Graphic Designer, Unnamed Govt Agency

Government & Military

Graphic Designer – Unnamed U.S. Government Agency

00:02     Speaker: Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

00:04     Speaker: You bet. So, I’m the graphics branch chief. I work for a government agency. And again, to be clear, I’m not representing the department that I work for any sort of capacity.

00:15     Speaker: Thank you. Could you state how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

00:19     Speaker: I graduated from college—I took a circuitous route to graduate from college, but when I graduated was 2004.

00:26     Speaker: Great. And how long have you worked in this current organization and in the field as at large?

00:34     Speaker: I’ve worked in the field for over 10 years. In fact, depending on how you define it, even before my college time I was working in the field. In my current position, I’ve been here for four and a half years.

00:47     Speaker: Great. And could you provide a very brief job description of your primary job functions?

00:52     Speaker: Sure. So, what my primary job function is—I lead a team of graphic designers and now a copyeditor, oddly enough, here at my government agency, providing support for any sort of communications needs that those folks have. This includes a lot of public facing material, a lot of internal facing, like events support—things of that nature. Really, you know, really my job is first and foremost about the care and feeding of the people who work for me. But the other sort of main responsibility is ensuring that the products that my team are putting out there are, you know, high quality, that the writing is good, that the visuals and aesthetics are in really strong shape and [inaudible].

01:37     Speaker: That’s great. And did you come to this—could you tell me about your sort of route to this position?

01:43     Speaker: So, so coming out of high school I took sort of a circuitous route to get to college. I ended up getting an associate’s degree in Digital Design from Nova, after a number of years. And this I did it simultaneously with working as an IT guy at The Washington Post, where I worked with newsroom IT. I decided that was really wasn’t for me. So I did a career change. I went to West Virginia University for graphic design, so I have a bachelor’s in fine arts—a BFA in fine art with a concentration in graphic design, which is a really long title. So yeah, and from there I got a job out of college with an education company based in Herndon working on product development. From there I moved on to NASA as a contractor where I supported their headquarters organization with the graphics and so forth where they needed it. I moved into management in that position and then here in my current agency where I’m Fed (federal employee), yeah I do what I described.

02:50     Speaker: Perfect. Okay that’s useful. Could you estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

02:58     Speaker: It’s not 100 percent, but it feels like it’s close most weeks. For a field like visual design a lot of folks especially in college especially subsequent college think that writing is like mathematics in that is something you can kind of—kind of get away with not knowing how to do. And one of the through lines I think that will come out during this interview is that is couldn’t be farther from true—that while it is correct that mathematics are not terribly relevant, writing on the other hand is—in a lot of ways—is actually more critical than aesthetic skill, depending on the work. It’s not that—you know, that’s probably hyperbolic a little bit—but there is that idea that, and this is something that Mike Monteiro of Mule Design out in San Francisco has espoused and I’m 100% behind this idea, that I would rather have a mediocre designer who can sell the heck out of what they’re doing than have a great designer who can’t. And a key part of selling your ideas of getting your ideas out there to be adopted and so forth, like a key ability in that skill set, is the ability to write about that meaningfully. To be able to describe in writing and a lot of cases why you did what you did. You know, you know, we added this symbol to represent this element of this thing or to work, the sort of, you know, tying this connection to this other branded element that is, blah blah blah blah blah. Right? The ability to actually write, you know, ad hoc ad copy, right? We here, you know pride ourselves on being sort of full spectrum designers. And sometimes that means doing things—it’s a little—that are a little outside of what would normally be considered design work—sorry, graphic design work—but what is becoming well within scope for, you know, what is becoming increasingly the nature of design, right? That it’s not just about making visuals the little super sweet, right? It’s about making products that are really functional. And if you can’t write about those things meaningfully and if you can’t capture and write—if you can’t sort of identify like, hey, you like this copy that we got is kind a rough, right? Or this is speaking about something in a way that is not plainly written, dovetailing to the other side of the—the other piece of the puzzle here. Then you do design work no matter how pretty it is, right, no matter how handsome it is—is going to be not as good. In the federal government there is an additional layer of complexity as you would expect in that, you know, to quote Al Gore, plain writing from your government is a civil right. And there’s—there’s federal legislation and so forth. Some agencies are better than others at this. The one I work for is not the best. We’re also not the worst at following the Plain Writing Act and really trying to be very plainspoken and very approachable and also accessible in our writing. One of the—one of the things that’s sort of a through line for a lot of this sort of these sort of rules from the government is that it has some halo impact—some halo effect on other on other people in that plain writing is helpful for people who are, you know, who are sort of on, you know, different sort of cognitive spectrums. Right? You need a plain writing that—it’s something that no matter where someone’s coming from their background they should be able to pick up because that’s who we should be writing for. Right? We shouldn’t necessarily—like, where it’s appropriate, we should be writing very technical language, and believe me we do. But most of the time we should be defaulting to plain writing and that is incredibly important and it’s also an extra level of difficulty right. It’s harder to write less. I forget the name of the French philosopher but he basically wrote a 20-page letter to a friend and said, “My apologies for the length of that letter. If I had more time I would have written less.” And that is absolutely the case and writing is hard enough; plain writing is even harder. And that—but that’s the standard that we have both a legal and ethical obligation to follow.

07:16     Speaker: Great, great. That’s really interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about the forms and types of writing or the kinds of documents that you most often create, including primary audiences and purposes?

07:30     Speaker: So one of the bread and butter pieces that we do a lot of is what we write we’ve called design briefs, and we actually write them in two different phases. We write an initial design brief and we write a sort of final design brief. We follow some of the principles of what’s called human-centered design, which is this idea that rather than design rather than just kind of rolling up our sleeves and cracking our knuckles and getting it right into Adobe Creative Suite, we instead do a fair amount of research. We do a fair amount of sort of market evaluation and so forth to really make sure that we’re aiming at the right target. One of the tools to that is an initial design brief which is basically someone who has called us up and said, hey we want—we want a ham sandwich. We want whatever it is that we want, right? And we write—basically leveraging what we know about a customer already, which in a lot of cases is a fair amount—

08:29     Speaker: And to clarify, customers are always internal or no?

