Calling All Designers: Learn to Write!

by Derek Powazek

59 Reader Comments

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  1. First, great article. It’s a lot harder than it seems to write a good confirmation email.

    While I love flickr, photoJojo and other ‘friendly sites’, that informal voice just doesn’t suit every client. How do we go about writing engaging, approachable text for a company whose values are formal and traditional? ‘Dude, you rock’ mightn’t be a good choice for a cemetery website for example.

    Still, formal and traditional don’t have to mean bad, or boring, so how do we get the best of both worlds?

    Anyone got any ideas?

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  2. An informal tone doesn’t suit everyone, correct, but I think the point of Derek’s article is not only pushing the design as designers put polishing up our writing skills. I think that most people enjoy the informal aspect of sites like Flickr, it makes it that more fun.

    Without the stylesheet applied to a site, all the users have to go for is the text. Good writing is critical.

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  3. Interesting thoughts, and similar to some of my own. The biggest obstacle to that sort of personalisation is the barrier it creates to people with English as a second language. For example, ‘log in’ may be in their limited vocab but more colloquial forms wont.

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  4. I agree with the article – in an ideal world scenario.

    Unfortunately, experience has told me that people (mostly) aren’t willing to pay for such a service. I in turn, am not willing to do it for free ;)

    I have found benefit however in touching up peoples text when necessary. You do however need to display caution when doing this but my clients see it as a value add :)

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  5. I very much agree with your point of view but often we also go with “lorem ipsum”. You need a very good understanding of your customer and his product or service. Even worse: many times a customer wants to stick with his marketing blah which might be suitable for a brochure but not for the web.

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  6. I am a writer and editor, but I would be as nitpicky with an orphan, a widow, or a misplaced period as I am with background colors that are off or image margins that overlap. I’ve always believed in form and substance going hand in hand.

    But while it’s a fact that clients first pay attention to what they see as a whole, commenting on the copy later (as doesn’t everyone else?), designers can teach them that it’s not only what they see that matters, but how the image relates to the copy.

    Formal writing doesn’t necessary mean boring writing. It doesn’t have to mean using big words. In “marrying word and image” (to borrow a phrase from Nick Bantock), one can write simply and still make an impact.

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  7. Then there are lots of articles here you might find interesting: http://textgoeshere.org.uk

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  8. With every designer have a blog now we are more on the way of better writing, did I wrote this well ??

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  9. Shazam! Nice article (although I have to say it did seem a bit short).

    Perhaps the point that needs to be expanded on is why this punchy, friendly, and informal language provides such a great user experience.  I think I would want to labour the point — just a tiny bit more — that using informal language grabs our attention, and that grabbing our attention is the true holy grail of the internet.

    We don’t read pages. We scan them.” (Steve Krug — “˜_Don’t make me think_’) — but let’s face it, if someone breaks the rules and calls me a dude, they’ve probably succeeded in grabbing my attention for at least a few seconds longer.  I might even stop scanning and start reading.

    I always insist on seeing as much content as possible before starting work. But I have to say, that’s not because I want to make sure it’s punchy and well written.  It’s because if you don’t know what the content is going to be, or whether there’s enough content for the structure the client envisions, or whether the content is suited for the internet, you simply can’t design the right site.

    Peace out y’all.

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  10. I’m glad to see someone bringing this concept to the forefront.  This argument goes perfectly with the idea that “content is king” only expanding it beyond just what we think of as traditional content. 

    And I’d love one day to be able to raise a glass and toast to the end of marketing-speak on the web.  Ahh, pipe dreams…

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  11. Some cuteness is good, but a little goes a long way and it will put some people off. “Submit” makes sense, “Get in there” slows me down to think about is that what I want to do, and I might not like being slowed down. Women may not like being called dude. I’m a guy and when I hear something like “Dude”¦” I think the writer is talking about himself not me, because he doesn’t even know who I am. Your mileage varies obviously.

    Interesting language and phrasing will grab some people and turn others off. Know your intended audience. Is the writing for a site that will be visiting often or once in a while?

    Good article in that offers a point of view, but it is not general. The title is correct though—Learn to write.

