Tag Archives: guest blog

Things I wish I’d understood when I was in design school

School is a bubble, a safe haven from the real world. Cultivate curiosity. Stay up all night X-actoing. Try to understand that right now you don’t really have to worry about dental bills, insurance, rush deadlines, press checks, expense reports, and pitches. Retirement benefits are important (unless you want to work until the age of 80), and compound interest is worth learning about. One day you’ll be responsible for all that, and you won’t ever be able to find the time for anything.

Write down your goals, draw a map of things you’d like to do. Once the seasonal structure of school is gone, life can start to feel like a never-ending free fall or a stagnant pool of sameness if you don’t draft your own direction. You will learn more at your first real job than you did in school.

A job is a job, so don’t take it too personally. Work can sometimes bog you down and make you forget that you’re alive. You can make your life anything you want it to be, but you’ll have to be the one to take the actions to get you there. This may seem obvious and sound easy; it is not.

If you’ve never had a crappy job, get one, at least for a little while. Later in your career, when you’re a manager, you need to remember what it felt like to make minimum wage and do menial work.

Learn how to almost always say yes, even when your initial reaction may be no. Use social media strategically. Create on a regular basis, not just for your job, but for yourself. Then put your work out there for everyone to see. Be flexible. Details matter. Use grids most of the time and kern thoughtfully. Read. Look. See. Remove the price sticker from your portfolio case before going to your first job interview.

Seek and foster relationships with mentors you respect. Jump into chaos, fix the problems later. Sit beneath a very old tree and look up. Know design history. Designing non-functional typography á la David Carson won’t work for most paying clients. Hoefler & Frere-Jones is not a fancy French winery. Know your type foundries and understand that at some point you will have to pay money for a font.

Have strong opinions. Share them, but don’t push them. There are no absolutes.

Travel, near and far. Embrace empathy; it is the key to all successful relationships. Purposely leave your comfort zone; familiarity and habit can make you stagnant. Accumulate stories. Understand that as a problem solver, you’re obligated to explore and be open to all experiences. This is how you will make new connections and arrive at surprising solutions. This is also how you’ll come to feel super alive.

We’re all in this crazy world together, and don’t ever become so selfish that you forget it. The government isn’t always right, and corporations are not people, no matter what legislation says. Some misguided people will try to pay you a lot of money to design something that is unethical. Go to a quiet place and really think about if it’s worth it. Use your problem solving and visual communication skills for good; give back to the world that helped you get to where you are today. As a designer especially, you have an obligation to a greater good; don’t leave a legacy that ruins the future of others.

There is so much more you don’t know. Realize it, and let that knowledge humble you and inspire you to keep seeking. Don’t waste your time always searching for advice from other people. If you take time to listen to the quiet of your heart, you will come to understand that you already know the answer.

A lot of other people have advice to give. Here are some of my favorites:

David Foster Wallace – Kenyan commencement speech

Stefan Sagmeister – Things I have learned in my life so far

Frank Chimero – The Particle

Ira Glass – on being an artist

First Things First Manifesto 2000 – on ethics and the responsibility of being a designer

About the Author

Jessica Yurasek is a Creative Strategist at Innovation Protocol, a strategic brand consulting firm. She also works with socially conscious non-profits such as The Tiziano Project and Counterspill.org to promote truth through storytelling using design along with new media platforms. Find her on Twitter @missjessrose.

The value of student internships

Last week, I had the honor of returning to the old classroom of my undergraduate days to speak to future professional writers about what our field is all about. The experience filled me with both nostalgia and excitement of being on the old grounds, and it made me reflect on just how far I’ve come since the days I came daily to that room. It was a treat to sit beside some of my old professors instead of on the other side of the teacher/student relationship. I felt, for a moment, like I’d “made it” (I’m not entirely sure what “it” is in this case, but hopefully you understand what I mean).

At one point in the conversation, the question arose: “What didn’t the major do to prepare you that you wish it did?”

