We’re Number Two!

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons. (Woody Allen)

Art, as a part of your job, often makes you more money than art as the job. The fine artist starves; the architect prospers. The production artist is poorly paid; her ad-agency boss, the creative director, makes extremely good money. Creative directors direct the work of others, approving and rejecting concepts and proofs... and, because they can draw, frequently toss in conceptual sketches to keep projects on the right track.

Start thinking about your art skills as a secondary asset that you bring to the employment table. A very, very, important asset that you can use to add value to your work, an extra skill that kicks your earnings into high gear.

As the old Avis ad campaign put it, “We’re Number Two!” Which is where you want to be, with the ability to draw, to create, as a secondary part of your toolbox, backing up your primary skill set. This frees you up to make a lot more money than anyone would ever pay a graphic artist. And don’t worry, you’ll still get to draw a lot as part of your primary profession. For example, art skills can help an executive close a deal – like entrepreneur Herb Kelleher’s famous sketch:

Sitting in a San Antonio bar with a business partner in 1967, Kelleher picked up a cocktail napkin and rapidly sketched out a simple triangle while posing this question: “What if we were to create a small, local airline that connected these three cities?” With that sketch, the idea that brought in $5 million financing for Southwest Airlines was sold. Never would have happened if Kelleher was trying to draw the concept on a laptop screen. “Um, just a second, give me a minute, almost there...”

Don’t know how to draw? Beg, borrow, or steal, whatever it takes, but get yourself into one of Professor Jen-Marie Zeleznak’s Drawing courses at Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Arizona. ART 101, Drawing I. Or ART 216, Drawing II. Because your ability to draw, to sketch, will open doors for you in so many occupations throughout your life. True that! And Jen-Marie has that rare ability as a teacher – to take you on at any starting ability level -- and VERY rapidly help you improve your sketching skills.

Of course, having the best ‘Number 2’ art skills in the world won’t be much help – if your primary occupation is a loser. What’s a loser? Low-paid, industry on the ropes, old technology, overly-risky, heavy offshoring, you fill in the blanks. And if you’re in a losing game, you want to make a sideways move and get into something a lot more promising.

We’re Number 2 – Technical Publications

I want to tell you about a great, but almost invisible, primary profession – technical publications. Some call it ‘technical communications’. In the main, it employs technical writers and, less often, technical illustrators. Great, in this discussion, because tech writers with graphic art and illustration skills are promoted much faster than writers with zero art skills. Also great, because of this secret: tech writers actually don’t write very much! When you assemble a high-tech user manual, you get the engineers and scientists to write most of it for you. Like the hard parts. Why? Well, because you’re not an engineer, are you? That manual has to be accurate – it is not fiction.

Most of your work – sssh, don’t tell anybody – is basically desktop publishing. Formatting pages, headers, footers. Easy stuff. But you are paid a lot more than a desktop publisher. Lots more. And, if you can make simple diagrammatic and process-flow technical illustrations (easy!) you go to the head of the pack (see Microsoft Visio). And, amazingly, soon find yourself doing all sorts of business-related art, as the word gets around that you’re the art guy. Tech writing is a totally non-sexist and non-racist profession, by the way. Like most high-tech jobs, you will be judged on your abilities. Period. You can’t skate by on your ancestry or social status. The cream rises to the top, with a minimum amount of corporate politicking along the way.

How do you get to be a tech writer? it’s easy. Find a junior college, or a 4-year college with a 2-year certificate course. You’ll probably use Microsoft Word and Google Docs, but there are other popular techpubs programs, like MadCap Flare and Document 360. Other software is more generic – absolutely PowerPoint, Photoshop (old version 7 will do just fine, and Adobe Illustrator (old version 8 and up).

How do you get a job? Make a user manual, a software user manual, for free (if you have to) for a small high-tech startup, and then go wave it at an large employer, along with, hopefully, a certificate from a junior college or university with a technical communications course. Why a software manual? Because they are easier to make than a hardware manual (an operations guide). Software is a program... you put it on your computer, and and describe how it works. Easy, you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to be out on a factory floor trying to get some overworked, hung-over technician to show you how Part A screws into Part B. Want to see a really great user manual? There’s a super little company in Scotland, Anthemion, and they make a wonderful little ebook editor-compiler called Jutoh. Get the Jutoh manual here it’s free and a good example that you can study.

Other examples are all over the web – just google ‘pdf user manual’.

Key point – at a job interview, if you can draw, they’ll overlook the fact that you know absolutely nothing about embedded modem chip cores or whatever it is they make. And you can get a good heads-up on all that before the interview, studying up on Google and Wikipedia.

Once you’re on the job, you can count on doing basic product photography – and product illustrations:

Money – technical publications work pays well. After all, you are a white-collar professional. Go to Payscale and see for yourself. Not bad! And scroll down the Payscale.com page... everything you need to know is right there. Love the internet!