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  12. User experience is not just about the visual experience. Great article. Spot on. ‘nuff said.

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  13. I love the article…I agree with you 85%. I have been making sites for clients that defiently need help with content, and I’m cool with that because i truly agree that text IS interface, and essential to user experience.
    BUT, for instance, my newest client is in the medical field.
    and this client has very little content, yet they want great rank with search engines. This project is now long overdue, and it is way overdue, all because he has not delivered much of any text or content.

    In this case, and with many other diff business you cannot help with any writing or content. I would not dare begin to think i can write anything about his field.
    It’s impossible at times to create content or write copy for your clients. It’s not always professional, in my opinion.
    I also think its important that a client feels that there is something of theirs in their websites.

    While as designers we need to learn to write as you say, we shouldn’t have to go to medical school to make a website for someone in the medical field. We should be creating solutions to their marketing needs, and this CAN be done without having to change careers.

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  14. Good article! I agree wholeheartedly with the concepts, but for designers (like me) who don’t feel qualified to also offer services as a writer would it perhaps be smarter to have a network of web writers who were fantastic at writing but could also match thier style to the tone of your client’s site. Writers who could work with you to keep the momementum of the user experience going forward to the desired end (buying a product or joining a newsletter, etc)?

    Perhaps the web designers role should not be so much writing the content as it is mapping it out – choosing what will go where and in what format to maximise readability, but leaving the actual writing to a professional. On that note does anyone know of a site or forum where designers can get in touch with web writers?

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  15. Good article, and I tend to agree. It’s a mental block we need to over come. All to often a client will supply source material with minimal or at best inadequate text. Which is the perfect opportunity to take the incentiive. Designers should be pro-active in the sites they build. Not all clients will allow this, but they tend to be the ones that don’t trust your sense of judgement, while other clients will rely on input. The later of course is more rewarding.

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  16. I love the article except for its premise that writing should become part of the designer’s job.

    Isn’t writing a writer’s job? Writers write and designers design. Ideally they do it together (they do, don’t they?) I thought the article was going to call clients to pay more attention to their choice of writer they commission a new site, or encourage design agencies to use writers who are sympathetic with their design objecives.

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  17. Valid points, I find trying to get content from clients slightly harder then trying to get blood from a stone.

    Still we have a copy writer at work now who writes for our sites which is a welcome and useful addition and one which far more companies should consider.

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  18. Isn’t writing a writer’s job? Writers write and designers design. Ideally they do it together (they do, don’t they?)

    If the client is going all out and getting a fully paid-for site, yes. But in many cases, especially for smaller businesses, they might write the copy themselves, or take some standard boiler-plate from their printed materials. If you want to do a good job, rather than just the basic minimum that they have paid you for, you have to recognise when the content is either badly written, or written wrong for the web.

    If your writing and grammar skills are up to the job, offer to re-hash what they’ve written – if they aren’t, you need to build up some contacts of people who can, and in this case, you might have to charge a small fee as it’s not you doing the work.

    At the end of the day, do you want to be associated with a website where the text is ungrammatical, sloppy or full of interminable long-winded paragraphs? Because that’s what can happen if you just let them write the text. Other potential clients won’t care that it looks beautiful and functions like a dream, and that someone else wrote the bits that aren’t so great – they will see a website that credits you as the designer, and they won’t be impressed.

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  19. I enjoyed the article. I don’t believe, however, that this is a one-to-one problem. The problem isn’t that the Designer isn’t writing copy and should; the problem is that someone IS writing copy who shouldn’t, because it could stand to be improved.

    That someone could be anybody, even the client! And in my experience, the process has ingrained that role. I wish I was at liberty to change several aspects of that process in my job, not just that one, but I’m not.

    So, we often live with drab and boring copy that’s SAFE, and businesslike, and (my favorite) “professional.” Derek’s point still holds, the way I understand it for myself – treat the writing of a site with the respect that it deserves, and if necessary, attack it with a specialist the way you would colors/layout/code.

    If your designer can write like that (and you’re not going to find out how, by the way, in Strunk and White), bonus. But there are writers like that hidden behind every team role.