I had a difficult time with this question, mostly because I had a very diverse college career. My time in Computer Science taught me how to learn new programming technologies and took care of the technical side that many students have said MSU’s Professional Writing program sometimes lacks. My time in the Communication Arts and Sciences major as a cognate taught me about other genres, like video and audio and a little on Flash, that I didn’t have the chance to explore in my major either. But the big takeaway I had by my final year for college wasn’t anything the major did wrong, but something in general that college doesn’t prepare you for.

College doesn’t prepare you for actually working in any given field. It is for that reason that I cannot stress enough to any current college student, and especially students of Professional Writing, to get an internship while you’re still in school.

Let me explain what I mean by that. I’m not trying to say that you do not learn skills in college that you will use in your job; that would be untrue. What I am saying is that while in college, you are using these skills as part of your class. Your “client” and your “audience” will always be your teacher, who in most cases is a single individual. Your “deadlines” are set in stone, and you are given obvious guidelines as part of your project. The members of your team will be your academic peers, ensuring you can know certain things about their skill level and expertise and your ability to relate to them in general.

These limited variables are not true in the actual working world. Your client could be a major organization who has designated a representative to your group that cannot spare more than one hour a week to talk to you about the project. Your deadline may or may not be a reasonable amount of time to do the work that has been requested. Your project guidelines may be completely undefined as the client doesn’t know or maybe even care what they want from you other than “a website, and a better one than the one we have right now.” It’s up to you to figure out what “better” means and how to do it in their budget and time line. Furthermore, your client may or may not provide you with valid information regarding your audience, and you and your team might not have time to further investigate that yourself. Even if you figure all this, your team may consist of individuals who are much younger or older than you, and at different stages of knowledge and training in the fields relevant to this project.

Any number of those mysteries could occur in any combination on a project you are assigned in the work world. Upon dealing with such amazing challenges, you may quickly find that a field you thought you would enjoy is actually fraught with a lot of things you can’t stand.

For that reason, students should strive to get work experience in the field they are interested in while they are still working on their undergrad. For students at MSU’s PW program, there is no shortage of internship opportunities in the area, and the faculty and staff within the program are great at finding and tracking these opportunities down.

For myself, I went through my time in the PW program expecting to graduate and become a technical writer. In the classroom I enjoyed technical writing and the challenge it presented to speak on complex topics and yet keeping the language simple enough for readers not within the field to understand. Doing this sort of work struck me as a way to find a stable career in nearly any field, and would give me an excuse to spread my focus across as many of my interests as I wanted.

I got an internship working for a group on campus that was trying to update a severely out-of-date manual on the aerial application of agricultural chemicals (or “crop-dusting” as we tend to actually call it). While I enjoyed the challenge of the writing, I quickly found out that the organization I was with had too many other projects on their plate that stopped them from focusing on making this document effective. My editor did a quick job revising my work, and the discussions about the effectiveness of one approach or another that I wanted to happen didn’t really happen. The project’s manager would often accept my chapters and leave me for days without work, offering no suggestions as to how I could spend my time. Despite finishing my part of the project before its deadline, it never moved beyond that and as soon as the internship was over, I wasn’t convinced that it was going to go anywhere anytime soon.

During the same summer, I began working as a web developer for another organization on campus as second part-time job. I was quickly surprised at how much more thrilled I was at the challenges this job provided me over technical writing, as it allowed me more freedom to explore my artistic side as a designer, my coding side when writing HTML and CSS, and my writing side when I’d be asked to write training documents for our clients. It felt like a perfect match and it was from that experience that I realized that I would get such enjoyment turning web development from what was at that time a hobby into a career. The web work often suffered similar problems with feedback delays and deadline shuffles as the writing one, but I found them less frustrating there. That’s because I found the work itself so much more rewarding that the frustrations that came with the job were minor compared to the joy success brought me.

When summer ended, I had to choose one job to continue — I couldn’t keep them both as a full-time student. I discussed the matter with both of my employers, but after the technical writing internship made it pretty clear I wouldn’t really have work to do again until October, I continued on as a web developer.

This valuable lesson was something I could not have learned in the classroom. I had to learn it in the trenches of the work world.

