November 2013
By Stefan Hulitschke and Eva Weber

Image: © Arman Zhenikeyev/ 123rf.com

Stefan Hulitschke has been the deputy head of the tecteam training institute, Dortmund since 1995. He is responsible for designing and conducting the training of technical writers and illustrators. He also teaches at the Gelsenkirchen polytechnic, the Donau-University Krems and the Suedwestfalen polytechnic. Originally, he studied Energy and Heating engineering in Gießen.


s.hulitschke[at]tecteam.de



Eva Weber has been working as a technical writer with tecteam GmbH since 2000. The focus of their activity is on creating and analyzing training and documentation materials, as well as developing and providing tutorial support for advanced study program offerings for technical writers.


e.weber[at]tecteam.de
www.tecteam.de


 


 

The technical illustrator: A new picture

In many companies, it is the technical writers that take care of the illustrations in manuals. However, it is now time to think about the renaissance of technical illustrators, especially considering the requirements of mobile documentation.

Illustrations are an important medium for explaining complex technical matters. Philon von Byzanz, author of the “Mechanike Syntaxis”, one of the oldest preserved technical documents, had already explained this as early as the end of the 3rd century BC. In this document, he states that he has “added illustrations” in the book for the purpose of better understanding [1]. Technical literature has therefore been illustrated right from the beginning, as experts discover today [2].

Status of technical illustration

Only digital illustrations are used in technical documentation today. Often these are photographs, since digitalization has clearly simplified the entire creation process compared to the days of analog pictures. Even line drawings and texture illustrations for technical documents are created digitally, usually with CAD data from the design. Even moving images can be generated from this data.

In future, such moving pictures, whether as animations or digital videos, together with fixed images, will play a more important role in conveying technical information. More particularly because the next step in development is imminent according to expert opinion: mobile documentation on smartphones and tablets [3]. Although there are still limits to the blanket use of multimedia documentation from the point of view of product warranty and product safety, this is however expected to change [3].

Visual communication therefore experienced clear appreciation in value [4]. It is only a matter of time before the market increasingly demands mobile, multimedia and interactive documentation from many producers. Consequently, the quantity of illustrative material to be created will increase as well. In addition, it is to be expected that the quantity of illustrative material will increase in general.

A complex field

Creating fixed and moving illustrations according to the target group is a complex matter even today. A high level of professionalism and in depth knowledge from various fields is required. Along with the skills related to working with CAD, illustration and graphics programs and 3D software, this activity also demands knowledge of designing images and visualizations, conventions, perspectives and functional text – image combinations, to name just a few aspects.

Add to this the knowledge of the biology of learning, psychology and didactics. Basic knowledge of technology is an additional requirement in many areas, such as the knowledge provided during education to a technical system planner, earlier called the technical illustrator.

Figure 1: An illustration from the sanitary field – done professionally it simplifies checking the scope of delivery. It is based on a 3D CAD model.
Source: Grohe AG

 

Assessment of job profiles

Today, illustrations are often designed by the authors themselves, i.e. by the technical writers. Steffen-Peter Ballstaedt, Professor for applied communication sciences says: “Today it is expected as a matter of course that every author creates or furnishes illustrations of acceptable quality by him or herself and delivers them with the electronic manuscript“[4].

The authors assessed 271 job profiles for technical writers to analyze the current situation and gain an overview of the current requirement profile. The analyzed internet advertisements were published in 2013 during January:

  • The assessment shows that knowledge in the area of creating illustrations or processing images was required in 105 offers (39 per cent).
  • In 64 job profiles (24 per cent) the requirement for corresponding knowledge in the area of creating illustrations or image processing was named as one of the three activities to be carried out or even as one of the first required qualifications.
  • Three offers (1 per cent) were looking especially for a technical writer who would mainly create technical illustrations or even interactive 3D illustrations.

The functional requirements

The following qualifications were desirable or were even named as activities that were part of the visual communication in the job offers:

Working with graphics software:

  • Experience in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and other image processing programs
  • Experience in working with 3D visualization tools
  • Experience in working with CAD programs and systems

Job description:

  • Creating graphics and integrating them in manuals
  • Creating and editing photographs and graphics for technical documentation
  • Preparing CAD data and creating graphics based on this data
  • Creating technical illustrations based on design drawings
  • Preparing 2D and 3D image information for technical documentation
  • Visualizing complex technical data
  • Creating explosion drawings and isometric representations
  • Creating and editing screenshots
  • Creating and editing graphics for different end devices

The data and numbers determined are not representative since they consider the job offers from just one month. However, they can definitely serve as a substantiation of how visual communication is seen within technical documentation.

Conclusions from the results

It is surprising that apparently just 39 per cent of technical writers are expected to create and edit illustrations and must have the corresponding skills. It is remarkable that some offers refer to a separate graphics division or external service providers who take over the creation of illustrative material. If we assume that technical documentation seldom makes do without images to convey information, this then means that there seems to be a significant number of experts working with creating and editing illustrative material who are not technical writers.

Usually these would be technical illustrators or graphics designers who have specialized in creating images for technical documentation and are either permanent employees or work as service providers. The low number of technical writers creating and editing images conversely allows the assumption that illustrators and graphics designers carry the primary load (61 per cent) of creating and editing images.

If the sequence of the said qualifications is considered as a measure, the creation and editing of images appears to be an important part of work for just a quarter (24 per cent) of the sought technical writers. Technical writers working exclusively with creating and editing images appear to be very rare (1 per cent).

Expertise defines the quality of graphics

Therefore, there is already a division of work between technical writers and illustrators or graphics designers in creating and editing images. It can be assumed that illustration tasks that can be taken over by technical writers and the quality of the results depend directly on the level of their knowledge of visual communication.

