Saturday, February 26, 2011

To Design a Safety Pin?

by Meyer Moldeven
(Technical Writer, long-retired)

How might adolescents and teenagers of this 21st century relate to and communicate with grandparents and elders generally? Based on a mid-1980s encounter this story tells of an exchange during my chance meeting with a young adult. He was about eighteen; I was in my high 70s, also still a kid. The give-and-take had to be cleaned up a bit for this telling, and the dialogue rounded out and organized for continuity. Somewhat allegorical, this vignette portrays intergenerational outreach when a young man or woman and a 75+er are willing to listen to each other. Many of us have had comparable experiences; they deserve being entered into our lore. If nothing else, please read the 'excerpt' at the end.


The rain sheets swirled in from the south, bent, and lurched aimless as drunken ghosts across the campus. Wind lashed the high crowns of the eucalyptus, and dipped to whine along the corridors and passageways that cut through the patchwork of academic structures.

Back and legs lashed by fierce gusts, disoriented to the direction of my destination, I took refuge under the dome of a kiosk. Backing around opposite the driving rain, I doffed my cap to let the water drip; waiting was no problem. I scanned the dozens of leaflets clinging to the kiosk’s curved wall, overlapping each other like fish scales: notices of student events long past and yet to be, and places and things from urgently needed to available for the taking.

‘Hey, ol’ man.’

‘Yo.’ I glanced back. He was in the borderland between the rain and the shelter, leaning against a patch of soggy leaflets. About eighteen in years, six in height, and as skinny as a drenched cat. Tangled blond hair, defeated by the rain, plastered his scalp.

His black T-shirt was wet, as were his frayed and torn jeans and once-white running shoes. At his feet lay a deflated haversack caked with whatever it had been dragged through, probably since elementary school.

‘Whatcha doin’ out on a day like this.’

His flat voice matched the bored, couldn’t care less put-on that went with his years. Squatting, he drew a soil-brown cloth from the haversack and toweled his head and neck.

‘Library,’ I said. ‘Where’s it at?’

He motioned with the cloth. 'Behind that one with the big windows. I’m headin’ that way, too.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘Gonna let up in a coupla minutes. What’re you gonna do in the library?’

‘Check the latest Writer’s Market and LMP.’ I squinted closer at him and repeated, ‘LMP. Literary Market Place.’

‘What’ll they do for you?’

‘Point me in the right direction.’

‘What for?’

‘Peddle an article I wrote.’

‘Oh. Writer?’

‘Off’n on. Job. Retired now, but keep my hand in.’

‘Hey, man, I like writin’.’ He looked at me with interest. What’s it take?’

‘Writin’? Takes writin’, and rewritin’.’

‘C'mon, man. You’re tryin’ to sell one. Right?’


’So you’ve been there. Writin’ for the real world; doin’ somthin’ you want to. What’s it all about; like what are ya tryin’ t’sell?’

‘Industrial stuff,’ I said, dismissing it all with a shrug and a wave-off. ‘How to organize industrial tools to do a job, and then how to bring ‘em all together with materials, parts, and nuts and bolts to come up with the finished product.’

‘That’s technical writin’, huh?’

‘Yep. Well, sort of.’

‘Is technical writin’ hard to learn?’

‘People like you and me been doin’ it since cave-people first scratched pictures of rock-throwers on their walls. Finest kind training aid for their kids.’

I pointed to the printed and hand-scribed notes and graffiti in the patches of still exposed concrete.

‘Content may have changed, but the idea is still to get a message across. What about you? Ever tried that kind of writing?’

‘Technical stuff?’ His shoulders rose and fell. ‘Not much. Student, y’know. I do use trade manuals to tune the motor on my bike, and the manual has lists and drawings of tools and step-by-step instructions on how to do the job. Use ‘em all the time, but never thought about where they came from. You put that stuff together?’

‘Made my livin’ at it for a while before I retired. But, like I said, I’m a firehouse horse who keeps chasin’ fires even after being put out to pasture. In my blood, I guess.’

He snickered.

‘Tools in a repair manual,’ he said, ‘and all the different parts and instructions. How d’ya do it? Like, how’d you describe, for example, a tool?’

He scanned the sky as he spoke. The heavy overcast was lighter, and the wandering rain-ghosts had retreated to make way for drizzle. Rivulets snaked across the concrete quad from one puddle to the next, eventually over-brimming into a furrow that widened and deepened into a trench entering a conduit to a ditch or storm sewer somewhere off the campus.

‘Name a few tools,’ I said.

He grinned. ‘Pliers. Wrench. Screwdriver. OK?’

‘OK,’ I answered. ‘More.’

His eyes contemplated the drizzle, came back to stare at the wet walls of the kiosk, settled on his haversack, and stayed. I followed his glance. A 4-inch long, candy-striped, enamel-coated safety pin fastened down the flap of its side pocket.

‘Safety pin. Tool, right?’ he chuckled.’

‘Could be. How would you get ready to describe it?’

He stared at me, his face gone blank. ’How ‘to get ready’ to describe a safety pin? What’s this ‘get ready’ bit? It’s just a safety pin. You’re kiddin’.’

