Write Like You Design

Good designers make beautiful things. Why then do so many create such poor sentences?

I have long held the opinion that writing was part of design. I simply did not practice it. Writing was not given much priority while I attended art school. Writing continued to be of secondary concern during the early years of my career. Evidence of this can be seen on this blog. I started taking my writing more seriously after my wife, who has her master’s degree in English, started editing my posts. It progressed further while working at Adaptive Path, where it was clear that how we communicated our work could be as important to our job as the work itself. Currently, the attention given to language in the work at Seabright solidifies a dedication to the writing process in my practice.

I am not suggesting that the design community considers writing unimportant. However, I have often experienced it treated as something else. I consider the short list of well-written design blogs to be proof of that. Yes, they exist, but they are the minority. As long as writing is treated as something else by designers, there will be a disconnect between the aesthetics of the visual and the textual. I am suggesting that there needs to be a shift towards considering writing as a required skill of designers. Writing is design. There is no separation.

Designers devote endless hours to make their solutions more elegant. They understand the importance of detail. Clarity and simplicity are cherished. The same is often not said about their craftsmanship of words. Dieter Ram published the 10 principles of design which have served as a guide to some and a set of commandments for others. While I have no right to act as an example to follow, I can propose ways to look at writing so that it is integrated into how one thinks about design. Below are 10 principles of good writing, derived from Dieter Ram’s list intended to illustrate how writing and design are often one in the same.

1. Good writing is reader-focused
The style of writing, the content provided and its format of delivery should be executed for the benefit of its readers. Writing that is published to fit a schedule, prop up traffic or unproductively rant wastes readers’ time.
2. Good writing is trustworthy
Readers need to trust that what they read is honest, genuine and fair. Writing that lacks any of those attributes erodes credibility and lead readers towards poor decisions.
3. Good writing makes its subject useful
Writing will have a limited impact if the reader does not understand how the subject relates to them or how they can move forward. Informing is prerequisite, empowering is ideal.
4. Good writing is unobtrusive
Writing does not need to be verbose to be smart. If a concept can be accurately communicated with simple words, use them.
5. Good writing is focused
A good piece of writing clearly articulates the subject it is covering. The end. Tangents dilute and create confusion.
6. Good writing provides novel information and perspectives
Writing should have something new and useful to say. Piling on a subject with nothing new to share helps no one. Better to direct readers to a well-written piece than duplicate it.
7. Good writing is aesthetically pleasing
The rhythm and composition of words can and should be aesthetic. The meaning of words should carry as much beauty as their visual representation. Well executed typography without well executed writing is missing the point.
8. Good writing is well-crafted
Typos and grammatical errors are unacceptable. Writers should strive for a technically flawless reading experience.
9. Good writing is as little writing as possible
Every word written should count. Any paragraph, sentence or word that lacks significance wastes the writer’s and the readers’ time.
10. Good writing is long-lasting
Our subject matter and language may be impacted by current trends, but our ideas should not have a short expiration date.

Communicating ideas has been and continues to be a primary goal of design. Considerable effort is spent by designers to convey complex emotions, processes and concepts through visual abstractions. These endeavors have merit and provide results. However, sometimes a simple, well-written sentence may prove more effective.

6 thoughts on “Write Like You Design”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this today.  It definitely points out a fault I find in my own writing: Focus.  While I tend to include tangents in my writing and instructions, I find that they are useful for giving a sense of the big picture.  I strongly believe that the layout and design of a written piece can help give a tangent meaningful impact for those who want it, without detracting from the piece as a whole.  Perhaps I tend towards these wild thoughts, as I learn best when given the big picture of “why” and “what was before”, rather than a direct beginning to end process.

    Lastly, in 8, is it strike or strive?  The single work changes the meaning drastically for me.

  2. @J.M. – Well, that’s embarrassing. I proof-read this post 3 times as well as had it proofed by someone else and I still had a typo. So while typos are unacceptable, they are often inevitable…

    I run into the same problem of wanting to cover a rich subject in one huge blog post. What often ends up happening is that I write exhaustively on the subject and either lose steam or create something too big to wield. It is a constant challenge. I am trying to resolve this issue by breaking up posts into smaller chunks which can be linked together when suitable. We’ll see how that turns out.

  3. Yes, I get your last comment totally…

    So my thing now will be. With the reader and engagement in mind. Allude to it in one blog. Write it in another. It makes the reader connecting using RSS, a worthwhile exercise … What do you think?

    Content rich blogs are like a fine meal, worth consuming slowly… so as to extract all the goodness out of it…

  4. This post hits a little bit too close to home for me. 🙂 I too am a product of Art School, where there was very little emphasis placed on writing methods and techniques. So yes – my writing skills are weak and it’s been the thing I’ve struggled with the most in my career so far. I want to become a better writer, but my brain just isn’t wired that way…

    However, I will say that if you are a good enough designer, weak writing skills aren’t going to hold you back. Everyone has different talents, and I wouldn’t expect my copywriter to be able to draw a kick-ass illustration.

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