08:34     Speaker: Customer is—internal to the agency, but the audience may not be internal. No, that’s a great clarifying question. So, we support folks here in the building. But we do not—but we’re never going to take a request from the general public because it’s just, that’s just not—yeah. Right. So we get a request from someone here in the building saying, hey, we want to talk to someone from X group, right? We think that we need this. They don’t always say it like that. They usually say, we need this. And in some cases they’re right—in some cases they maybe need to you know—we would maybe want to encourage them to broaden or in some cases narrow the scope of their thinking. And the initial design brief and the final design brief —these are actually really useful tools in both showing our work from a design perspective. But also just really as a persuasive tool that we really do understand what the customer’s asking for but also that you know we understand what the customer is asking for, but we recommend delivering something else entirely in some cases. Where someone will come asking for something fairly small and unremarkable and we will say, hey like maybe there’s a better way to approach this, right? We’ve looked at your—not competition, right, because we’re in the federal space—but we’ve looked at what your counterparts in other agencies are doing. We’ve looked at what’s happening and the public space out in the broader world. And we said, hey, maybe there’s an opportunity to do this bigger or better, right? Or maybe the answer is you know, we had a customer who said, we really want to have this bang-zoom fireworks, super big product launch for this new tool. And then after we sort of said OK, we did a little bit more digging, we did a little more research on that and then we came back and said, hey, um, you’re asking for this crazy huge launch, but at the same time you’re saying that this isn’t a big deal you want to keep this on the down-low. Let’s re-evaluate this, right? This is a very extreme example but that that written design brief, bringing it back around, that written design brief was a key component of that persuasion. Right? So that’s one of the main piece big pieces of writing that we do. Another big piece of writing that we do is we don’t always have the opportunity unfortunately—we don’t always have the opportunity to pitch things in person. Sometimes things just don’t merit that sort of treatment. Sometimes it’s just—it’s a rush, sometimes people are teleworking or are based in completely different cities so doing it in person is not really an option. So, in a lot of cases we have few pitches in email or the like in a Word document or something like that. You know, we have to, essentially we have to bottle something up and we put the message in the bottle and we set it on the on the waves towards the senior leadership and we hope that no one takes the message out of the bottle and changes what’s written on it and puts it back in. But we kind of like we set it adrift on the waves and hope that it is passed up the chain and then we get feedback and pass backed down the chain again. And because of that sort of very, you know, hierarchical relationship, we have to not only describe what we’re trying to achieve right and how we did it and why we did it why it’s important. We also have to write it in such a way that it’s almost almost [inaudible] right? Where the folks who have a little bit more subject matter expertise, a little bit more sort of technical expertise—maybe that’s a better way to categorize that—they will see it one way. And then the farther it gets away from sort of that technical realm into the larger strategic realm there’s still a meaningful message for these folks. It’s still very plainly written right? That talks about, like, oh they, you know, they want us to feel like they want us to feel like the this office that’s needs a new logo is very, you know, stable honorable and very sober and you know not necessarily, you know, fresh and innovative. Right? They want like very—by the numbers, or vice versa. And writing that is difficult, and is suffice it to say, not something covered in design school.

12:47     Speaker: And are there specific strategies they used to try to reach both of those audiences in the same document?

12:52     Speaker: I think strategy is probably overselling it. I would say that it’s like obscenity—you know it when I see it? That you know, it’s we have a we have a feel for it but I wouldn’t say that we have any sort of—there’s no like work hard and fast rules, there’s no sort of overall like, we discussed that—we just sort of, we just kind of do it and then we kind of bounce it off each other and see how does this—does this look right to us? Does this read correctly? So, we do it in a large part by feel, not by prescription.

13:21     Speaker: And is that something you feel like and you develop a feel for over time?

13:27     Speaker: Yes, 100%. And that’s one of the big things that we really focus on during our onboarding process is that ability to write—know how to write to the audience because again not something covered in Design School, but also is more difficult here than other places of employment. The culture here at this agency is much more—requires that a lot more than other than other places I’ve worked. I’ll say that.

14:00     Speaker: Perfect. You talked a little bit about this but maybe you can be a little bit more explicit about one specific recent project or type of project. And walk us through the process of how that sort of assignment or task comes to your group all the way through it is complete and you sort of send it off.

14:19     Speaker: Sure. So let me give you a good example of something that we just wrapped up. So the organization that I work for actually, we just were in the process of re-orging, in the process of redoing the branding for this organization. So, the way that this came in was from the deputy secretary that I work for and basically said, hey, like we’ve got the new office. Let’s review the branding. I don’t like the old logo. Let’s redo those. And that was essentially the entirety of the request, which…yeah. So, in his defense, he knew exactly what he wanted. Right. Go make it happen. So we took that sort of initial request and we wrote that initial design brief that I mentioned earlier and basically said, Okay this is where we think that we have, this is what we think we need to do. And then we went out and we looked at some comparable agencies. We looked at some of our counterparts across the federal government and then we looked at all— sort of tried to define all the different ways it’s all these sorts of problems. We then sort of narrowed those ideas down a little bit and focused on the final design brief, which was a three page document which basically said look who is the who is the audience who is the customer. Right? Which is not always the same thing. You know, what sorts of goals are we looking for? What constraints do we need to worry about? What’s the timeline? What are the deliverables? And really just that you know, who, what, when, where, why, you know? We got signed off an approval on that from the from my boss’s boss. And yet so we then let the design team loose on it. And during that process we showed—we had a couple sort of iterative reviews where each time there were there was descriptive language on the slide essentially, saying like hey this is what this is, gesturing [inaudible] There was a PowerPoint deck that had no logo and there are little text blocks with little leaner lines sort of pointing to different pieces of it saying this is why we did this. This is what this represents. This is why we use this colorway. This is why we use these fonts. This is what the symbol indicates. And then yes, so a couple rounds of that—we ended up just now getting approval on the direction.  And the next and final step is essentially to take that approved design, flush it out into a variety of different products. But most saliently also create a brand guide which is another written piece which is basically a I would imagine probably going about 10 pages long and it’s going to be a written document that shows, here’s the logos, here’s the colors, here’s the fonts, here’s why this matters. Here’s the mission vision values of the organization, like it’s intended to be sort of a you know something we give to new hires, as well as a sort of a crystallization in writing again by designers, which isn’t necessarily ideal, but it is what it is. A bunch of writing by designers about the organization that becomes sort of the canonical almost home plate for the organization.