‘The heck I am,’ I said.’ You just called it a ‘tool’. If you’re going to describe it, know enough about it to find the words for the job. Words are also tools, whether they describe other tools, or tornadoes, toys, teeth, trees, or tractors.

‘Start with thinking about the readers; will they be in an outfit that makes specialized equipment to fabricate safety pins; will it be a safety pin huckster contacting customers by phone, personal contact or email, or how about some kid’s mom up-country in an underdeveloped country who never even heard about Velcro flaps on diapers, if she ever heard of diapers at all. Just assume the woman lives in a village where no one ever heard of safety pins until a K-Mart opened up alongside the town paddy. What I’m gettin’ at is: who’s the information for? How much do they really need to know in order to do what they want with the thing?’

The idea grabbed him and I let him lead. Backs against the kiosk wall, staring out at the drizzle but not seeing it, we analyzed a safety pin and how to lay the groundwork to describe it. He unfastened the pin from his haversack, and using it as the exhibit, we did a parts breakdown, then recalled what we could about the range of popular sizes; we estimated raw materials' requirements per hundred thousand units; debated how to cut the pin retainer clip from flat stock and form it around the wire firmly so that a child couldn’t separate one from the other; touched on features for machine tools to fabricate safety pins; then jumped to the economics of designing robotic machine tools and assembly lines to mass produce and corner the safety pin market.

We delved into designing a pin with enough stiffness in the wire so that the pointed end would not bend out of the clip head and keep the tip from accidentally disengaging; we laughed over deburring the parts so that Mom’s fingers and the baby’s fanny wouldn’t’ get scratched, and quickly agreed on the need to coat or pack the pins with a rust inhibitor to protect them from the corrosive effects of dank cloths in warm places. We explored packaging, marketing and replacement factors.

By now his hair was almost dry and he finger-combed it spikey.

‘Hey, ol’ man,’ he said, ‘this is a good rap, but it’s only a safety pin.’

‘Don’t knock it,’ I replied. ‘Safety pins, in one form or another, have been industrial and household tools for centuries and will be for many more. Anyhow, we’re using pins as an example, the same principles apply whether it’s a safety pin, a computer, TV, or space ship. Getting back to your part of the job, when you’ve got it all together, and understand it and the customer’s needs, then you’re close to starting the writin’ job.

‘Based on who wants to know, you might need to spell out what the parts are made from, their dimensions, the diameter of the spring loop, and the wire’s bending limits. You might need to describe the integrated clip head and the pin shaft and how they were attached.’

He stared at me, and his eyes widened in wonder at the boundless vistas I had opened. He was far beyond safety pins.

‘If you’re interested in technical writing,’ I continued, ‘keep in mind that collecting data and understanding it precedes the art of writing.’ I paused. ‘And when you do write, whatever you’re writing about - a safety pin or a space ship - do it with such care and precision that what you come up with can form the image you want in the mind of someone who has been both blind since birth and incapable of feeling anything with his or her hands. That’s the test.’

The look of discovery was replaced by skepticism. ‘Aw, c’mon, man, that can’t be the real world for technical writers,’ he said. ‘People who use tools learn by doing, or they follow a book. They see what they’re working’ on and feel things with their hands’

‘Let’s think about that,’ I said. ‘Millions of people who see poorly, or not at all, or who have other physical or sensory problems, use precision tools all the time. Many of them use tech data recorded on audio systems or in some variation of a touch data system. The entire field of communications to bypass sensory and physical limitations is just beginning to open up; it’s now part of your world. Data in dozens of arrangements, for design, training aids, or operating instructions are needed by folks who, very often, haven’t used the equipment before or who, for some other reason, need instruments and tech data right there, alongside, all the time. In this world of thousands of languages and dialects, and physical and mental limitations beyond counting, even basic tools, like a safety pin, need to be understood all along the line from designer to user. Understanding means communications; think about it.’

We shared silence for a while.

‘Hey, man, I like that,’ he said softly.

We glanced at the sky. The clouds were breaking up. As we abandoned our shelter under the dome, he shook his head. ‘All this for a safety pin,’ he said. The look of wonder was back, and became a grin.

‘A diaper pin?’

Raising my arm, I pumped my fist at the sky.’ Today, the diaper pin, tomorrow the world!’

We laughed. At the entrance to the library we shook hands and went our ways. I never saw him again, but I sometimes wonder what he chose for his life’s work.


The following excerpt is from the Introduction to a list of free guides cited in a multi-address e-mail that I received July 13, 2006, Subject: ‘Free Guidelines from WGBH - Create Accessible Digital Media.’ Content speaks for itself. Quote ‘Properly designed e-books, software, Web sites and learning management systems can and must be accessible to all users with disabilities. Technology is prevalent everywhere, and learners of all ages and in all fields require equal access to content to keep pace with their colleagues and classmates. Whether they are high school students, IT professionals or research chemists, inaccessible materials prevent people with disabilities from using the same materials at the same time as their peers, and can limit their educational and career opportunities. These guidelines, providing step-by-step solutions for making a variety of electronic media accessible to users with sensory disabilities, are now available free of charge at: