what the date sort looked like:


Here’s a rule to break; don’t sort dates numerically or alphabetically. Who cares about a group of jobs that were posted on the 27th of every month. Not useful. In the context of a job posting, a date must be sorted chronologically.