17:38     Speaker: Got it. That’s really useful. How did you know how to perform the kinds of writing that you currently perform?

17:46     Speaker: Um I don’t know that I do know how. So, it’s a lot of it is just hard won experience, a lot of it is, you know, I have bruises to show for it and it’s not something that used to be—that was a focus prior to me taking the reins to run the team. And I think at that I’m 100 percent sure that it was the right direction to go. If only because of the very tangible results we’re seeing. You know it used to be that this was you know a team that did not always have the best ability to express itself in writing or you know verbally. And that sort of started to change right, or that has changed it’s continuing to change is a better way to characterize than. Previously the team, you know, who are but are very bright capable folks were really focused on what we call production design that didn’t actually require all that much like design skill, like not much aesthetic skill as much as like you know putting text on tent cards? And one of the reasons I was brought on board—one of the things they told me in the interview was that opportunity to help continue the transition of the team from that production mindset to that design mindset. And all along that journey it really became apparent that we needed to we need to be doing more writing and do better writing.

19:18     Speaker: Interesting. That’s great. Okay. Can you describe a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

19:28     Speaker: So, like, I’m trying to think of a time I felt prepared. [laughter] That might be easier. I mean you know joking aside, I don’t know that I have ever felt that it is a real source of strength. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I had the complete—you know I don’t have an abundance of formal training in that. You know, I was obviously—I have some sort of, you know, inborn ability in that area. But you know this is not something that was particularly well covered in college either at NOVA or West Virginia. It is not something that has been particularly well covered in any sort of incidental training that I received as a Fed or as a designer previous to being a Fed.  And, you know, it has felt like a muddle in a lot of cases. So, in that sense I do not feel particularly well prepared. I feel capable, but not prepared, essentially if that makes sense?

20:29     Speaker: Yes, it does, it does you. Is it fair to say that you know what you need to do to figure out each project and be successful in it even if you don’t necessarily have that going in.

20:41     Speaker: Yes. Yes.

20:44     Speaker: Are there things that you do or strategies that you utilize to overcome writing challenges? Let’s say there’s a new type of document or an audience or something like that. Are there specific things that you do to try to get yourself ready for that?

20:59     Speaker: Sure. So, the first the most intense the primary method that I use is blatant theft from the writing of other folks. You know, giving credit where it’s due obviously, right. But you know really relying on, you know, when I go out is just like, OK who has done this well. Right. We’re not calling this theft; we’re calling it benchmarking, right? Or we’re calling it, you know, something else, but, you know, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s pretty blatant in some cases. And you know like you know we had an unfortunate situation where we had a, you know, an employee had to go. And I was like, this is not going to be fun at all. So I did two fairly simple things to sort of get me prepared to write that really unpleasant email. The first was I went back and look for other situations where—

22:00     Speaker: And I’m sorry, to clarify, this is an email to HR? Or…

22:03     Speaker: This was an email to my team saying, hey, we…this employee had to go—

22:10     Speaker: I see.

22:11     Speaker: And this was you know so you know a couple previous supervisors. Right? And I still have all their e-mails, right? So I went back and saw how they distracted when they had that same sort of—when I had come up. So, again blatant theft. And I also reached out to a couple of colleagues and said, hey, like do you have any sort of examples of how the heck you wrote this? And part of that feedback was, you know, call a meeting, discuss it, then send the email. And that was really valuable feedback. Because it wasn’t just about how to write it. It was what is the best way to transmit this writing. So between the blatant theft and asking some colleagues, you know, how they would approach it and how they would write it and the messages they would try to carry through because it was it—was a complicated situation and it wasn’t just your standard issue, “this person wasn’t doing their job; they have to go.” It was substantially more complex than that. So that really narrowed the scope of who I can reach to for assistance. It had people who kind of had kind of experienced this very government-y sort of unique situation. Sure, and I’m sure there’s privacy issues around that

23:25     Speaker: There are also privacy issues.

23:27     Speaker: Right, gotcha.

23:29     Speaker: So yeah it was a it was a pretty narrow needle that we had to thread they eye of. But between you know using the language other people had used and asking other folks like how would you approach this as well as sort of my own sort of values and principles about how I want to talk about people. You know blending those three things together got me to a situation that was—I wouldn’t necessarily say I was happy to happen send, but it was, I think it was in a pretty good place.

23:59     Speaker: You think it was the best version of it— I felt like it was the best

24:01     Speaker: Yeah. Okay. All right. Does someone—is there a specific person who oversees your writing?

24:08     Speaker: Not really. In a lot of ways, like you know my supervisor actually comes to me for writing advice because she knows that because it’s also partly—that’s also something that we’re trying to one grow—you know, to give me that give you more opportunities, as well as recognizing that as you know the office we call graphics you know begins to you know hopefully transform into something called communications. That’s something that’s going to be increasingly important. As we broaden the scope and mandate of what the office (inaudible). So a lot of ways I am a supervisor of that, which is extra pressure considering again a pretty strong lack of formal training. So in addition to that in that same vein like the organizations style manual, like I wrote half of that, which is maybe not ideal. And in the process of revising—luckily in the process of revising that I had some you know really capable professionals that you know really kind of took what we had had previously and really kind of ran with it. But at the end of the day you know I kind of am the supervisor of the writing rather than having other people look at it.

25:22     Speaker: Yes, okay. This will obviously vary from project to project, but how long do you typically have to create a writing project?

25:32     Speaker: Oh I mean so the initial design brief should take a couple of hours a few hours. And that’s usually about like single page. And the final design brief —the actual writing of i probably less than a day.  And like I said, that’s about a four page document.

25:50     Speaker: And can I clarify something? That final design brief —is it a second or later draft of the initial design brief or it’s completely different?

25:57     Speaker: So the audience for the initial design brief is internal to the graphics.

26:01     Speaker: Right. Okay.

26:02     Speaker: The audience for the final design brief is the customer. So it is an iteration is a revision version but it’s usually—it’s much more fleshed out, it’s much more—like it’s much deeper and it’s written to a different audience.

26:17     Speaker: That’s great.  Okay that makes a lot of sense. What kinds of writing do remember being asked to create as a student?

26:25     Speaker: I mean I had a couple English classes.  I mean within my sort of core curriculum for being for being visual—not much. I had to write an artist’s statement my senior year, which I hated. So I did it as a Mad Lib because I’m an off person. But yeah. No there was not —I’m actually I’m genuinely struggling to think of—like, we had to do some amount of copywriting for our senior capstone projects, but even then that was not—that was a fifth of what I write in a typical week these days.

27:06     Speaker: Wow, interesting. So is it fair to say you do not feel like college prepared you for writing in the workplace?

27:11     Speaker: I would say that’s absolutely true. You know, especially given—to be fair that’s also given my degree program.

27:17     Speaker: Of course.

27:18     Speaker: And you know it’s—it’s a fine art program. You don’t ask your painters do a lot of writing right? You typically also don’t your graphic designers to…

27:26     Speaker: Yes exactly. Would you and the sort of veers off, but it’s related to that—would you say that the organization you currently work for is atypical in the sense that it asks designers to do more writing than the average designer might do in a different kind of organization?

27:44     Speaker: Let me give kind of a complicated answer to that question. I do feel like this organization requires more writing than most comparable organizations. I do also feel that this is closer to what it should be. As far as a lot of organizations I think don’t do a lot of writing and it’s to their detriment. Here we do more but in part I think that’s actually a virtue and not a flaw.

28:09     Speaker: Tell me more about that.

28:11     Speaker: Sure. So going back to the previous answer we talked about design briefs, we talked about you know the ability to write meaningfully and sell your designs, the ability to do that sort of thing. And a lot of designers I don’t feel like have good skills in that department. You know and that included my team when we started doing these types of things. And I think it’s to the detriment again you’d rather have a good a good designer who can sell a bad one who can’t. And again that ability to sell and sell in writing right?  I think it is a key skill. And I think a lot of designers—private sector public sector you know whatever—don’t have an ability and I think that actually harms their career.

28:56     Speaker: I believe that. That makes a lot of sense. When you think about this this writing as a virtue in this specific work, especially the designers who work under you, is it just that they’re better at selling externally and justifying—that might not be the right word but—

29:11     Speaker: Close enough —externally to clients to customers.

Speaker: Or do you think that there’s some inherent shift in thinking when they’re writing about the design they’re doing. Am I might be reaching here.

29:21     Speaker: Yeah I don’t know. I think that for me I have the blessing/curse of generally writing how I speak. I don’t know whether that’s true for everyone. I think for some folks who have sort of different learning models they may get more out of it in doing it—writing it out. And I have people who actually prefer to write rather than speak. I need them to be good at both, or at least passable in both and hopefully, you know, really good at one if they’re only passable in the other. But you know I think it’s entirely possible that that’s the case.

29:54     Speaker: OK. What would it have been useful for you to learn or do as a student to be better prepared to—sort of jump right in and excel in the kind of writing that you actually do now?

30:08     Speaker: Persuasive writing would be huge—copywriting like writing, like at least a passable ability to write ad copy and to write headlines and like make a person—persuade not just coworkers but also your audience because in the design school there is this presumption that that this is actually just Mad Men and we’ve got people whose job is doing visuals and we’ve got people whose job it is write headlines. Increasingly that is not the case. And you know here I’ve got people in various and sundry different technical fields who you know how to do technical writing in that area. They don’t have a first idea how to sell their ideas other people how to write persuasive how to write for persuasively or even write meaningfully in a lot of cases about what it is they’re up to. In a way that is plainly written and meaningful. So, I think the ability to write persuasive writing about your own work, ad copy as sort of an ad hoc sort of situation—you wouldn’t necessarily need to go super deep on that, but like you’re not going to have a marketing office, a lot of the time, right? My past three jobs—yeah, none of them have had marketing offices that were like meaningful resources for the ability to actually get to [inaudible]. So that just may be the way my career journey has taken me. But you know they—actually also my internship. None of them had a meaningful marketing or advertising sort of presence. So in a lot of cases it was about the designer and the subject matter expert sitting down and going, Okay, well, let’s, you know, crack our knuckles and then kind of roll up our sleeves and had we had more of that as sort of a more formal education experience and trying those skills out and so forth rather than just “make it look cool”—and make it meaningful too, sure, but make it look cool. I think that would have that would have set me and my cohort up for success.

32:13     Speaker: That’s useful.  Okay great. What is at stake in your writing?