    I know, project much?, but I liked it. And Derek, no wonder your cat is grumpy – you’ve got two chihuahuas. That’d make me grumpy, even if I weren’t a cat.

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  20. Overall, this article was a necessary wake up call, but to close with the suggestion that readers should go “Buy … a copy of Strunk and White” takes us backward (decades even, to 1957 when what was Strunk’s 1918 book became Strunk and White’s), not forward. And just taking a class can just make things worse, depending on the teacher and textbook. Instead, readers need a comprehensive listing of up-to-date resources, online and in print. For example, I’d recommend Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar. It’s aimed at undergraduate writing courses, but it provides a different (descriptive not prescriptive like S and W) framework that works wonders for understanding everything from syntax to punctuation to word choice. Kolln’s book—especially the opening chapters on how sentences simply fit together—changed my writing and the writing of students I’ve taught over the years.

    Strunk and White ain’t all bad—it was even made into a musical recently. But it’s an old branch on a tree that’s grown far taller, broader and greener than it was in 1918 or even 1957.

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  21. I am leaving my job at the end of this month, and looking back over the past few years, we were all a little surprised at how much writing I’ve been doing. It started as mere editing of pages and pages of stodgy, third-person academic writing. But now, there’s regular rewrites and new content generation on an almost-daily basis. We had to include it in the job description.

    Even with a bevy of writers on staff, the designer is working with the final iteration on a regular basis. A good designer ends up living and working with every part of that interface for weeks or months at a time. The instinct to refine the interface, whether it’s the pixels or the text, can’t be ignored.

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  22. To respond to Benjamin Fleegle’s question:

    How do we go about writing engaging, approachable text for a company whose values are formal and traditional?

    It’s simple. Write like a human being.

    Whenever possible I get clients to actually read their content out loud. Text that comes out sounding stiled, awkward, pretentious, or full of crap is impossible to hide when spoken out loud.

    I do this all the time when writing, no matter who the audience. No matter who you’re writing for, text is a conversation that needs to sound as good out loud as it does being read. Otherwise it has the potential to be like that boring ass that corners you at a party and drones on and on about something that nobody else but he cares about.

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  23. As a hybrid writer-designer, I totally agree that (a) words matter hugely, and (b) one can’t expect text written for print media to transfer successfully to the web.

    Here are two sources that I often quote to support recommendations to write text specifically for the web, and for the type of person that the site is aimed at:
    (1) The book “Don’t make me think: a common sense approach to web usability” by Steve Krug (now in it’s second edition)
    (2) Jakob Nielson’s website at http://www.useit.com/

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  24. First impressions are heavily influenced by page copy. Especially when users “bounce” without exploring your site.

    First impressions also seem to last the longest, unfortunately. But sometimes we can use this to our advantage.

    If the copy is good, remember to keep it byte size so we can absorb 100% of it while quickly scanning the page.

    Oh, and add emphasis to important points/keywords so people who already know can quickly learn what’s new and move on. This also helps with SEO.

    Great article! :)

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  25. I felt the same way about istockphoto – their text has a special magic to it too, something to do with being very open and frank with their audience.

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  26. Every agency I worked at there was a very distinct line. There are writers. There are designers and never the twain shall meet. At my last job, designers were beyond rude rewritting copy that was so unbelievably bad and cheesy that it was offensive to even look at it. You don’t want a writer telling you how to design or choose a color do you? Yes, a fab website is a good marriage between writing and design and it should be treated as such. Let those with the experience do their job yet work as team. As a writer who knows design it was very difficult to fit in my appropriate slot, depending on the job I took but I did it. I’ve seen too many pens fly into the eye of a designer who dared write copy. And I’ve seen too many PMS charts slash the throats of writers that dared spout out, “you know, I wrote this copy and gave you direction on what stock photo to use.”

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  27. I agree. When you inject personality into your website you give it something wonderful—a cutting edge.  Wabita.

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  28. I think this need of knowing how to write don’t depends only on the designer, or the opposite. It depends directly on how the company is organized. If the process isn’t strictly linear, and depends directly on writers and designers integration, knowing something about each other work would be a pre-requisite of hiring.