So students! Ask yourself what you’d like to do when you graduate. It’s okay if you are conflicted between two or three things. Try to create an academic schedule that will allow you try all of them while you are still a student, and get a feel for what your true calling is. You don’t want to end up in your late-20s, unhappy with your job because you didn’t ask these questions as a student. Likewise, the effort will give you work experience that you’ll find will make you all the more desirable to a possible employer.

About the Author

Adam Robert Clegg is a Web Developer for Michigan State University’s University Relations Division as part of their Web and Social Media Team. You can see his completed works on his portfolio. When he’s not coding web pages, he’s “pwning n00bs online” and tweeting about it.

Work on yourself before looking for work

The other day I received an email to the Tridea inbox. It was a student in search of a job. Now, normally I don’t respond to these emails, because we’ve never looked at hiring, and are no longer in business, but this one I couldn’t ignore. This person needed help. Here is the original email, with the name removed:

Dear Employer:

Thank you so much for taking the time to consider my credentials for this position. I have been a dedicated Graphic Designer for over four years. Design is not only my career goal but also my lifestyle, education and passion. This opportunity would not only allow for my creative expression, but also my career advancement. I am motivated, creative, team oriented and individually resourceful. I am proficient in Adobe Creative Suite (CS4 Edition) and Microsoft Office. I am particularly experienced with Adobe InDesign and very interested in print design. I am looking for a professional position where I can grow as a designer and as an individual. I assure my employer that I will not only meet but surpass the expectations of my position. Due to my efficiency and professional perseverance, I am looking for a full time or part time position, with generous compensation and a benefits package. Both my resume and my portfolio link will be attached to this application. Please feel free to contact me at the number or email address listed below. Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to review my resume and portfolio.

I didn’t even know where to start. So I decided to not beat around the bush at all, and give her my dead honest opinion of what I thought of her cover letter/email and resume. I left her with a few solid tips on what she needed to do to improve herself before future employees would take her seriously. This is my response:

Hey [Name Removed],

Thanks for contacting Tridea. Unfortunately, we are no longer in business, we’ve just been late on taking down our site. But I’m responding to this email because I want to give you a few tips when searching for a position…

First off, without beating around the bush, your cover letter/email is bland and generic. You should always personalize your email. If you don’t have a name, do some work and find a name. It shows that you’ve done some work on your end, and makes the person feel that you are talking directly do them. The tone of your cover lever seems like you copy/paste that into every single company that you send this email out to. That’s not a good thing.

Second, along with personalizing every email, you need to tell these companies how they can benefit from you. In other words, what value do you provide them? Why should they hire you? You should mention this in your cover letter, and be prepared to answer it in interviews. If you can’t answer it, then maybe they shouldn’t hire you, right?

Third, your resume needs work. Prove that you’re a graphic designer, and put some work into designing a resume that sets you apart (visually) from others. Right now, it looks generic, and if I’m a company hiring, I won’t spend more than a couple seconds looking at this before I’m on to the next one. And the fact that you don’t have a ton of industry experience doesn’t help you, so that’s even more reason why the design of your resume should be badass.

Also, only list positions that matter. In other words, if they have nothing to do with the job you’re going after, get rid of it. It’s better to have a little information than too much info with fluff. So the cashier, customer support, data entry, and admin support…. get rid of it. Instead, maybe list out the freelance projects you did, and explain what you did with them.

Here is an example of my resume that you can look at, and hopefully it helps: http://www.jwphill.com/resume.pdf

Sorry if I’m being harsh, but I feel the need to help out fellow designers. And if you’re serious about getting a full time job in this industry, then you need to put in a little more work for yourself, and how you market yourself. Because if you don’t take the time to carefully market yourself, why should a company pay you to do theirs.

If you’re a student, or just looking for a creative job, put some work into yourself. Don’t half-ass your approach. Prove to your [potential] future employer that you care enough about your own professional presentation, that you’re worth investing in. Get creative with your cover letter, and definitely design your resume so that it doesn’t look like every other default design that probably gets shredded because it’s boring.

So why did I do this? Why not just archive the email and move on with life? Well, because I care. If I was a student, I would want to know how to better myself and my approach. This email made me wonder, “Is this what students are doing to get jobs?” This should not be a representation of current design students and the school that she’s coming out of. And because I love this industry, I want to do my part in helping others get into this industry, because it’s awesome.

