Writing for Designers

by Madeleine Baud

18 April 2017

Writing is a democracy. This is good because everyone has the tools to express themselves and communicate their ideas. This is bad because many people don't know how to wield these tools.

We were all taught to read and write in primary school. But at some point, writing went from being second nature to something only Writers-With-A-Capital-W can do. Even in creative industries where renaissance people abound, there is a hesitance about writing. Designers often don't consider themselves to be writers. They often don't consider writing to be a core design skill at all. CS7? Of course! Writing? *crickets*

On one hand, I understand it. Some people simply excel at writing, like some people excel at playing the violin. 

On the other hand, writing is not like playing the violin. The chances of someone in your office being able to play the violin are pretty slim because violin lessons weren't the basis of their childhood education. Maybe if Mrs Tolmay hadn't wasted so much time making me earn my pen licence, I'd be regaling Fitzroy passers-by with Vivaldi right now. But that's a whole other blog post (titled Veni Vidi Vivaldi).

That's not to say that we don't need specialist writers. We absolutely do. But writing should never be the domain of the elite. Language is for everyone.

Designers need to stop seeing writing as a completely separate art form to design. It isn't. It's just a different medium. At their core, they're both about communication and storytelling, and anthropologists tell us that humans are hard-wired to tell stories. 

You can express the same idea with words that you can with illustration or photography and, in fact, sometimes you have to. Explaining creative ideas is a critical part of the design process; be it in rationales, presentations or simply emails.

"Good design speaks for itself" is a lovely idea, but if it were true, we'd never have to present any work. How's that working out for you?

You're not talking about us though, are you? The web designers whimper. We mostly just use placeholder text.

How many times have you showed a client a website mockup with placeholder text and heard "I'm not sure about that headline"? As much as you want it to disappear into the background, it always makes an impression. Words are very powerful and if you choose the wrong ones, they leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Let's see an example. Hipster Ipsum is fun for about 3 seconds, but then it's just distracting.

Write a simple headline instead and the story you're trying to tell is clearer. It just feels... right. Right?
Write a simple headline instead and the story you're trying to tell is clearer. It just feels... right. Right?

Write a simple headline instead and the story you're trying to tell is clearer. It just feels... right. Right?

What it comes down to is this: if you can use words to make your design stronger, why wouldn't you?

So how can designers become better writers? Here are a few tips:

Read. Just read. Read lots. Books, blogs, food labels. Whatever.
Confidence is key. Eliminate words like "Maybe", "Just", "Kind of". Write declaratively. If you don't believe in your idea, no-one else will.
Keep it short. Waffling on is a surefire way to lose your audience. It isn't just boring, it undermines the strength of your idea. Say what you need to say and then say no more.
The Buddy System. Ask people not familiar with your idea to read your writing. If they don't get it, your audience probably won't.
Google is your friend. Not sure about how to use semicolons? Google it. Looking for a good synonym? Google it. Don't know how to spell fluorescent? It's G-O-O-G-L-E.

Get gooder writing 
Get gooder spelling and grammar
Get gooder proofreading

Be a good citizen of the writing democracy. Exercise your right to write.