    When the content is finished and the second step is the visual design, the consequence is that the team maybe would never met, even working side by side. They don’t think about what they’re doing, they don’t need to share opinions.

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  29. True, but do designers (especially the ones you’re trying to address) generally write copy as well as writers? Derek’s a decent, warm storyteller, and his websites will end up that way, too. But I see too many sites with bad spelling, grammar, punctuation etc. and that detracts from the experience just as much.

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  30. I absolutely agree, the amount of hassle we’ve had in our house over copywriting. It’s no-ones responsibility so the buck gets passed around.

    I understand the necessity for dummy text in the early stages of the design process (detest Lorum Ipsum, use recipes instead), but for the experience as a whole the design and the copy are intrinsically related. Talk about deisgn and imagery being intuitive or suggestive, how about words. What’s more intuitive than that?

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  31. Good article. Yes, words do count and think your ideas are something I share as well. As I was reading responses I do agree with some of the “formal, traditional” comments.

    How do you make real-estate or construction sites more friendly?

    Maybe the answer is in the subtleties and all the little changes, the button names, the way the site is laid out in general will add to the overall experience. And isn’t the goal to have the user have a good experience. Maybe that means a no non-sense approach, non the less a good experience.

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  32. Great article that reminded me of the importance of “speaking” to the audience so that the audience hears what we have to say.  By adding more conversational text,  visitors to the site will find it more inviting.  Thanks for the reminder.

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  33. How do you make real-estate or construction sites more friendly?

    I think sincerity and honesty goes a long way.

    At its most basic, real-estate and construction both concern where someone is going to live/work/play, so talk about that.

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  34. http://www.cjung.info/wordpress/?p=32

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  35. Every member of your team should have the language skills to fix typos and edit copy as needed. However, the value of a skilled web writer cannot be overstated.

    Now how about getting programmers to write better error messages? ;-)

    All the best!

    Lindsay

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  36. As somebody who likes to build on as many of my different skills as possible, this article definitely resonates with me.  In my careers both as an engineer and a web marketer, I’ve often been amazed at the low quality of my peers’ writing skills.  Communications are so vital, no matter who you are, and it can only help a career to be able to write well in addition to your core skillset.  Thanks for the article!

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  37. As somebody who likes to build on as many of my different skills as possible, this article definitely resonates with me.  In my careers both as an engineer and a web marketer, I’ve often been amazed at the low quality of my peers’ writing skills.  Communications are so vital, no matter who you are, and it can only help a career to be able to write well in addition to your core skillset.  Thanks for the great article!

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  38. Hi, Your article provide interesting thought, and there is clearly a need for designers to work on texts IMHO. I translated your article for french readers, with due credits of course.

    It is here :
    http://s.billard.free.fr/referencement/index.php?2006/05/16/237-web-designers-apprenez-a-ecrire

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  39. ’ “?We don’t read pages. We scan them.”? (Steve Krug — “˜Don’t make me think’) … I might even stop scanning and start reading. ‘

    Actually, if you’re already ‘scanning’, you’re doing more than ‘reading’: a common misconception is that ‘scanning’ is a cursory glance across or through the content; in actuality, it means… well, you can look it up if you’d like. See what happens when designers write? ;)

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  40. Death, taxes and clients not giving a sh*t about content.

    It’s tricky selling content as a standalone service, but sell it during the overall pitch while face to face and you can see the light bulb go on.

    We’ve won pitches because we’ve thought about content (and the client hasn’t).

    Developing audience specific content for a site is easy. The tricky bit is convincing the client to talk to you in the first place.

    www.contentcontent.co.uk

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  41. i find it extremely difficult to design around filler content, because the goal of design is to increase communication. how is one supposed to increase the communication of lorem ipsum?

    design for the web goes much further than aesthetics, it’s the user experience thing we’re taking about.

    big up to powazek!

