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Putting the “Art” into Technical Art

Mike Frankl is a Principal Visual Content Designer and Editor with over 35 years of experience in and around technology. He blends creativity with technical content to produce infographics, proposals, white papers, and program documents. Mike has spent the last 12 years in the Cyber domain, creating visual and written content in support of programs enabling solutions for national security. When Mike isn’t creating content, he hangs out with his amazing wife Linda, takes orders from their two cats, goes outside and touches grass, or logs some hours on his PS5. Mike says, “You can’t get s#!t done if you don’t stay human.”

Technical art

So, What is Technical Art?

Technical art creates a bridge between aesthetics and functionality, creating a form of technical content that goes beyond stark information and compels through creativity. This approach often appears as conceptual art and infographics—forms of design that must provide visual appeal and withstand a level of technical scrutiny.

The roots of technical art trace back to venerable artists like Leonardo da Vinci.He created many technical concept designs that readily parallel modern concept and technical art, such as the Vitruvian Man. He also created many technical diagrams that reflect ideas from the practical to the adventurous.

In modern times, we see parallels to da Vinci in artists like Syd Mead and Walter Matthew Jefferies. Syd Mead’s work is prevalent in the movie industry, including projects for Tron, Blade Runner, Aliens, and others. Ever hear of a “Jefferies Tube” on Star Trek? It’s named after the late Walter Matthew Jefferies, creator of numerous design elements of the Star Trek universe, including creating interiors, props, and the iconic exterior of the USS Enterprise.

For me, my interest in creating technical art began with a drafting class in high school and a poster of the very same USS Enterprise hanging on my bedroom wall. I’ve worked in and around technology for over 35 years, starting in the electromedical design industry (wearing many hats) and eventually finding my way into visual design in a number of technical fields (e.g., electronics, geology, and cyber). I’ve always been an avid personal and professional artist—heavily influenced by technology.

Creating Technical Art

Technical art often starts with the need to translate a complex technical idea into a visual design that people can quickly grasp, which is not always easy. This process also helps refine the idea because gaps and inconsistencies quickly spring up once the marker meets the whiteboard. The adage, “you don’t understand something until you can draw it” is often true. I frequently use the following list as a pushing off point for technical art creation:

  • In a sentence, what is the message the art must convey?

  • Conversely, is there anything we don’t want the image to convey?

  • Are there any existing sketches, diagrams, or prior work?

  • What is the intended use and final format? Are we using it in a white paper, proposal, presentation, website, poster, slick sheet, etc.

  • Are there any design limits or requirements? Minimum font sizes, color limits, grayscale vs. color, maximum file size, etc.

Most conversations start with a ragged diagram (as shown on the right) and a brilliant technical person apologizing for the Crayola caliber of their content. After talking through the questions above, I try to translate elements from the sketch into meaningful items I can reference in later steps. Is the squiggly box a router, power supply, or a toaster? When items are “logical,” what is the nearest relation to a physical device? For example, firmware resides on physical chips; databases reside on computers and servers. I try to create this association as it often accelerates the understanding of the diagram by new viewers.

My preferred tool for technical art is typically a vector drawing tool, such as Affinity Designer or Adobe Illustrator. Vector art uses points, lines, curves, and shapes that the software’s underbelly represents as mathematical formulas. As such, vector art is fully scalable without loss of resolution, which enables faster work and modification as well as easier use in larger-scale print production.

Once I have the bones of the diagram laid out, I can experiment with elements, colors, and fonts within the goals and constraints of the intended use. I also use this time to consider aesthetic aspects of the diagram that go beyond technical accuracy. How can we enhance the diagram to make it more interesting while not becoming too distracting? This is the fuzziest part of the process as it draws from experience, intuition, and rapid ideation. I created the following image as an expanded vision of the initial input sketch from above, providing a more interesting interpretation of the technical content:

With a draft prepared, I return to the requestor, and other stakeholders, to review the diagram with them and gather any modifications or enhancements. I repeat the cycle until the diagram meets the desired goals. After approval, I use the vector files to output format-ready files, such as flat images, PDFs, or alternate vector formats, so the requestor can use the design as needed. It’s also beneficial to jot down any critical items or lessons learned about the project and place it with the design information.

When all is said and done, the most rewarding part of my work is seeing the final visual design help a great technical idea get traction. Technical solutions can be complex and extensive, but a clean, clear visual design can convey the idea to others in a meaningful way.

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