Think visually: How graphics skills help engineers

Among all the skills I hear network engineers talk about, two that are often underrated are writing skills and graphics skills. There is some small slice of the networking world that is serious about writing (though I often think we make too big of a production out of writing, getting wrapped around tools and process instead of focusing on actual writing), but graphics is one area the we really don’t talk about a lot. After all, I’m an engineer, not a graphic designer, right? Or maybe — I’ve always heard I should be a master of one skill, rather than a jack of all trades…

Diane, over at Data Center Mix, has a great post up on four ways being an artist has helped her sell data center products. There are some great ideas in there, but as someone with formal training in graphic design (in a distant past I can barely remember any longer), I wanted to add a few thoughts about graphics skills as a network engineer.

She begins with this thought: a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m never quite certain this is actually true in every case (Charles Dickens in cartoon format doesn’t sound very rich to me), but it’s certainly true in a number of situations. For instance, relationships are easier to understand in graphic form than in written form. As a case study, try to explain the RINA model, or the four layer model, without using an image. Make certain you get all the relationships between the pieces right. It’s not easy, is it? A second place where illustrations are worth a lot of words is when there is time pressure. A checklist, for instance, lives in that land halfway between the land of text and the land of graphics, and is often useful when you’re trying to do something fast.

But let’s move beyond straight effectiveness in communication, and discuss thinking processes. Diane writes that one thing she’s learned by starting her life in art is creativity. This is a harder connection to make, but let’s try. Just as being able to draw relationships helps you express them, it also helps you learn to quickly rearrange them. There are several components to creativity (sometime I’ll write a series on the topic here, I think), but one of them is certainly the ability to arrange things in different ways an quickly evaluate whether or not they will work. If you don’t have illustration skills, this is much harder to do.

There is another sense in which learning graphic design will help you in the creativity department — using graphics allows you to think in a different paradigm. Just as learning to be a good writer helps you to think through things in propositions and logic chains, learning to be a good graphical designer helps you to learn to think in terms of relationships better. I’m convinced that the more “modes” of thinking you can employ, the better you will be at creating new things.

If you’re convinced of “why,” the next question is (obviously) “how?” The first is to pick up and learn some serious vector based graphics package. There are several out there, of course, that go far beyond Visio and Powerpoint. I personally have used CorelDRAW since the box came without a version number on it (seriously), but I’ve also used DrawPlus, Illustrator, Inkscape, and a few others here and there (some of which no longer exist). Just about every graphic in every book I’ve ever co-authored has started life in CorelDRAW, in fact. Each of these has pieces of software has its own pluses and minuses, of course, but drawing in vector is more of a mindset than it is a tool set (much like writing should be). Once you learn to ask the right questions, you can pretty much use any of them to create competent and useful graphics.

Beyond this, you need to do some reading in the space of graphic design. I’ve had it on my list of things to do to review some of the books available in this space — I’ll move this little project up a little in the list over the next several months.

Bu, either way, learning some graphic design can really help you in a number of ways as an engineer.


  1. Diane on 12 January 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Great Article! Thank you for the shout out!

    • Russ on 16 January 2016 at 8:45 am

      Thanks, Diane — I always enjoy your blog and cartoons… 🙂