32:20     Speaker: Well, I mean in the most extreme interpretation, right, if we suddenly lost all ability to do you know any sort of like you know competent writing, we would probably exist for about another year or so and then it would cease to exist because no one would want to work with us. You know the less hyperbolic end of the spectrum, you know it would be kind of a slow grind kind, of slow a slow death—would be that idea that like you know we can only pitch in person, right? We can’t, you know, send an email saying, Hey this is how we want to do this. Right? We were also in a lot of cases have a much worse outcomes for a lot of sort of like—a lot of decisions that sort of feed into larger decisions. We have a situation where someone wanted—someone was being really picky about a particular vocabulary word—it was rake versus roue, if you were curious. And basically saying, we don’t want to say rake, we want to say roue and here’s why. And I’m like OK, so it’s all about us. So, you know I’m something of a librophile, right? Yay, words. Words are great. So, thank you for sharing. But it was basically along the lines of like, this person has a complicated legacy. And while this person, you know, we don’t necessarily want to be pejorative in our descriptions. We also have like eight business hours to get this up on the walls. So it is, you know, if you want to talk about delaying this and notifying the head of the agency that we are delaying this—if that’s on the table then we can discuss, but if we can’t and I suspect it isn’t, then we really just kind of these need to proceed right. And kind of giving the Reader’s Digest version of that email, but that was a challenging e-mail to write.

34:17     Speaker: Yeah.

34:18     Speaker: And, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that that you know had I not been able to write that e-mail right and get that point driven home and do so in a way that was not just persuasive but also successful in persuading them, then we’d be in a situation where we be reprinting stuff all weekend and we would have a much worse outcome, especially from a production standpoint—that also obviously opens opportunities for risk as well. Right. You’re changing something at the 11th hour. All it takes is one hiccup up and all of a sudden you know you blow the schedule and then you have to be the one telling the head of the department, we had to delay the schedule because we couldn’t figure out how to get it up on the walls.

34:56     Speaker: Right. Right, right. Okay.

34:58     Speaker: So, the stakes are high a lot of the time yeah.

35:03     Speaker: Yeah, okay. What’s the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position?

35:13     Speaker: I mean—I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that the writing is inherently challenging. I’ll say that. You know bar awkward situations, you know, like I would say that this this writing is—not any more or less challenging except for that sort of, you know, the—we have that sort of —we have something that helps us—helps remind us of the importance of plain writing. That’s about as diplomatic as I can and in that sense it’s a little more challenging, but really it’s something everyone should be doing anyway, right? So I wouldn’t—I would say that the challenge level is appropriate. Not that it is particularly challenging—just like it is challenging but that is because good writing is challenging, and that is the way that it should be.

36:05     Speaker: Excellent point. Has anyone helped you with your writing here formally or informally?

36:11     Speaker: Sure. So, we had a detailee from one of the bureaus and she was fantastic and she’s a writer/editor with 30 years of experience give or take. And she was a fantastic resource to help sort of guide my thinking. There’s a number of things that I have really passionate opinions on and some of them are writing related. You know I’m a guy who you know thinks that we should just shut down the department before we get rid of the serial comma. But a lot of my—a lot of my sort of strong strongly held opinions are related directly to typography, which makes sense, given my background. 

Speaker: Sure.

36:50     Speaker: It’s like the serial comma. But you know she really helped guide my perspective, especially on plain writing. Like I thought that my plain writing was pretty good before.  But she—I would say helped me see some areas where—I had—there was really an opportunity to do much better. And my writing, just by virtue of just being nearby her, in a lot of cases, had improved as a result.

37:13     Speaker: Right. OK. And has there been any formal training in writing since you’ve been on the job?

37:19     Speaker: No, not for me, no. But for folks on my team, yes, absolutely. We sent a few people—in last year we sent three different people to multi-day classes at nearby training providers.

37:33     Speaker: Great, okay. Excellent. How do you believe the results are improved as a writer from the start of your career through now?

37:41     Speaker: Like I said being around really capable writers and editors and this was true in my previous gig and as well as the education the curriculum company and here as well. I’ve had the opportunity of working with—in some cases supervising—copywriters, copy editors, and they have been, you know, universally fantastic folks to work with. I’ve been very lucky. But you know being near them also helps guide my writing. You know, I recognize also that that is an experience that I have a lot of other folks don’t. So, you know, a lot of ways I try to model my own sort of advice and coaching on what and how those folks guided me and saying, hey there’s a bunch of ways we can do this let’s talk about why we’re approaching this the way that we are, right? And helping—sort of, not quite Socratic method, right? But kind of helping to sort of like frame, like why does this stuff matter? And, you know, what approach is going to be the most impactful for the audience and so forth.

38:42     Speaker: So it sounds to me like when you’re working with their team you’re not just guiding them—obviously in their design—but also in their writing, but also trying to instill the value of how it will be beneficial to them to develop as writers.

38:53     Speaker: Yes, yes that’s a great way to think about it.

38:55     Speaker: OK. All right. That’s useful.

38:56     Speaker: So it’s not just about—it’s about why you’re doing it. And it’s also about—why from sort of like a philosophical standpoint—it’s also why from a “what’s in it for me” perspective as well.

39:08     Speaker: How would you say writing is valued in the organization as a whole?

39:12     Speaker: Poorly, [if I’m] being blunt. Generally, it could be better. Again, not speaking my official capacity—

39:21     Speaker: Of course.

39:24     Speaker: To be clear. Different agencies—I would say—have different place different values on plain writing and different agencies place different values on the ability to—or, the choice maybe is a better way to think about it—how to communicate meaningfully with the public about their work. I would say that both the leading light in this space is probably NASA. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also does a fantastic amount of work. 18F, which is part of the General Services Administration also does really good work. If I name some more people I would start narrowing down who I work for.

40:00     Speaker: [laughter] Sure.

Speaker: But, you know, all those agencies or bureaus do a ton of excellent really plainly written, really meaningful work. [inaudible] is uneven. A lot of their—they do a lot in the housing market. This is the independent bureau that Elizabeth Warren set up. And they do a lot of meaningful work in the housing space. They’re public facing documents are fantastic. Their bank-facing documents—hmmm…

40:29     Speaker: Interesting.