So I hope these tips are useful to others, and I’d be glad to give more tips if interested. But don’t be like the example above when going after a job, unless you’re looking for an instant rejection.

About the Author

john-phillipsJohn Phillips is a user interface designer, creative thinker, and entrepreneur. He is very active on Twitter, as well as other places on the web like his blog, Tumblr, Facebook, Daily Booth, and more.

Little Black Dash

I’ve used and abused em dashes since high school. Every theme paper I wrote was peppered with dashes, and I began to view the illustrious em dash as pepper-punctuation to spice up my otherwise formulaic essay. I had a teacher ask why I chose to use em dashes instead of the more frequently abused comma, but my only reason was that I liked them—they seemed to fit in with my sentences well. Punctuation personality quizzes tell me I’m an em dash. I have, in my course as a writer, editor, tweeter, and Facebook-er, decided that the em dash is the punctuation world’s equivalent of the little black dress.

To clarify before I continue, there are three dashes in all English usage: the en dash (–), the em dash (—), and the 3-em dash (———). Try to think of them as hemlines.

The en dash appears frequently, but has a specific purpose, like, say, a miniskirt. It’s shorter than our little black dash—the length of the letter n. The job of an en dash is to show a range, be it of numbers, amounts, dates, scores—safely anything else that may otherwise require the word to between values. It is a preemptable piece of punctuation, so if a range is proceeded by a preposition like between or from, use the words to, from, or through in place of the dash. It is also a stand-in for the hyphen to avoid ambiguity when connecting hyphenated terms and open compounds. In other words, let the user beware of the en dash; it is difficult to pull off.

The 3-em dash is long and unusual like an evening gown, and you use it only on very formal occasions; that is, in certain types of bibliographic systems when you reference the same author but a different work. Sometimes, too, you use a 3-em dash in place of omitted words, like the black bars over bodies when the person has omitted clothing.

An em dash is a beautiful, functional piece of punctuation, perfectly balanced for all of your writing needs—like the LBD. It can arrest attention in the middle of a word party, exemplify good taste in relating a list, and is appropriate for even the most solemn of written occasions, even showing one overcome—with—emotion—. Its length is just right. The eye slides across the dash and focuses immediately on the words after it. You can see the space it creates, its slim line coming at you from a paragraph away.

The em dash is the most versatile—and not surprisingly, the most common—of all the dashes. Its foremost use is to set off digressions or descriptions within text a little more than normal. With these functions, a pair of em dashes make an interesting alternative to commas, colons, semicolons, and parentheses when used correctly. But be careful—too many will make your text feel breathless, much like how you’d feel wearing a little black dress in a wrestling match.

It’s true that some textual stylists conclude that the em dash is overused and should be avoided unless there are no other options for punctuation. However, it is more likely that they are tired of seeing such a staple misused and mistaken. Either way, the little black dash is one of those things you should always have hanging on your keyboard, a little piece that can do you and your writing so much good.

Rebecca Butcher is a recent graduate of Michigan State University and a new resident of New York. She is the editor of everything from your paragraphs to a generation’s array of emotions and enjoys every second of it. Drawing parallels without drawing conclusions is her second favorite activity. You can contact her, tweet her, and even facebook her with your thoughts in general — communication is what she’s all about.

Starting a business on the side

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Creative Arts Forum at Michigan State this past week and it far exceeded my expectations. The turnout was great, it was a creative atmosphere, and the event as a whole was very informal…just how us creatives like it.

My 5-minute presentation was titled “Starting a Business on the Side”, which is exactly how it sounds: starting your own business/freelancing while working a full-time job. There were three main tips that I wanted to get across to students: Paying attention in your day job, networking with others, and learning how to balance your work/play life. Here are the slides from my presentation with the summary of them below:

Don’t Snooze

In other words, if you’re looking to start your own business while working full time, don’t just go to your day job to collect a check. It is very important that you learn how business is done, things that are right, and things that are wrong. Learn from your whole working environment: how projects are managed, how collaboration is done with various departments in the company, and so on.

