Balancing Content and Design

In Kristen Welch’s article “Poetry, Visual Design, and the How-To Manual: Creativity in the Teaching of Technical Writing”, she described her experiences as a professor teaching students technical writing. Although this article is an explanation of the teaching process, I found it to be a useful piece in thinking about technical writing and design, and how to understand not only why both are important, but also how they work together.

“We Encounter Information on a Visual Level”

Welch wrote, “Design is not limited to text; it is about using the full range of materials available to produce understanding so the reader can use the product or navigate the system (human or machine) in question. Readers encounter information in a variety of ways, but more and more, we encounter information on a visual level since so much of what we read is online.” (38) For this reason, visual elements must be considered in technical writing. Welch also discussed the idea of “reluctant readers” or “hostile audiences” and how, with some visual design, they can be won over. She called upon Kostelnick and Roberts’ six strategies for visual design: arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, tone, and ethos.

Win Over the Audience

Design is so important because we place a such a big emphasis on visual elements. For example, Welch asked her students to search for online instructions for adding a layer in Photoshop. After finding many different websites on the subject, the students were asked to vote on the best. This introduced them to the idea that although all websites had generally the same content, the audience can be “won over” by a key element—design. Similarly, you may be creating an instruction manual that the audience may be reluctant to read, but you can ease the process by making it visually appealing.

Of course, the way that design should take shape also depends on the content. A set of instructions for children might have a more playful, colorful look, while a manual for an engineer might be more simple and have a limitation on distracting color.

There’s a lot to consider with design elements—but one thing is certain: they are important.


Welch, Kristen Dayle. “Poetry, Visual Design, and the How-To Manual: Creativity in the Teaching of Technical Writing.” The English Journal 99.4 (2010): 37-42. Web.

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