40:29     Speaker: Yeah. And it really, you know, they have different approaches to these audiences. They want to be, you know, friendly and cheerful and approachable and so forth. To banks they want to be very prescriptive and saying, “this is what you will do.” Right? And that comes out and how they write.

40:46     Speaker: That’s really interesting.

40:47     Speaker: It’s very obvious. Once you see documents side by side, and it even goes back to the aesthetic, which is also interesting as a designer.  The public facing documents are these very open—lots of whitespace, lots of green, now blue. And, you know, but their documents that are bank-facing are much more standard word documents, which is really interesting.

41:11     Speaker: Yeah, that is very interesting. And this is why I asked that question how do you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now, and would you call yourself a successful workplace writer?

41:23     Speaker: So, as a student, like I said, there was not that much writing, to be honest. So, success was—I mean it’s not even that it was easier or harder—it just wasn’t the thing we were evaluated by, in a lot of cases, especially within the degree program. Like in your English classes, sure. But really it was just not a thing that was, you know, that was evaluated in a lot of ways, for grades and for graduation and so forth.  The second part of question, was?

41:55     Speaker: How would you how would you define successful writing here?

41:58     Speaker: Yes.

41:58     Speaker: And would you call yourself a successful writer?

42:01     Speaker: Sure. So successful writing here is pretty well defined. We have to with the federal government. You know people have what is what’s called—what’s called a core qualification which is basically like if you [inaudible] this, you don’t you don’t get to be a fed anymore. And, you know, at the sort of, like, you know, fully successful level, which is the lower grade, which is weird, fully successful essentially defines it as like you were able to achieve meaningful communication outcomes for sort of essentially items of sort of like mundane complexity and sensitivity, and the outstanding version, which is the highest grade, right? Essentially defines it as even with incredibly delicate subject matter and incredibly difficult you know time factors and audience difficulties and speaking to executives and so forth, right? You are able to—not just—the ability to communicate is almost assumed. It’s can you achieve the outcomes you set out to achieve? It’s not —you’re not evaluated on the quality of your writing you’re evaluated on whether you get the outcome you want, which is which is interesting. It’s an interesting approach.

43:08     Speaker: It’s a very interesting approach. And is this for—maybe both —but is this for like individual yearly evaluations or is it for moving up in the ranks as a Fed?

43:20     Speaker: The first one primarily. There’s obviously a causal relationship between doing well in your annual [inaudible] and getting promoted. But this is really for the formal performance evaluation cycle, which is yearly. But you know with my team and hopefully with other people’s teams, you know, that’s not something that you only talk about once a year. Yet we talked about it basically every week or every month at the very outside. As far as their ability to sort of again you know, “hey, like, the way this was written, like, we didn’t get what we were hoping for there. Let’s talk about what’s going on there.”

43:52     Speaker: Yeah.

43:53     Speaker: Not “you screwed this up,” but I was sort of like—you know, maybe it was information we didn’t have, maybe that was something that [inaudible] larger political situation going on—lower case “p” or upper case “P.” So, it’s not necessarily, you know, you know, as much as like—okay, what could we have done to get the outcome that we wanted. And in a lot of cases the answer is the way we wrote about it was maybe a little lacking. So, like that’s a great and it’s a critical tool to get the outcome that we want from those communications.

44:28     Speaker: That’s great. And sort of the final piece of this—would you call yourself a successful writer in this specific organization and in your specific role?

44:37     Speaker: I would say that, you know, the—looking at how my performances appraised I think objectively yes. Looking from a sort of personal feelings perspective, I think that there are all there are lots of ways I could be better. And I’m always on the lookout for those opportunities to get to have an even better hit rate.

 

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Graphic Designer

Government & Military

Graphic Designer DOT

25:40

 

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

 

A: Sure. My position title is visual communications specialist, which is also a graphic designer, and I work for the US Department of Transportation at the Office of Inspector General, and I graduated from college in May of 2009, so it’s been about eight years.

Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?

 

A: Sure. I design graphics for our office and they’re mostly for external sources. So these are semi-annual reports that go to Congress, magazines that are distributed to stakeholders and just the public, brochures and media kids, and awards for employees, and conference materials – pretty much corporate graphic design is what I do.

 

Q: Great. How frequently are you required to write, if you could estimate on average, what percentage per week of your job requires some sort of writing?

 

A: So I work a 40 hour week, I would say that I spend at least a quarter of it writing.

 

Q: And so you kind of touched a couple different forms of writing that you do, brochures and stuff like that – can you talk a little bit more about the kinds of documents that you’re most frequently writing, that you’re most frequently asked to complete in your job?

 

A: Yeah. They’re usually public-facing documents or websites, so I’ll populate text for our office’s website, and I’ll also do any of the, a lot of media kids, a lot of stuff describing what kind of work our office does, their accomplishments, their mission, that kind of thing.

 

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by media kit?

 

A: Sure. A media kit – we’re actually in the process of updating it, but it is a kit that describes the function of our office, the different suboffices within our office, it sums up the kinds of audits and investigations that we do, the number, our return on investment, and the kinds of safety audits that we do. Basically just getting people to understand the importance of our office so that we can keep getting it funded, and I provide a lot of the visual and also the textual content that goes into these materials.

 

Q: Could you describe the primary audiences to which you’re typically writing, and primary purposes, which you’ve already touched on a little bit?

 

A: Yeah. The primary audience would be, in large part, the Congress, because we have a lot of committees that are interested in our audits and investigations. We also speak to the department of transportation itself – we’re sort of an independent office within that department. For example, we had to put together a lot of materials for the newest Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, because she wanted to know some background on our office. So a lot of that material that we put together went to her. So our audits and investigations are posted on our website, so that anybody who wants to read about the progress of contracts that the federal aviation administration, can go and read our audits. So those are our three main audience groups.