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  42. Though I agree with the need to have a ‘friendly and fun’ theme to writing, in my little experience, I usually got clients who made me to write to what they want to see online…

    So how practical would some creative writing be on a corporate website, unless it is to do with something relating to being ‘fun’ like Flikr…

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  43. When I write website copy (or edit that which a client has provided), I try to word it as if it’s me talking to my very own customer.  I think of it as a conversation and write in a tone that reflects the way I deal with my own customers, but I also try to respect the time my client has put into writing his or her copy – in some cases I know this must have been quite difficult for them. So I typically wind up with basically their words with a bit more focus on being a friendly, helpful host to the site visitor. This pleases (most of) my clients and also has gotten them kudos from their customers.

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  44. One problem is that many/most websites are detached from the real business. The most “well-written” sites are the ones where the business owner has a very real input and understanding of the site and the Web in general. I’m not so sure that website designers can do all that much to make a site “come alive” unless the site owner has that understanding.

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  45. I absolutely agree with the point that content and visual design go hand-in-hand through all aspects of a project. There is definitely a need for a unified user experience and not just a visual wrapper to Lorem Ipsum.

    Where I strongly disagree is the suggestion that a designer can simply pick up a book or take a class in order to add “professional writer” to their list of services. It takes time, knowledge, and most of all, experience to do what we do. Any web designer who has had to bid on a project against a relative or friend who read a book or played around with Dreamweaver knows exactly what I am talking about.

    When hiring a designer, it is important to get a feel for their preferences and attitudes. However, any designer “worth their salt” will be able to understand and interact with the user. They are being interviewed for a designer position, not a writer. There is a difference. Otherwise, you might get an average designer who can write an about page as opposed to an excellent designer who knows how to work with a excellent writer.

    http://spectorbrain.com/2006/05/22/designers-know-how-to-write-but-dont/

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  46. I’ve spent the last few years designing interfaces for WML/ WAP (old skool!) applications where all you have is text and 18 characters per line – so if you’re not clear, you’re screwed. We lost our technical writers to documentation, while half of our developers were from Vietnam or India, so I was the last man standing who could write reasonable English sentences. If you think designers are poor writers, try navigating a site full of a developer’s place holder text. Fortunately for me, we had one tech. writer who was very talented and when she had time would help me from the vernacular of the UI. This would be my advice for any struggling-to-write-designer; seek out experts who you can trust to help you. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If you can find someone who makes communicating their business then tap them for advice. Who knows, they may need your help one day.

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  47. The article makes good points about experience and communication as part of what makes a good design work.  I agree with most points, however, I have to say that in my experience I consider myself lucky to have content to work with and I collaborate closely with the website owner and/or editors when I start my design.  I think that a good working relationship with writing professionals is key.

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  48. Photojojo is not what I would call refined. It is full of boost talk – this is somehow offensive. People like words like superb, highest quality, enjoy your stay, thanks for your intrest but not

    photo shiz -> unclear, would that be bizz snazz ?? This is too much derived from spoken language

    It’s all free, we never spam -> who does not know/care about spam, it is over-stating the fact!

    juiced it perfectly in Photoshop -> this is not correct use of language – I do see the connection but how about added that little extra touch with some Photoshop abracadabra

    another:   
    Yes folks, it’s Photoshop time. -> not that strong put

    Better: It’s time to get your hands dirty in Photoshop

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  49. I’m sitting in front of loveley iMac G5.

    It’s very stylish, with a white plastic casing and a very solid, matt metal base.

    Product designers don’t design products withouthttp://alistapart.com/pix/submit.gif thinking about the materials they use.  The choice of plasic is just as important as the shape it’s moulded.

    In web design the materials are the words.  A nice looking website with badly-written text is like a nice looking PC made out of cheap plastic.

    Nice article.

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  50. Interesting article. The big picture – that designers should get more word savvy – elucidates the problem but muffs the solution. The solution is NOT for designers to start writing copy. The solution is for designers to treat copy as a related & co-equal creative process and get a professional scribe on the job. With regard to Flickr and “informal” copy – informality itself is not a panacea. Writers always need to consider the appropriate “voice” for their clients. It’s never one’s own voice – it’s what appropriate to the client or brand culture. For Flickr, informal works well. The BIGGEST challenge is getting the corporate types to pick a voice and not just go with the default “corporate” voice. That’s really no choice at all. And finally, this writer believes that the creative process should always start with “the concept” – neither words nor pictures. Ask yourself: Who is our audience? What are we trying to say?  Once you have a concept roughed out, both the copy & the design tend to funnel toward the same place.