Client communication is also very important. Whether you’re a designer, developer, or technical writer, it can be a challenge explaining exactly what you do to justify a client spending all that money (and trusting you). Talking to clients is something that you will have to learn, and it takes practice to get good at it. Find people in your day job that are good at communicating with clients, and model yourself after them.


As I mentioned in my In the Workplace interview, building relationships is one of the most important things you can do when starting a business. While it’s good to know other people that share your same job, it’s also very important to broaden your scope and meet people outside of your industry. Since you’re soft selling yourself, as is the person you’re networking with, you never know when someone will need your services, or when you will need someone else’s services.

Networking doesn’t have to be formal, which I originally thought. It’s just socializing. It’s finding common interests with other professionals. An easy way to dip your toes in the water is to start online. Join Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, or interact with people on Twitter. From there, find out about local events that you can attend. I’ve personally met some of the most interesting people at Tweetups.


Since you’ll be working full time, trying to start a business, and wanting a personal life, you will need balance. It is a must that you learn how to balance your life and manage your time effectively. Some say working more hours in the day equates to more work getting done. I disagree. More hours worked means you’re running a higher risk of burning out. Get off the computer. Seriously, either shut it down, or just walk away and disconnect sometimes. You’ll thank yourself for refreshing your brain and not working yourself into the ground. Inspiration often happens when you least expect it, aka when you’re not working. So go relax, read a book, play video games, or visit a museum.

My favorite part of the Arts Forum was the mixer, where I got a chance to meet some great people and students at MSU. I enjoyed sharing knowledge with students and loved how engaged they were when I was speaking with them. You could really sense their passion for their work and their desire to get the right start to their career or entrepreneurial endeavors. I hope they learned from me, and I hope I have the chance to connect with more students in the future.

John PhillipsJohn Phillips is a user interface designer who runs his own company, Tridea Design, on the side while working full time as a user interface engineer at Campbell-Ewald. He’s very active on Twitter, as well as other places on the web like his blog, Tumblr, Facebook, Daily Booth, and more.

TEDxDetroit: Ideas worth spreading

I’ve had a busy morning. I’ve taken the road less traveled, tackled my to-do list with a machete, narrowly escaped the deathly mortal jaws of the lava monster living in my kitchen, and evicted all negathoughts living in my head.

I’m not crazy; these are the side effects of attending TEDxDetroit last Wednesday.

The idea behind TED started in Long Beach, California with the intention of bringing together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment, and Design to share their ideas worth spreading. Originally, the only way to experience TED was attending the exclusive California event, but that changed when the organization released videos online, launching a global phenomenon.

The power of the TED concept is obvious. TED devotees realize knowledge is connected and when people from different realms of knowledge share their ideas, powerful and positive change occurs.

The newest addendum to the TED family is TEDx, a string of independently organized events occurring anywhere enterprising individuals are willing to organize an event. When Charlie Wollborg, Founding Partner of Curve Detroit, heard the news, he jumped on the opportunity to host an event that brought the area’s leading creators, catalysts, entrepreneurs, artists, technologists, designers, scientists, thinkers, and doers together to discuss positive ideas for the world from Detroit.

Not just positive ideas—positive ideas worth spreading. And on October 21, that is exactly what happened. Continue reading

Doing what you love to loving what you do: a journey from internship to employment

I’ll never forget it.

I was riding the CATA bus on an overcast day in March, on my way to the Communication Arts building at MSU. It was the spring of 2006 and I couldn’t believe I was about to become a statistic. I never thought it would be me, but there I was, about to change my major.

Journalism was my first love and the reason I chose to attend MSU. Yet here I was abandoning it, trading it in for the political, dirty, oversexed world of (gasp!) advertising.

It wasn’t the transition I was ultimately upset with; it was the fact that the institutionalized world of education forced me to choose one avenue, one path, one passion to study. “How is this even possible?” I thought to myself. “How can I be expected to choose?”

But my passion for design at the time was slightly greater than that of writing (we’re talking fractions). So, I made the switch and vowed to enroll in as many journalism (JRN) classes as my new major would allow. There weren’t many opportunities, but in the fall of 2007 I found myself in JRN 205, Writing for the Media.

My instructor for the course, and now my boss at M3, was Tiffany Dowling. Tiffany was the first, and one of few, to take a professional chance on my abilities as a student.

It was October of my junior year, and I realized I had nothing to lose. Tiffany knew everyone in Lansing, so I laid my cards on the table for her one day after class. Continue reading

2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference

A few weeks ago, I attended the 2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference hosted by the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN). You may have seen our event hashtag (#09ntc) trending on Twitter. Approximately 1,400 non-profit techies came together for three days in San Francisco, California.

A big focus of the conference was definitely social media. Nonprofits are exploring new ways of spreading their mission and deploying their message, which often involve YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. Nonprofits are not only using social media to reach their audiences, they are also using social media for fundraising and recruitment purposes. However, nonprofits are quickly learning that in order to maximize the benefits of social networking, the communication needs to go both ways; conversations are much more effective than one-way communication blasts.

Highlights of the conference included the plenary speakers who kicked off the conference each morning.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, spoke about digital networking and grassroots activism. Some memorable snippets:

  • “The loss of control you fear is already in the past.”
  • “Once one person solves the problem once, the problem stays solved for everybody.”
  • “Don’t hire consultants. Hire your own 23-year-olds.”
  • “Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream. The problem wasn’t the ice cream: it was the group.”

Eben Moglen, law professor at Columbia University, spoke about the ownership of software and knowledge:

  • “Knowledge has to be shared to be valuable.”
  • “In the digital world, we have escaped the constraints of scarcity but still bias against sharing.”

However, the best part of the conference was Holly Ross (Executive Director of NTEN) and her remake of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” music video. Holly’s video was a thank you to the NTEN community for donating scholarship money to help others attend 09NTC.

My favorite breakout session was entitled “Effective Online Communications.” This session, as well as many others, emphasized the need to plan and strategize before launching any new communications efforts (and to reevaluate old efforts once in a while to make sure they are still serving your original purpose!).

You can find my notes from 09NTC on my work blog. In addition, many of the breakout session materials are also available online.

Kristen Byers is the New Media Development Specialist for the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and she holds a B.A. in Professional Writing from Michigan State University. She recently attended the 2009 Nonprofit Technology Conference and we invited her to share what she took away about nonprofits, social media, and professional writing.

Copyright and Digital Writing

Last fall, with the help of the Writing in Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State University, I conducted a study among technical and professional writers (writing in educational contexts), “Is there a Chilling of Digital Communication,” exploring how copyright influences their writing practices – how much they understand copyright, how important they think it is, and whether or not copyright is causing problems or otherwise influencing choices these writers make when composing for the web. I think we can pretty much agree that there really isn’t a way around the “copyright problem” when writing in digital environments, and this fact was agreed on by the writers in the study.

The study used a digital survey (created on Survey Monkey) of over 300 writers, as well as face-to-face interviews with seven digital writers who were professional writing students or had recently graduated with professional writing degrees. During the interviews, the writers shared some of their web compositions/web designs, and talked to me about how copyright law did or did not influence the choices they made when writing for the web.

I put together a report on the study findings, “Study Report: Knowledge and Influence of Copyright Law for U.S. Professional Writers Working in Educational-Context Digital Environments,” which can be downloaded here. The report contains a list of the 14 copyright-knowledge questions I used in the survey (334 writers finished the entire survey), as well as answers to those questions, and question-by-question results on how the writers answered each question.

For example, one of the copyright questions asked: “When you were 2 years old, you drew an original crayola drawing from your imagination. You’ve saved it all these years. Unbeknownst to you, your friend steals this from you, scans it, and posts it on her web page as part of the design. You have no right to ask her to take this down based on copyright laws, because such drawings are not copyright protected in the US anyway.”

This question tried to test whether or not professional writers knew that under U.S. law (and the prompt for the survey specified U.S. law applied), everything and anything that is fixed in a tangible form of expression, and is “original,” is copyright protected. For this answer, 74% of 336 people said it was false, and 26% said it was true, with the best answer being false. So on this topic, most writers knew that theoretically, a 2 year old’s drawing could be copyright protected. Imagine if that 2 year old turns out to be Madonna or Barack Obama – those drawings could in fact end up having a huge market value.