 

Q: And typically you said some of your purposes, your goals for writing here is to ensure a continued funding?

 

A: To ensure continued funding and also to make people aware of our work, because we do a lot of important work. Actually we did an audit of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s work on the General Motors ignition switch recall that happened recently, and just trying to figure out ways to make that organization better so that cars are safer. And I think there’s a lot of public interest in that work.

 

Q: So talking about media kids and the sort of informational and sometimes persuasive writing – were you familiar with these genres of writing when you were a student? And if so, how did it affect your approach to coming to them in the workplace?

 

A: No, I would not say that I was familiar with any of these genres. Any of the writing that I’ve been involved with at my organization – I’ve also written audit reports and helped write investigative documents as well – and all of those genres were brand new to me. When I was in school, I learned just general editing and document design, but not necessarily for any specific function. So it was definitely something I had to learn on the job – what the style and what the audience and what words I should use and not use.

 

Q: Can you describe a little bit your writing process, including how you’re given assignments, what your preparation is, and steps you take from the start to the finish of a project?

 

A: Sure. Generally, I have a boss, but I receive assignments from people all over my office. So they’ll come to me and ask for help on something, and I just talk to them about what kinds of materials they need, whether they do want to involve our writers, because our organization does have dedicated writer editors, but sometimes when I’m working on something– I actually used to be a writer editor, so a lot of people know that I already have writing skills built into the package, and so, depending on how extensive the work is, we might enlist another writer editor, or I’ll do the writing and editing myself. And as far as my process for doing the actual writing, I don’t know – I open up a Word document that’s blank [laughter] and I start typing, and then I kind of – this is a silly answer – I kind of put it away for a while and come back and look at it. I’ll send it to people to make sure it’s clear. Sometimes I’ll send it to a writer editor for an opinion, because I know that they have a lot of experience with that as well, and they provide good second eyes. Finally, I have to pass it around to the people who are hiring me to do this work, and make sure that they are happy with what I’ve written, and generally they are, they just want something that’s succinct and persuasive and targets the audience that they’re looking to market this piece to.


Q: Sure. So do you find yourself typically writing from a knowledge base that you already have, or do you find yourself having to do research to get started on some of these writing assignments?

 

A: A lot of the work that I do– I’ve been in this organization since I graduated from college, so since 2009, so I have a lot of institutional knowledge about this organization, which helps me, but there are some things that I do have to do research on. I had to write a piece for the web on our federal law enforcement authority, because our special agents carry guns, and there was a need to describe why these agents need to do that, what kind of work they do, and this is not anything I knew. So I had to talk to some investigators and do some research online before I wrote my piece.

 

Q: If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts – you talked a little bit about kind of passing it to other people you work with – how do you approach making these changes or improving your writing from one draft to the next?

 

A: Okay. Typically, most of the products I work on have to be reviewed by all of the levels of executives in our office, so I typically send one draft out to the assistant inspector generals, and there’s a group of maybe six or seven of them, and I ask them to give me their comments. Usually they funnel their stuff down to their program directors and they give me stuff. But I make all of their changes and then I send it up to the next level of executive, and then the next level of executive, and it seems to work out well. There are rarely, with the stuff that I do, the public-facing media, there’s rarely a lot of contention about edits. There might be some happy or glad quibbles, but it’s usually pretty smooth. Yeah, I’ll end there.

 

Q: So in terms of getting comments, are you typically getting comments back on the same document from multiple people at once, or it sort of one stage at a time?

 

A: I typically get comments from multiple people at a time, and with some of our reports that are like 100 pages long, that can be a little daunting to collect all of those comments, but it gets done every semi-annual period. So yeah, I think that’s all I have to say about that.

 

Q: Sure, yeah. So what’s kind of your process in terms of, I mean it’s very difficult to get multiple comments on one thing, how do you sift through and decide which comments to take and which to– ?

 

A: Well, I have a style guide for our semi-annual reports, and I make all edits for accuracy, and then as for style, I go for consistency. And if one person wants to say it this way, but historically we’ve said it this way and throughout our report, I will use the more consistent term. Some people recommend edits that are incorrect [laughter], so I’ll just not make those. And if there is something that seems notable, seems like someone really wants to make this edit but I’m not going to make it, I will call them and have a conversation with them about why I am not making that change, and usually that resolves that problem.

 

Q: So how long do you typically have to complete a writing project like this?

 

A: It depends, because a lot of these projects are, some of the projects are congressionally mandated. So our semi-annual reports to Congress are due every semi-annual period, and I have about two months to gather all this data and I also do layout and I edit, and it takes about two months, but I do other projects in between. But there are some other projects that are sort of nice-to-haves – we issue something called Impact Magazine, which is a magazine that compiles a lot of our more interesting investigative cases, like we took down this operation that sold faulty, counterfeit airbags, and we had photos of these rooms full of airbags that would kill people, basically. So that was a case that we highlighted in the magazine. That didn’t necessarily have a hard deadline, because everybody was working on it on the side. So we worked on that for about a year. But as for other writing projects, surprisingly even little assignments, like brochures which have like maybe 1000 words in it – it took forever, because everybody had an opinion on what words to use. But that also wasn’t on a strict deadline as well. For the writing that I do, the time crunch isn’t as present as it is for other forms of writing.

 

Q: So you’ve talked about this in a couple different ways, we’re at the question – what’s at stake in your writing? We’ve talked about funding, and talked about even just that airbag example. Can you give an example of the kinds of ideas, topics, that are sort of at stake that you guys are trying to prevent, or continue certain things going for the public?