If images are created and edited exclusively by a technical writer in some documentation departments, the technical writer must have comprehensive expertise, which substantiates the qualifications stated in the job offers. Knowledge of creating illustrations for mobile, multimedia and interactive documentation would have to be added to these in the future.

Figure 2: Illustration skills are required for such a presentation. A 3D CAD model was rendered for this sectional representation and was subsequently reworked and finished.
Source: Grohe AG

 

A separate professional profile existed earlier

There is no word about the experts for visual communication in technical documentation – the technical illustrators and technical graphics designers. The research of January 2013 does not bring up even a single job offer looking for a technical illustrator or graphics designer. Therefore, if you want to find out about the current requirement profile for this group of people, it is necessary to look at the past.

Anyone with time for a detailed search can find the professional profile of the technical illustrator on the Internet. The data is usually from the 90s and has hardly changed in the interim. A detailed requirement profile that would be comparable to the profile derived from the jobs on offer for technical writers does not describe the professional profile.

Several advanced study programs came up in the 90s in Germany for technical illustration. The study programs were promoted by the federal employment office and developed according to the model of established training options in Great Britain – then the only country in Europe that trained illustrators in large numbers.

The tecteam Bildungsinstitut started teaching about 400 technical illustrators in 1992. The training provided basic technical knowledge of mechanical engineering, as well as the different illustration techniques. The course provided knowledge about the writing and design environment of technical documentation and also taught about creating and editing illustrations in detail. tecteam stopped the program in 2003.

The education pathway

In the education the activities of a technical illustrator were established between those of a graphic expert and a design draftsman. While the graphic expert had knowledge of the possibilities of visual representations, but not about specific technical illustration techniques and tasks, the course for the design draftsman aimed at training the technical illustrator in design and detail drawings, but with no training in graphics design techniques. Writing skills do not belong to the qualification profile of the graphics expert or the design draftsman.

To date there are no study programs with the target of technical illustration at German universities. Knowledge about visual communication was however, a fixed component of the curriculum for study programs on technical writing from the beginning. Provided that creating and editing images is predominantly the task of technical illustrators and graphic designers today, it must be assumed that their knowledge goes beyond that of the technical writers. Mobile documentation with animated and interactive content demands additional know-how from both groups of professionals.

There is therefore further need for qualification – for technical writers as well as illustrators. With the comprehensive spectrum of tasks that technical writers already have, we may suppose that the division of work of documentation will move further towards the technical illustrator with the expected increase in illustrative material. Since these specialists are already hard to find at present, this signals a further lack of experts in technical communication.

Further education and training

A look at the present educational landscape shows: There are hardly any options for further education in the area of visual communication with a focus on technical documentation. Training for technical illustrators through private educational institutions was stopped. One reason for this is surely the fact that general conditions have deteriorated for private educational institutions. For instance, the federal employment office has continuously tightened the funding conditions for participants and educational institutions.

Although universities that are training technical writers impart knowledge on visual communication as part of their study programs, there is a lack of an independent course oriented towards the qualification profile of the technical illustrator. In addition, the lectures offered during the training for technical writing are usually open only to persons who are registered. There are sporadic seminars on special topics from the area of visual communication, e.g. for creating technical drawings as per standards or working with individual illustration, graphics or drawing programs. Private educational institutions also offer e-learning and seminars related to the profession that provide basic information about instruction through images.

A search for literature also comes up with only a limited offering of publications of recent times, such as the list of literature for the tekom-qualification module 10 – “Bildhafte Darstellungen und digitale Bildbearbeitung” [pictorial representations and digital image processing], which offer support when obtaining the tekom certificate [5].

Setting the direction

If more stationary and moving illustrations have to be created in the future with the creation of mobile, multimedia and interactive documentation, an increasing demand for qualified professionals is expected. We assume that there will be a renaissance of the job profile of the technical illustrator.

In Germany, there is a limited offering for further education and training in visual communication at present. Technical writers and illustrator already working professionally or who have just started have great difficulty in obtaining further training in this area.

Other countries, e.g. Great Britain and the USA present alternatives. Special educational programs are offered there to cover the need for experts in visual communication. Some examples are the study course for illustration design at the Academy for Illustration and Design at San Diego City College (Computer Technical Illustration), the Platt College in Los Angeles (Visual Communication), the Birmingham City University (Visual Communication), as well as the Blackpool and the Fylde College (Engineering Illustration).

There is a lack of training initiative by the industrial organizations and educational institutions in the German speaking region to undertake action against the shortage of professionals in the area of technical illustration – the earlier the better. Technical progress will not wait just because there is a lack of experts in German companies for illustrating manuals or designing mobile documentation.

 

Reference Material

[1]    Stückelberger, Alfred (1994): Bild und Wort. Das illustrierte Fachbuch in der antiken Naturwissenschaft, Medizin und Technik. Philip von Zabern. Mainz am Rhein.

[2]    Ballstaedt, Steffen-Peter; Hulitschke, Stefan; Menke Katharina (2013): Telekurs – Instruieren mit Bildern. tecteam Bildungsinstitut GmbH. Dortmund.

[3]    Hennig, Jörg (Hrsg.); Tjarks-Sobhani, Marita (Hrsg.) (2010): Multimediale Technische Dokumentation. Schriften zur Technischen Kommunikation, Band 14. Schmidt-Römhild. Lübeck.

[4]    Ballstaedt, Steffen-Peter (2012): Visualisieren. Bilder in wissenschaftlichen Texten. UVK Verlagsgesellschaft. Konstanz.

[5]    Gesellschaft für Technische Kommunikation – tekom e.V. (13. August 2013): Literaturliste für Technische Kommunikation 2011.