Writing is Design

By Tom,

April 2015

When I was younger I didn’t like writing. In fact I was pretty awful at it and avoided it at all costs. Then I became a designer. I soon realised that writing is a powerful, necessary and learnable skill. Many designers, especially those just starting out see writing as someone else's problem. They use lorem ipsum, or some other type of dummy text to fill up designs to be replaced with ‘real content’ later on.
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This doesn’t work. This process leads to design and content that is disconnected. It slows down the design process and it quite often ruins potentially great work. Over the years, I’ve learned that if you can design well, you can write well. Here are some reasons why designers should write more...

Writing helps you communicate

When you need to explain your thinking behind an idea you quite often need to write it down, maybe in an email, or sometimes in a presentation. Being able to clearly and concisely explain what you’ve done in writing helps frame the idea for clients or colleagues.

This doesn’t need to be long form. When we’re creating brand presentations for clients we write stories to provide insight into our process. It’s vitally important that these stories are well written, engaging and help build a sense of excitement. We have great content people, but it’s important that the designers themselves tell the story. Only they can include the subtle nuances and tiny details that led to the solution.

Writing gets you work

Much of the writing I do is for proposals and scope documents for new projects. How these documents are written has a huge bearing on their success. Poorly written proposals often get dismissed straight away (quite rightly).

If you work for an agency, you might have an accounts team who take care of proposals. Don’t let them do it alone. As designers we should be involved in the sales process. Explaining creative solutions to problems are often best written by the people solving them.

Writing saves time

How many times have you started designing a website or brochure only to have to stop to wait for content from a client? Don’t let this happen. If you need a headline write one. If you’re waiting for a paragraph for a landing page, write it.

We face this problem all the time. It’s perfectly normal—our clients are busy people. It might be that the content gets changed or rewritten. That’s fine, but at least you can get on with the work. In my experience the content we write rarely gets changed radically.

Writing helps you understand

By taking it upon yourself to write content for your design work, you force yourself to gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Sure it’s easy to design something ‘nice’ and paste in copy supplied by a client or copywriter. The problem is that the two things often feel disconnected. When you write about the product, service or company you’re designing for you need to look harder, research more and think more carefully about your decisions. This, more often than not leads to a better, more considered and more successful design.

Writing helps your clients

Many clients take it upon themselves to write their own content. Sometimes this is great—they have the best understanding of their business. Sometimes it causes problems. Most clients are not copywriters. Not experts in tone and language. Some may not even be very good at writing.

Writing content as you design, even if it’s only used temporarily can help your clients establish their tone, the message and a writing direction. It doesn’t take much—a few paragraphs can be enough to form a great starting point for clients. In our experience this gets clients into the writing mindset and can often speed up the process.

Writing shapes the tone

When we’re developing a brand it’s our job to define the look and feel. But that’s only half the story. To create a brand to suit a clients’ business we first must define the tone. Of course this can be done with colour, imagery, shape and style but the tone of voice is often the best starting point.

How do they sound? What do they say? Are they serious or laid back? Establishing this is all part of the creative process and often designers are best placed to make these decisions.

Writing is user experience

When it comes to designing digital experiences, whether it be websites, digital products or apps, writing is absolutely key to creating a good user experience. Of course the visual part of the design is very important, but it’s often the copy that needs the most care. Navigation, form labels, microcopy, headings, call to actions and messaging all need to be ‘designed’with the whole experience in mind.

So, the next time you find yourself using dummy copy, waiting on a client for content or designing something without a true understanding of what it is, stop. Spend a short time writing some content and I promise you’ll find it helpful.

As a designer, you might think writing is not your job. It is. Writing is design.