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How we made our skills go further

Marilyn Heron and Nick Tonge enhanced their roles by becoming expert designers of labels and carton artwork.

This article was published originally in Communicator (Winter 2013). Communicator is the authoritative, award winning, journal for UK technical communicators. It is home to high quality, objective, and peer-reviewed features – current, relevant, and in-depth.

In her keynote presentation at TCUK 2013, Sarah O’Keefe showed how technical communication can become more influential within an organisation. She argued that rather than being solely an advocate for the end-user of their company’s products, technical communicators should align themselves with their organisation’s business priorities. In recent years we have done exactly this.

Although our job title is still Technical Author and we carefully consider the end-users of our products when we prepare documents for them, we now recognise and influence our company’s business goals by being experts in the design of labels and carton artworks for our products. We are now far more involved in the whole product life cycle and have become more valuable within the business as a result. We work for Pace plc, the world’s leading supplier of set-top boxes for digital television.

Mission creep

In this article we will show how several changes in our company increased our responsibilities
so that:

  • We interact much more with the mechanical designers to advise on the placement of labels on product casings.
  • We liaise with the external suppliers of our blank label stock and cardboard cartons.
  • We know about label materials, their adhesives, printing inks and durability testing, and about carton materials, including printing methods.
  • Through the project managers, we have far more interaction with our customers, who are the world’s major TV broadcasters.
  • We understand the importance of barcodes, their format and serialisation, and how our customers use them for logistics and billing.
  • With the Approvals team, we ensure that all the regulatory, licensing and environmental information is included in our designs.
  • We have a far greater knowledge of the processes on the production lines in our factories and the rationale behind manufacturing in particular locations worldwide.
  • We understand the role our packaging and labelling plays in transportation logistics.
    In short, we know much more about our company, the people in it and their external contacts.

All change

Expansions, acquisitions and reorganisations at Pace plc in recent years have resulted in changes to the previously centralised Technical Publications department. This had comprised a manager and three authors, who also produced their own illustrations.

  • Pace expanded into India and our manager moved there to get Pace India up and running. Previously he had done all of the labels work, which he passed on to Nick, who had a very steep learning curve!
  • Our new manager decided a second author should help Nick (so that he could at least do some technical authoring), to provide cover and peer-reviewing of labels. As well as training this second author in the UK, Nick had to train our new Indian colleagues.
  • Pace acquired the Philips set-top box business and with it several more manufacturing sites throughout the world. This led to a change in the way we specify labels.
  • Pace’s Industrial Design team needed to off-load the design of artwork for cardboard cartons in order to concentrate on the innovative design of the products themselves. So we took on responsibility for carton artworks.
  • Pace reorganised into Strategic Business units, so we moved to the Americas team, our Indian colleagues to the International team and our manager and our second UK labelling author to other roles at Pace. This meant that Marilyn finally had to take on label design.
  • We are currently working through changes due to further acquisitions and a change in Pace’s information management system.

Are labels and cartons like manuals?

Of course the answer to this question is “yes and no”. Some labels contain only static information and we therefore design them rather like miniature documents. We then send the artwork files to a labels supplier, who manufactures and prints reels of these labels and ships them to the factories. However, many labels contain dynamic information in the form of serial numbers in barcode format as well as human-readable text, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Product serialisation label

On this label are several static elements such as mandatory logos, approvals marks,licensing statements and power rating, plus the model number. Many of these items would also occur in the product’s manual (and these elements are sometimes included on a separate pre-printed label).

The dynamic information is the two barcodes and numbers in the top left of the label, which uniquely identify each individual unit. For this reason, the information has to be printed onto blank labels on the production line. This is because the serial numbers are derived from databases and by reading product-specific information from the chips within each unit. Our customers use these barcodes for transport/storage logistics and to link units to specific end-users, so they can be billed appropriately for the TV services they use.

Figure 2 shows the labels desk in our office, where we design labels on a PC, print samples and use scanners to test them. This set-up is similar to how this would be done on a production line.

We used to send the label design files to the factory, but, as we acquired more manufacturing sites, some were not using the same labelling software as we were. We therefore started sending drawings of the labels and a label specification
to the factories, where they now create their own label files. We ensure they do this correctly by testing factory samples from them.

We need to think about labels very early in the life-cycle of a product, where we advise on the design of product casings, so that there is sufficient space and suitable surfaces for label application. Many products also require tamper-evident labels, which show, by leaving a distinguishing residue, whether an attempt has been made to open the product casing. For all labels, we require a comprehensive knowledge of their materials and adhesives, including how these perform in various environmental conditions.

Serialisation labels also go on the product packaging (see Figure 3), so it makes sense that we simultaneously design the carton labels and carton artworks.

To create carton artwork, we use the layers feature of Adobe Illustrator to lock a 1:1 size drawing of the flattened carton (obtained from the external carton supplier) on one layer. We then add other layers to give background colour, the artwork itself and labels. This drawing is used not only for the artwork that is sent to the carton printers, but also to generate perspective drawings of the carton, as shown in Figure 3. We then use these perspective views, plus other drawings and photographs, to generate label position and print instructions for use on the production lines. We also write specifications for labels and carton artwork.

Figure 2. Label design, printing and scanning


Figure 3. Carton artwork and label 

Do authors make good label and carton designers?

In some respects, designing labels and cartons is like creating manuals because:

  • We are used to laying out text and pictures, although with labels it is often a case of fitting a lot of information into too small a space.
  • Some of the information needed on labels is the same as is needed for the manual.
  • We have an eye for detail and are careful to consider the readership, even when some of the readers (the barcode scanners) are not human!
  • We still need to write label instructions.

However, for labels and cartons, we are much more involved with:

  •  product design
  • liaison with external suppliers and customers
  • materials selection, approvals and testing
  • factory processes and costing
  • packaging and transportation logistics.

Our roles are far more embedded in the whole production process; it would be difficult to get in a contractor to do our job.

As a result of embracing change at Pace, we have made our skills go further and become much more visible and valuable to the company. When asked what we do for a living, we now say: “We are technical authors, BUT…”

Marilyn Heron BSc, MISTC is a Principal Technical Author at Pace plc, where she has worked for 21 years. Her forte is service manuals but she’s been labelling for a couple of years now. E: marilyn.heron@pace.com.

Nick Tonge BSc, MISTC is a Senior Technical Author at Pace plc, where he has worked for nine years. He is Pace’s labelling expert but also finds time for some traditional authoring work. E: nick.tonge@pace.com.