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A technical illustrator creates detailed pictures and diagrams for assembly manuals, maintenance guides, and other important documentation that accompanies products and machines. Illustrations are drawn both by hand and with the aid of computer-aided drafting (CAD) software to render the most realistic, informative figures. Some technical illustrators create very specialized drawings for particular systems, such as automobile or airplane engines, while others put together general instruction manuals for consumer products.
Before beginning a project, a technical illustrator usually conducts extensive research about the product or process he or she wishes to depict. It is important for the illustrator to understand what all of the component parts do and how they interact with each other. When creating a maintenance manual for an air conditioner, for example, the illustrator needs to study fan blade movement, the electrical motor's components, and the assembly of coolant tubes and tanks. By learning how the air conditioner works, he or she can accurately depict internal structures and explain through pictures how different parts move.
A technical illustrator considers his or her audience when putting together a manual. Diagrams that are to be used by engineers or other experts are usually very detailed and explanatory, while assembly guides for consumer products, such as tables and chairs, are simpler and easier to understand. Depending on the type of illustration and the amount of detail needed, an illustrator might choose to sketch a drawing with a pencil or utilize CAD software to depict a dynamic, three-dimensional model.
For diagrams that accompany instructions or textual descriptions, the technical illustrator works with a technical writer to ensure accurate representations. The order in which the drawing and instructions are prepared depends largely on the preferences of the writer and artist. Some technical illustrators prefer to draw diagrams to accompany text, while others draw pictures first and leave it up to the writer to fit in information. In many cases, the writer and illustrator work side-by-side to help each other along. Some highly-skilled technical illustrators are writers as well, and can create all of the content of a manual or guide independently.
A person who wants to become a technical illustrator can pursue one of many educational paths. Some professionals hold bachelor's degrees or higher in graphic design, art, or drafting. Those who create manuals for heavy equipment and automobiles often hold mechanical engineering degrees. A gifted technical illustrator can apply for positions at manufacturing plants, retail corporations, or consulting firms. Some professionals are self-employed, offering freelance drawing services to different clients on a contract basis.