Info Design and Zines

March 9, 2010

Before the service economy/information age 2.0, I imagine that life as a “document designer” was more or less straightforward. I picture a garden-variety computer geek using Pagemaker or Quark to layout product manuals for telephones or lawnmowers with more or less fixed deadlines, formats, and boundaries.

At least two of the texts we’re reading for 760 this week on information design, however, emphasize the need for technical communicators to consider function over form because of the sheer expansion of information available. As Albers puts it “People simply cannot efficiently sort through and process the amount of information they have access to” (1); similarly Salvo and Rosinski note that “Search and retrieval – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever before” (103). As obvious of a problem as this is, I dig Salvo and Rosinski’s call for real digital literacy, an attempt at understanding what this saturation means for writers. When I think about this saturation, I think about how much it’s impacted authorship beyond the technical writer. As Salvo and Rosinski note, “Attention to design most recently has focused on the placement and articulation of information (data) within documents as well as on finding, contextualizing, and placing any document within larger conversations and collections (metadata)” (105; emphasis mine). The spatial metaphors become essential, as Salvo and Rosinski make clear, to placing documents in a context that communicates scale, navigation, locatability, etc. (110). This applies to researchers in graduate courses as well as zinesters.

Wait. Zinesters?

Alright. While editing, writing, and laying out two fanzines hardly qualifies me as an “information designer” – or maybe the zine’s ethos actually precludes me from weighing in here — these chapters had me thinking back to those DIY days, especially since my two zines were designed in different mediums (print/web), in different decades (1990s/2000s), and in different subjects (music/creative NF). Mud, my print zine from the 90s, were released as separate issues (twice a year, maybe?) whereas The Onanist, my webzine from the 00s, eventually became an ongoing, weekly endeavor. In fact, by the end of its two-year run, we were microblogging daily on side frame while rolling out new content – stand-alone stories, interviews, art – weekly.

Thinking back, though, I had trouble with the transfer from print to digital – the same trouble that Salvo and Rosinski mention technical communicators had in the late 90s: “At that time, designers of new Web site construction ignored effective design principles, even at times asserting that effective document design developed for the page did not and could not apply online” (106). Despite having purchased Dreamweaver and Photoshop how-to manuals, I initially started The Onanist by rolling out separate “issues” (see Issue 2 right there) and changing the masthead each week. These were print decisions in hindsight – leftover principles from Mud.

After a while I figured out that the best set-up would be something more fluid, a model that worked with the boundlessness of the web. After two years we actually produced so much content that management became a major issue and transferring the architecture or look of the zine was a major hassle. CSS? XML? CMS? Whatsa what? The only acronym I knew was PITA. And now that the project is defunct (died the day I left my MA program, sadly), the zine exists only as a chopped-up relic on my hard drive with files scattered and links broken. At least I still have every copy of Mud, right through to the last issue (above, left).

While I have no intentions of starting another webzine soon, the major lesson here seems to be that when it comes to information design, it’s important to think about broader contexts for which individual documents will be designed into (“the sponsors,” as Carliner put it). As the Writing Center considers building a stronger, more expansive resources page, for example, it’ll be important to think through the designs of those pages within the larger context of the institution, the WP, and the WC sites. In fact, as I think back to last week’s discussion on CM and the WC, I wonder how much of that conversation would fit into our discussion tomorrow. Are other folks seeing some strong overlap between CM and ID? I have a feeling there will be more when we get to usability after break.


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