Better Writing Through Design
Issue № 242

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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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.

About the Author

Bronwyn Jones

A web writer living in San Francisco, Bronwyn Jones enjoys Britpop, agitprop, and cookies with butterscotch chips. Read about that time she tried to get on TV with Morrissey at presentimperfect.com.

22 Reader Comments

  1. The quest is being the site guide which your users want the site guide to be, but that is not always easy. To make things worse, looking at your (more successful) competitors’ awful content only confuses things further.

  2. Thanks for the great article Bronwyn. It is sad when beautifully designed sites fall down due to poorly written copy. It is indeed ironic that we spend so much time on design and then just leave blanks for the copy to be filled in later.

    Thanks also for the specific ideas for improving website copywriting for those who can’t work with a professional writer. I wrote a couple newsletters awhile back that I think contribute to your subject: Word’s Make the Web Work (www.newfangled.com/writing_for_websites) and Unleashing the Power of Words (www.newfangled.com/the_power_of_words).

    I also blogged your article, (www.newfangled.com/copywriting_on_the_web_from_a_list_apart), tagged it, and Stumbled it. Thanks!

  3. What can i say it’s really great article, in my opinion one of the best here on A list apart. I agree with the author that “Say it, don’t display it”. And also i like this part of article “Great web design reflects the way we interact, and the primary vehicle for that interaction remains text. ” – that’s whay I buy new cms and design for one of my latest project.
    Bronwyn Thanks for great ideas!

  4. Thanks very much for your kind words!

    As Eric points out, I think it’s important to give actionable advice about how to improve written content on the web. Writing is often seen as this touch-feely, subjective enterprise, but I really do believe that a little research and insight goes a long way toward making even non-writers feel more comfortable behind the pen.

  5. but unfortunately ego, agenda, fad, and perception contribute daily to the abrogation of simplicity, quality, clarity, and service to the end user.

  6. Thanks for the great article. It reminds me of a time I practically begged a client to hire a professional copyrighter, because the content they handed over was written by someone, who had learned English as a second language… and didn’t effectively communicate the real value of the products they sold.

  7. I’d hasten to differ, I start everything with a set of keyword establishing a ‘common language’ its all part of strategy and SEO before I even touch Photoshop as it helps me understand their market, what drives custom and as the term common language suggests, helps me address customers in their own language and terminology.

    Doing this in advance makes writing copy easy as you know exactly what’s going to turn people on!

  8. Excellent article. Are there any books or sites you recommend to help develop our own copyrighting skills? The links that Eric Holter provided had some great tips, now I want even more fuel!

  9. Nice post.
    As described in post, site should answer the following questions:
    1) Who’s visiting this site?
    2) What does she want to know?
    3) What does he want to do?

  10. Great article, lest we forget: the web has always been a remains a text-based medium, primarily. A visual designer who knows his or her trade will pick up a pencil (or open Word) first, to establish what and who the project is about well before mousing around with design tools. Visual design is just as important but process matters most. A recipe of only ingredients without process is mush. So context > content > design > test > serve > chill.

  11. It’s good to see that writing isn’t totally lost. I’m quite proud to be part of the technological generation that still knows how to spell but the projects I’m involved in are largely CMS related. I don’t get any say in the content of the sites we produce (the worst of all – template driven, off-the-shelf jobby’s). I guess it’s not really my problem but it’s gutting when I’m ashamed of the websites I’m responsible for.

    So that said, I’d love to see some effort put into reaching the people who are actually writing ‘content’. Be it designers, end users/clients or SEO specialists… In light of the increasing adoption of web standards the actual content that is being made accessible needs the same consideration. Are there any existing repositories of knowledge that are publicly available as a reference for educating content authors? I can definitely see a business case for it if not… (b4 orl hp iz lst)

  12. I’m a terrible writer. Not because I don’t know the English language. I just don’t think enough about it. As designers we often rush to complete a project, beat our clients down for the content we do receive, stick it in, and then leave it at that.

    I will keep this article bookmarked as a great reminder that I need to stop and think about content before I go chunking content into a design.

  13. It’s a good thing, professional web people start to put more emphasis on content. Up to a while ago everything was about web design, html/css and programming.

    For web designers and web developers content is by far the most difficult task to handle. And it is even harder for most clients. They don’t know much about how web communication works, don’t want to spend on a professional writer and wreck the project by writing content themselves.

  14. The simple questions that you outline (what do your site visitors want to know / do; what do you want them to know / do / feel) are ones that should drive not only the content but the architecture and functionality of sites.

    This is an interesting related article from Jakob Nielsen:
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/features.html

  15. “So how is it that the very foundation of the web, written text, has taken a strategic back seat to design?”

    This sentence kind of sums up my 6+ years doing interactive copy in an agency environment. Things are slowly changing, and copy/content is being brought in earlier and earlier in the process, but ultimately, design is still leading the charge. It’s funny since the “content is king” mantra has become almost cliched at this point, yet Creative Directors with design backgrounds are 8:1 over those with copy backgrounds at my agency alone (and I think we’re actually ahead of a lot of others in that respect).

    I’ve also found we get more client involvement online. When you hire an ad agency to develop a campaign, generally a few high-ups will jump in and play copywriter, if that. With interactive, there’s a lot more to deal with in terms of volume. In addition to brand and campaign creative considerations, we’ve also got product information of varying levels, and everyone with Word installed seems to think they can contribute. The bigger the company you work with, the worse it gets. (Okay, maybe I’m just venting client frustrations at this point).

    Anyway, great piece. 100% agree. Consideration of voice and story is as important as anything else when developing a site and that does need to stop taking a backseat to visual design elements.

    All hail the copywriter!

  16. I can’t tell you how many times as a web project manager I’ve heard, “well, I don’t know exactly what content I’m putting up, but I want my website to look like this… .” The content is vitally important. After all, that’s why the users are there. And no, you can’t take your printed marketing brochure from last year and “slap it up on the web.” Writing for the web has a particular style to serve particular needs.

  17. you make some great points. I have seen too many websites where they style of text and the style of the site just don’t mesh. This can be exacerbated by the individual “voice” of a writer.

    Unfortunately too many people just don’t have the skill to effectively communicate in a genuine and cohesive manner. But for those that can it provides a real opportunity.

    This looks like a great blog. this is the first time I have ever visited it today and I am impressed.

    Tim McCormack
    http://www.iRent2u.com – The Online Rental Marketplace

  18. I’ve always understood that good content is the basis for any great website design. I dwelt on that a great deal while creating a new website for myself. I wanted to hire a copy-writer who was more experienced than I – someone to keep my thoughts on track and keep me from making grammatical blunders. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the funds to support such, and was left to fend for myself. The most common advice I received from fellow web designers was to “write like you talk”. After writing a few sentences, I would read them allowed to see if they felt unnatural. They did. I finally came up with a design that focused more on the text than on graphics, and started a blog so I could practice writing on a regular basis.

    I wish this article was around then – Its entirely helpful and I look forward to going back through my site and taking a concentrated look at my content. Cheers!

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