One thing that arose during the interviews as well as the survey was that professional writers have a high interest in Creative Commons licensing, as well as exploring other means to use another’s text, designs, visuals, audio, etc., with permission (rather than relying on the “fair use doctrine” as explained below).

Yet, there was evidence of a little bit of misunderstanding among the survey-takers on the topic of licensing. In the survey, writers only scored 51% on the questions that tested understanding of the differences between authorized (licensed) and unauthorized use of another’s copyrighted materials. On the other hand, on the questions that tested knowledge about fair use and copyright in general, the writers scored 71%. By the way, many of the questions were very complicated and long, so 71% is a remarkably high score.

So I thought I’d use my invitation to blog to explain the basics of using or allowing others to use your content with a license, like Creative Commons, versus relying on the fair use doctrine. One of the survey questions asked, “If you use something with a Creative Commons license, it means you automatically get fair use.” The best answer was false because fair use under section 107 of title 17, USC, applies to unauthorized use. A Creative Commons license provides authorization for a use. It provides a “license” to use. And so, using an item under a Creative Commons license means that you don’t need to worry about fair use because you have a license. 68% of 339 writers got this answer correct, while 32% were not correct.

Another survey question asked: “Mary, a law abiding citizen, is using a large chunk of text (1,000 words) in her web page. The sole copyright holder of this text is her friend Tim. Tim’s given her express written permission to use this text in her web page. Even so, as a conscientious, law abiding citizen, Mary should still make sure she is within fair use when using Tim’s text in her web page.” 52% said false, and 48% said true, with the best answer being false.

Since Tim gave Mary written permission, he’s given her a license to use the text. Instead of using Creative Commons, which accomplishes the same ends as other kinds of permissions, Tim gave Mary express permission to use his work. Since Mary has a license to use it, she does not need to make a fair use determination as long as she uses within whatever terms Tim may have specified in his written permission. In this case, he gave her permission to use his text in her web page and that’s what she is doing.

In the study report I wrote, I drafted my own custom license rather than rely on Creative Commons, although Creative Commons is a wonderful tool. My license states: “This report may be copied and distributed freely in whole or part. We appreciate attribution. Regarding the copyright quiz questions and answers appearing in Appendix 1, please copy and distribute freely and with respect to the quiz questions and answers appearing in Appendix 1, attribution is not needed.”

One of the tendencies among content creators is to require attribution in any license they apply to their work. However, as the study participants pointed out, in web design attributing another can be very problematic. For one thing, it can play havoc with the design, and for another thing, it can confuse the client if you’re working for someone.

Since the quiz questions I created would likely be integrated into some kind of interface, I thought it best not to require attribution since my main goal is to increase the knowledge and understanding of these issues among professional writers. These are the kinds of choices you have to make when anticipating how you want your own work appropriated (or not).

And so, this issue of shaping how others might use your materials down the line was an important one for the writers in my study. They also had questions about how they might use others’ copyright materials, legally, in their own web texts. Some of the writers I spoke with had started their own web design business, or were doing web writing for family members and friends, and they wondered where they could obtain copyright “safe” materials. Exploring the Creative Commons web site might provide a start here.

Another important issue that arose concerned the differences between writing under “fair use” in educational contexts and writing in for-profit work environments. It became clear to me, based on some of the tensions these professional writers were facing, that ideas about authorship and ownership of intellectual creations bumped up against each other as writers transitioned from school-to-work. I am currently designing a subsequent study that focuses exclusively on copyright and authorship in the workplace.

Martine Courant Rife teaches technical writing at Lansing Community College and she is a recent recipient of a PhD in Rhetoric & Writing from Michigan State University. She is also an attorney admitted to practice in two states with an active license in Michigan.

Martine generally writes on the topic of copyright and digital writing, and we invited her to share her findings from a study she conducted that explored how copyright influences writing practices for professional writers. Check out Martine’s insights on how professional writers need to consider fair use, copyright, and other issues of authorship when writing for the web. If you have questions about copyright and digital writing, feel free to contact Martine at martinerife [AT] gmail [DOT] com.