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Better Writing Through Design

Better Writing Through Design

Good web design has a signature style: It’s approachable, it’s easy to understand, and it packs enough punch to catch the roving eye of even the most mercurial user. Web designers know this doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of a finely honed process that asks—and answers—important questions about a site’s intended audience. You might call it “visual language” or “design vernacular.” Either way, what you find in a truly good design is a unique perspective. A point of view. A voice.

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It’s no accident that we use such language-based terms to describe effective design on the web. The web is all about communication—from the position of a navigation element to the size and shape of a button, every detail furthers the conversation. So how is it that the very foundation of the web, written text, has taken a strategic back seat to design?

You do research. You devise tack-sharp strategy. You sweat the details. All to create a design that truly speaks to your user. Does your copy do the same? Apply a design process to your words as well as your images and you just may find your voice.

Say it, don’t display it

It’s one thing to write copy that fits on a website. It’s quite another to write copy that fits in with a website. You wouldn’t try to force an incongruous visual element into a carefully considered design. Same goes for written content. Even if you’ve wisely designed a site around the content it delivers, written copy may fit neatly physically but still ring false to the intended audience.

Ideally, you should work with a writer from day one to design the voice of the copy in conjunction with the visual language of the site. And getting a writer involved early can help you solve lots of other problems—from content strategy issues to information architecture snags. Remember that writers are creatives too, and they are, in many cases, the keepers of the content your design ultimately serves.

If you simply don’t have the resources to hire a writer, you’ll have to keep an ear on the language yourself. This is where the user experience research you did way back in the design concept phase comes back into play. It helps you design your words.

Make personas more grata

You remember those burning questions. The ones you ask yourself every time you kick off a new project. They probably go a little something like this:

  • Who’s visiting this site?
  • What does she want to know?
  • What does he want to do?

If you’ve ever worked with them before, you know how invaluable user personas can be to answering these questions. Maybe they’re not of the fake-name-and-glossy-headshot variety, but even the most rudimentary personas (i.e., “my mom” or “the skeptic”) transform your audience into real human beings. Human beings with day jobs, complicated espresso beverage orders, and no time to waste looking for things instead of finding them.

In a sense, you create characters from these personas. Establish what your characters will respond well to, build in contingencies for second- and third-tier players, and you move closer to an effective design. Not coincidentally, effective storytelling works much the same way. It demonstrates how different characters respond in different ways to the same situation. The only thing missing from this analogy is a narrator. Time to write yourself into the story.

Call me Ishmael

Ask people why they love the stories they do, and you often hear the same response: “I really identify with the characters.” Create a persuasive voice for your website by giving your users someone to identify with: A first-person “narrator” with a distinct yet welcoming personality. Developing this personality shouldn’t be too difficult. You did the heavy lifting when you created your original user personas. Now you just need to create one more.

First, try adding these to your list of questions:

  • How do I want to make this user feel?
  • How would I carry on a face-to-face conversation with him?

Then imagine your target persona’s peer. Someone who shares her interests and speaks with her, not at her. A professional video editor. A fellow foodie. A sports car enthusiast. That’s who you’ll channel to find your voice during the next step in the design process: Brainstorming.

Sing in the rain

Ah, that magical moment when Moleskines reach capacity, people pass out from dry-erase fumes, and there are no bad ideas (except for that one…). The time-honored brainstorming session (even confined to one brain), helps you build design concepts around strategy. No reason your copy can’t come along for the ride.

While you’re sketching designs, jot down a quote or two. Collect tear sheets of words as well as images. Shoot rough video of someone you think would make the perfect spokesperson. Remember that by introducing your narrator persona, you’re creating an expert peer your users will come back to for advice, information, and inspiration. That’s worth spending some time on. It also makes the actual business of copywriting much easier. Learn the language, then tell your story—not the other way around.

Work on your dialogue

Design a voice for your site and you do more than make words and images play nice. You engage your users in a discussion you both want to carry on. So if you find yourself laboring to craft the perfect written sentence, improvise. Speak what you want to say, then write it. Email it to a colleague. Chat it. Text it.

Great web design reflects the way we interact, and the primary vehicle for that interaction remains text. We share, we chat, we comment, we tag, and we do it all via the written word. The web is One Big Conversation. Let’s talk.

This article is available in Italian.

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