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  51. Thank you for this great article.

    I’ve translated your article for russian readers. Maybe it’ll be not useless for our designers = ).

    http://mertas.cat-a-log.ru/design/learn_to_write.htm

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  52. This is indeed a great article about communicating, and communicating well. Isn’t that a designer’s job, to get a message across? The days of imagery bearing sole responsibility for the thrills of the web are gone. We need something more, and combining imagery and text is really the soul of the web experience. It is becoming necessary to read something immediately that says “I am human! Not sentences created by an artificially sentient bot!”.

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  53. A mission statement it should be and an awakening it is to many designers who have always passed the buck in fear of having to actually think on a higher level than pixel perfect design. I enjoyed this article so much, I’ve reposted it at “simplistic blog”:http://blog.simplisticdesigns.com/designers-learn-to-write

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  54. I suppose I have the advantage of being a writer who designs. Or, a designer who writes. All in how you look at it.
    I’ve actually been offered contracts based on the fact that I can do both. I’ve won out bids for projects as well, against corporate designers and companies that honestly dwarf me.
    And how, pray-tell? The client fessed up later that it was my ability to write, to understand their client base and write something absolutely appropriate for it, that caught them.

    I write novels, for the record. Occasionally some bad poetry.
    It’s the ability to communicate people are looking for. You don’t have to have a degree in journalism to pull off reaching your client’s intended audience. Common sense, honesty, grammar of course.

    So I think designers can write content very well. I do understand that we/they might not want to sometimes. There are days I look at the text and think “good lord i don’t really want to do this”. But I agree that it is part of the design, how the text flows, how it relates to the person reading it.
    You complete your talent pool by picking this ability up, in my opinion.

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  55. by the profundity of people taking and discussing in this round.

    Everyone has it*s vote an TIME. time to be READ. Nice to see, that there are so many “serious posters” on this board.
    And, even more, i feel attached to the subject: Being a writing designer,… if ya kneww, watta mean !

    Good, i had my time here around. Was nice so far…
    Gotta come back. thanks for your time – reading.

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  56. This article, though short, opened my eyes to a part of design that I completely looked over. Shame on me! I tend to write a lot. Texts I have written in my native tongue – Dutch – do get some attention. But i’m a designer at heart and it’s the user who’s the most important person for a website.

    I will definitely give this more attention. Making the site friendlier (or nastier, depends really on what you or the client wants…) gives the site far more character than dry texts. I completely agree!

    Great learning moment.

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  57. The article echoes feelings I’ve had on the subject for a while. Content creation is one of four total areas a designer should embrace to become a “new breed of designer”:http://fluidzen.com/blog/2006/08/22/hybrid-design/ . Specifically with writing copy, the best designs are the ones where the design and the copy compliment each other. I don’t necessarily think the designer needs to write every word of every paragraph within the design, rather a model for the tone of the copy should definitely be established. The style of copy can and will clash with a design if not properly evaluated. Flickr style copy in a corporate style design is a definite mismatch. Plus how many times have you had the “You can’t say “˜click here’ in the copy”? conversation with the marketing department. Too many times myself, so now I avoid it by setting the stage with a model of how the copy should be to complement the design.

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  58. The article is great for making designers realise that words are important, too. However, I think it’s unfair on designers for Derek to suggest that clients who have a designer who says they’re not a writer should look elsewhere and “find one who is.”

    I know we live in an age of self-publishing, but surely not everyone needs to be a generalist? Do you advocate that writers should learn to design too? As a writer I have an appreciation of the role of design in a web site or print piece, which allows me to work with designers. Isn’t it enough for designers to understand the role of words in a site, so they can work effectively with whoever is writing the copy?

    Learning to write isn’t a case of reading Strunk and White anymore than learning to be a designer involves reading Web Design For Dummies. Much of online writing involves being able to sell in just a few words, which is hard. Instead, writing and rewriting is the way to learn, and I’d also recommend “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “Networds” by Nick Usborne.

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  59. I do agree with you. The more your are in a good command of your words, the more your readers will value your work

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