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Writing for Designers

Writers write, designers design, right? Not so fast, says Derek Powazek. The designer of award-winning websites and an accomplished writer and photographer, his company publishes JPG, a photography magazine that's both a community-driven website and a printed publication. Derek says it's critical for designers to think about writing, too. He spoke to us about the connection:

VT: Why is writing important for designers?

Derek: I think that we designers have this fake dichotomy between content and presentation where it's one person's job to deal with what the page says and somebody else's to deal with how it looks. Maybe that's because it's a left-brain, right brain thing, or it makes sense to divide those tasks up when you have a lot of people involved in a project.

The bottom line is eventually there will be a person out there who's going to experience the thing whether it's a web page or a box of cereal. They're not going to judge the presentation layer and the content layer separately. They're going to have one reaction to it.

Having worked for many years as a visual designer, I can definitely say we're a funny breed. We'll do eye tracking. We'll do focus groups. We'll do mood boards. We'll do everything but open a dictionary. After a while, it's like, wait a second, if effective design is really about communication, how can you possibly deal with these things separately?

VT: How do you bring them together?

Derek: We experience them together all the time. I don't think that's a stretch. But maybe it's a stretch to get people who are used to focusing on one part of it to focus on the whole experience. That's what the genre of "experience design" is all about, a methodology of dealing with design holistically. But even people who call themselves "experience designers" still act as if it's somebody else's job to write the page. Even if it is, it should be a collaborative process.

My point is that words are every bit as much a part of design as pixels. As designers, we need to get better at words. If you're a visual designer go out and take a writing class, buy a copy of Strunk & White.

VT: Can you give us an example of, say, a website that does a good job of bringing together words and design?

Derek: One great example is Flickr, the web community for photographers. Designers always talk about how great Flickr's design is, but if you go to their site it's black text on a white background with good margins. There's really nothing at all to write home about in their visual design. So when designers talk about Flickr's design what they really mean is this site makes you feel welcome. If you ask them to characterize the site like a person, they'd say it's a friendly person. You know why? It's because of the writing. And the writing is so because it was written by the designers, the people who made the site. It wasn't outsourced to a PR firm, no offense to PR firms. It wasn't separated from the design process. It was all one process.

When I log in, for example, Flickr says "hello" to me in a random language. It'll say "shalom" or "hola" or "howdy" or "bon jour." It's just a little touch and it's the kind of thing that most people don't take seriously. But it has such a profound effect on the user's experience.

VT: Given everything we discussed, what advice can you offer someone looking to hire a designer?

Derek: When you're hiring designer, they'll invariably show you pretty pictures of things they've designed. I think you should also say, well, in these pretty pictures, did you write that text? Did you take that photo? I mean if I'm going to hire a designer I first and foremost want to know that they're a good designer. But secondarily I'll pick the designer who is also a photographer, who is also a writer. If you call yourself an "experience designer," someone who is going to create experiences for consumers or participants or readers or users or whatever, it's your job to craft that entire experience. You can't do that if you say, well, words aren't my department.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 10th 2007, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Amen.
Wednesday January 10th 2007, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Stephen B.
"Writing for Designers" is a fine article and I am passing it along.
During the 1990's, I was a freelance writer working for business clients. I came to work a lot with two graphic designers who had their own firm. Bo and Heidi tended to get assignments that presented a challenge not only for the design, but also for the copy since it frequently had to fit in with and complement innovative graphic design.
At the start of our our working relationship, we usually began with the design, but as we came to know each other we just as often began with the copy. Finally, though, we didn't even acknowledge whether the copy or the design came first, but would simply dive in and let it all develop of a piece.
I did some of my best writing while working with Bo and Heidi. We always had the most fun and did our best work together when struggling with a difficult project. I advise any copywriter who hasn't worked with graphic designers to jump on that bandwagon when the opportunity presents itself.
Wednesday January 10th 2007, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Andrew S.
Important thoughts. I would echo what Stephen Booser says. I'm a business writer who has worked and continues to work with some outstanding designers. These are people who clearly understand that this is all about creating striking, effective communication and that collaboration between designers and writers produces the very best work. (In fact, I'd add to this conversation that writers -- particularly business writers who work on marketing pieces -- have a real responsibility to understand and respect the role of design.) That said, I've worked in situations where the designers don't even bother to read the copy, much less speak with the writer. Unsurprisingly, the final products in those situations can be an enormous disappointment.
Friday January 12th 2007, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Eric B.
Bonjour!
Has anyone got examples of bad execution here? I.e. design and copy not being developed together and going horribly wrong?

To be honest I see how a "hello" at the entry page of a website can be perceived as friendly, but I find it hard to appreciate how the words that I write have an impact on the evaluation of a layout of a page. Can anyone enlighten me here...?

Sunday January 14th 2007, 11:54 PM
Comment by: Susan F.
YES!!!! Thanks for putting this topic front and center!!
Thursday January 18th 2007, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Al F.
write on! great visuals will get the attention, great writing sells it and builds trust. couldn't agree more with the article. i'm a designer, photographer, 3D modeler/illustrator, product designer and writer. I find that taking on all aspects of the design process enables me to hone the language, visual and voice, to the edge i want. great article.

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