Tech pubs is also low stress. There are deadlines, but they are sort of fuzzy. Tech writers are basically invisible to the higher-ups, so you never have a bunch of amped-out suits breathing down your neck. They just don’t know you are there, unless a product blows up and they frantically come to see if you put safety notes in the user manual. The engineers that you work with regard you as a necessary annoyance, but most of them are semi-literate and are actually very glad that you can take their mangled techno-babble and turn it into recognizable prose. Prose that is written and formatted according to the official company style guide, which, of course, is produced by guess who. Translating engineer-speak has gotten harder, by the way, since the flood of H-1B foreign engineers came in. But their fractured English increases your job security, so don’t complain!

Besides user manuals, tech writers also make user help sub-programs, which run when you click ‘Help’ on the toolbar of any program. You work with programmers here, who will compile your user guide, made perhaps with Adobe Robohelp, into the main program itself.

Notice, so far, that I haven’t discussed the obvious tech pubs profession for an artist, which is called ‘technical illustrator’. That’s because the pay is less than for ‘tech writer’ or ‘e-learning developer’ ... and a lot less than for ‘multimedia designer’, the best job of all in a big tech pubs department (you get to do everything, and nobody knows exactly what you do. It’s as good as being in Marketing). But if you really hate to write – can’t handle even the basic ‘put Part A into Part B’ kind of stuff – then technical illustrating’s for you. So great to get good pay and benefits to draw all day! Ka-ching!


We’re Number 2 – Marketing Communications

It’s called Marcom – marketing communications. Every corporation has a marcom department. Marcom people make ‘collateral’ – brochures, data sheets, reports – sales material. Some of the work is made in-house, and other work-- ads, logos – are made by outside ad agencies or by freelance artists and writers. There’s a certain point where higher-level managers trust an outside agency more than their own in-house people.

You may also be tasked to design trade show exhibits – another outlet for your art skills, creating giant posters and signage for shows where your company introduces and sells its products. This can be a lot of fun, particularly if you are working with a graphics shop in Japan for a trade show in Tokyo.

Like tech pubs, this is another area where art, as a secondary skill, will greatly enhance your career path as a marcom worker > manager > director. Same as on the engineering side, PowerPoint presentations are the lingua franca – the way information is communicated. Get good at PowerPoint, and you’re halfway there. And you’ll bring art you make in Xara or Photoshop into PowerPoint, for slide illustrations.

Of course, you can always start out as a marcom artist, a marcom illustrator – but, as rapidly as possible, you’ll want to start writing reports, start making presentations, to move up the ladder. You don’t want to be typecast as ‘just the artist’, because that’s who gets laid off first when a recession hits. But knowing about art – and being able to draw – really helps when you become a marcom manager or director and have to deal with ad agency people. Or, when you present an idea to your boss, usually a marketing vice-president.

Marcom downside? Lots of deadlines, and occasional long hours producing RFQs – Requests for Quotations. Much more pressure than tech pubs. More meetings; lots more meetings. Upside? Nobody else in the company knows exactly what you do, it’s all rather mysterious, which can lead to nice long lunch breaks if there’s no deadline to meet.

We’re Number 2 – E-learning

E-learning development is a rapidly growing profession. It’s an outgrowth of the older corporate training departments, where a trainer would stand in front of a class and mumble on about, say, XML schemas, while the audience would desperately try to stay awake. Now, that trainer costs money, particularly if he’s hired in from an outside company. And he can only teach about 20 people at a time. So what happens if your main customer starts complaining about a high microchip failure rate – and, overnight, you need to train ALL your workers in ESD (electro-static discharge) safety procedures?

Enter e-learning. Used to be called CBT – computer-based training... boring text-based screens, multiple-choice tests. But that was then. E-learning today uses a LOT of artwork, as well as animations, to pictorially get across concepts to high-tech workforces where many, many workers aren’t so good at English. You’ll make audio voiceovers (free Audacity is excellent), short video inserts with any digital camera, still images with Xara or Photoshop, and patch them all into an E-learning sequence with a program like Adobe Captivate.

If you get into this hot new profession, pick up a book by Ruth Clark, Graphics for Learning – you’ll pick up enough buzzwords to keep up with the Master’s degree people (usually ex-teachers) who are moving into this field like flies to honey. Again, your art skills make you very valuable... all these folks know what they want to teach, but don’t have the slightest idea how to actually make a functioning e-learning module. Your help is invaluable!

Tip: keep your e-learning modules brief. A three-minute runtime is perfect (never go over six minutes, the length of a typical Bugs Bunny cartoon). Your computer-using e-learning students have very short attention spans. Break the material up into short chunks and keep it simple and short. As of 2024, attention spans are getting even shorter. Keep Instagram videos to less than 59 seconds. TikTok? 30 seconds!

Remember – art, as a secondary part of your job, helps you make more money than art as the job itself. Much more!

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