 

A: Yeah. Well, in light of the budget cuts facing the government right now, we’re definitely trying to make sure that we get as much funding as we can to continue doing the work that we do, and trying to make sure that people understand the safety implications of our work and the financial benefits of our work. As far as the law enforcement thing – there has been some concerns about whether federal law enforcement officers, how many of them should be armed, should they be armed at all? So part of the case that I was trying to make with that piece on our web was to sort of make it clear what kinds of situations our special agents get into, and why they would need to be armed, because if we’re talking about multi-million dollar contracts, or drugs, or smuggling, those situations can get really hairy, and in most cases, having armed agents actually helps save lives. And other issues that we talk about – I don’t know if I have anything else that’s as large, but I’ll do things like create conference materials, and those are for internal, for our managers, for example. And a lot of that design and that writing is to sort of give legitimacy to the conference to make it something that people take seriously and really participate in. So that’s a different kind of persuasion that I do in my work. I think that that’s enough.

 

Q: Who oversees your writing? If you could give a brief description of their title, their role in your organization.

 

A: Yeah. The person who oversees my writing is, and like I said, I have a boss, but he doesn’t necessarily work with me on all of my projects, because I’m almost like an independent contractor in my office, so I have a lot of different bosses. But my direct boss, he is the director of the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs, and he’s an attorney. He doesn’t necessarily have a writing background, but he certainly has a handle on writing. And everybody else who oversees my writing doesn’t necessarily have a writing background either, but they have been in this organization for decades, so they know what kinds of products we put out and what kind of language we generally use for Congress or for the public.

 

Q: So those that do oversee your writing, how would you say that they typically judge the success or the quality of what you give them?

 

A: That’s a good question. The main thing that they’re looking for is something that people can understand, and that sounds really basic, but I work with a lot of accountants and investigators who definitely don’t have a writing background, and they’ll send me data, and I have to translate that into something that people want to read and can understand. And I think because the executives and other folks that read my writing are often slightly removed from the weeds of the data that I’m putting together, they’re a good judge of whether whatever topic that I’m discussing can actually be understood. And I think that’s the main criterion that they use.

 

Q: Have you had any formal writing training or education since you graduated college?

 

A: No.

 

Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer, including what kind of practical steps did you take in the office to overcome any early writing challenges like unfamiliarity with writing style, or form?

 

A: Yeah. I would say the main challenge that I faced entering the workforce as a writer was learning the interpersonal side of writing, because I took editing classes and I knew where to put my commas, but the hardest part was making a case for changing someone’s document, because people feel very strongly about their writing, and some people take it very personally. There was a lot of personal growth that had to happen for me to present my edits in a way that wouldn’t be conceived as personal attacks and sort of do a little compliment sandwich, “You know, you put periods at all the ends of your sentences. That was so awesome! But there’s no point to this,” [laughter]. So learning how to do that, and there were some cases where there was definitely some disagreements between me and the teams about what they wanted to see written down. Another part of the interpersonal skills I had to learn were knowing when to step back, because there are some cases when people are going to go forward with what they want and I could make my case, I would make my case once, and I would make it one more time, and it would be out of my hands. And so it’s sort of taking this zen approach to, like I don’t own this, I’m just trying to help. That was definitely something I had to learn, because I had to step back from the idea of, “But that’s wrong!” [laughter] – that was not the best way to do it. And so other than interpersonal skills, learning style was really just a matter of continued exposure to the materials that we produced, and just reading a lot of the materials that we had, and just working through revisions with people so that it sounded right, so getting my ear to be trained, and that’s pretty much it.

 

Q: Are you able to identify any change in your writing between college and your time in the workplace? And if so, to what would you attribute the shift?

 

A: Yes. I think that my writing is a lot more clear, it’s a lot more paired down, because I think in college I was writing, I was like, “Yeah, adjectives! I want lots of adverbs everywhere!” and I realized how much that obstructs the flow of reading sometimes. What I write really tries to get to the point as quickly as possible, and my writing has followed that pattern since that’s what I do every day.

 

Q: In what ways do you think your academic background prepared you to write in the workplace?

 

A: Well, I was just talking about writing flowery essays, but I do feel like– I was an English major, I majored in professional writing and editing, and I do feel like it gave me a solid knowledge of how to put a piece of writing together, like how to structure ideas so that I group like ideas together, and how to make sentences flow, one to the other, and just basic grammar. And a lot of that I find is actually very difficult for a lot of people to do, especially accountants, who are used to crunching numbers and counting beans. And so just having that basic foundation was very useful for my writing career.

 

Q: So then in what ways did you feel unprepared as a writer going into your job?

 

A: I wish that, as part of the English curriculum, someone would have sent me to charm school, or dealing with difficult situations [laughter], like I didn’t know it was going to be so fraught with interpersonal issues, like people are always involved, and if you don’t know how to deal with people, you’re not going to succeed in this role. So I think that’s something I never would have guessed when I was an English major, but I think that, if I were to tell myself to go through college over again, I would take more public speaking, I would take more negotiations classes, and anything along those lines.


Q: Would you consider yourself a successful workplace writer? Why or why not?

 

A: I would consider myself a successful workplace writer, and I consider myself successful because I am able to make recommendations for how our writing is put forth, and I’m able to convince our executives and the people who get to approve or disapprove of my writing, to go with what I put forth. And so it’s part writing the thing well, and the other part is convincing people that that’s what we need. And that’s how I measure my success.

 

Q: And finally, what skills do you think are most central to being successful in writing in your specific role?

 

A: So I already talked about the interpersonal part – I can’t emphasize that enough, because we do have writers who are more stubborn, like grammar nazis [laughter] – their edits are not taken as kindly, just because they’re not able to give and take. Another skill is being able to take complex technical ideas and distilling it into something that anybody can understand. That’s really the bulk of the job, it’s like being a translator. And let’s see, what else? I mean there’s also software skills, I mean I don’t know if you want to hear about that, but just things like making sure changes are tracked meticulously, because there’s some people who are very nervous about their writing being changed, and just being very respectful when approaching people’s work, so that they know exactly what changed in it. I think that’s it.

 

Q: Great.

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