Calling All Designers: Learn to Write!

by Derek Powazek

59 Reader Comments

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  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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  9. 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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  10. 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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  11. 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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  12. 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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  13. 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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  14. 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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  15. 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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  16. 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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  17. 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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  18. 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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  19. 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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