Creative and branding expert Teressa Iezzi dissects the copywriter-designer relationship in her book The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era:
“If storytelling is the essential job of the copywriter, design is the starting point of the story; design can inform how a story plays out and how a brand touches people at every stage in their interaction with it.”
In today’s iterative, digital world, placeholder copy can no longer replace the need for strategic collaboration from the get-go. Interesting, compelling brand experiences start between copywriters and designers and end when both parties are confident in the outcome of the work. But which should come first, copy or design? Is working in parallel helpful or counterproductive, and what obstacles may hold us back from relying on each other’s strengths?
Here, a round up of Bay Area designers and art directors share their thoughts on what makes a great copywriter-designer duo, including a few thoughts on what they want copywriters to know most.
1. Less is more.
“Less is more when it comes to copy. The wordier the language gets, the more difficult it is for the designer to create a clean, compelling design. Short, punchy language allows the designer more freedom to utilize space creatively for imagery, font treatments and messaging hierarchy. It also allows the overall message to be quickly digestible in a world where we’re often forced to scan because of the amount of information being presented to us at any given moment.
My advice to copywriters and designers working together would be to clearly communicate with each other throughout the process and be open to each other’s opinions. If the design becomes cumbersome because of the amount of copy, the designer should recommend cuts. And if the copywriter doesn’t feel the imagery is playing off the messaging, he or she should feel free to ideate with the designer towards a better solution.”
– Kevin Copp, Senior Visual Designer at NerdWallet
2. Visual storytelling is important.
“When it comes to the copywriter and art director relationship, I think the best experiences happen when design decisions inform copy or vice versa. I’ve had experiences where I’ve been designing something without copy in mind, and certain writers have been able to pull inspiration from the visuals and can build a story around the work. On the other hand, visual storytelling is very important for me. I’ve also had experiences where getting a writer involved as soon as possible, even if it feels too soon, has driven my design process in directions I originally wouldn’t have gone because the copy was so solid and easy to build upon.”
– Kyle Macy, Senior Designer at CharacterSF
3. Recognize the constraints your team members face.
“There are real limitations associated with traditional mediums like print. The length of an article dictates the space available for headlines, subheads, body copy, captions, pull quotes, and everything else needed to properly explore and expound upon the content.
Screens, big and small, have changed the way we engage with content. They let us scroll, swipe, and animate information, and design and copy’s roles have become less about collaboration and more about flexibility. Building dynamic visual houses for content that doesn’t currently exist is a core element of the screen-based designer. Copy’s ability to tell a story that echoes beautifully inside its house can inspire new narrative styles and elements.
Understanding the constraints your team members face helps you anticipate and course-correct potential rough spots before they become problems. Quick iterations where copy and design react to each other shortens cycles, feedback lessens, and a unified result is achieved.”
– Trent Temple, Lead Visual Designer – Ixonos
4. Familiarize with each other’s areas of expertise.
“Truly wonderful creative work — those works that move you emotionally — have copy and design fully integrated based on the shared concept. I see it sort of like how a pen and ink can’t draw anything without each other. Great copy adds depth to and expands upon what’s communicated by its paired imagery. If you type the word “apple” above an image of an apple, it’s not impactful. Try something like “The last meal” next to the apple and then you’re starting to tell an interesting story that relies on the strength of both the copy and the imagery.
Familiarize with your teammate’s area of expertise and role in the organization. It’s hard to work effectively with someone if you don’t know what they do or why they do it. Start a project together with shared objectives, and think about how one’s craft can support the other’s in pursuit of achieving the goal. Collaborate from the very beginning through the very end.”
– Aya Akazawa, Senior Art Director, Digital – SEPHORA
5. Make time for in-person kick-offs or try working side-by-side.
“I think it’s important for a designer and writer to sit down when a project is first being discussed and talk through the whole idea. That way both people walk away with a sense of what the end product will look like and sound like. I’ve been in a few situations where the copy has come in way too long, but it’s either too good or contains too much important information to cut, and in that case it’s up to the designer to make it work.
I’ve found that working right next to a writer during a really tight deadline works well. Sometimes the writer will be editing as I’m designing – close communication is important. If the writer or designer is remote or always bogged down in meetings, it’s hard to carve out time to discuss how the copy is working with the design. Being able to quickly discuss something, remove roadblocks, or just try some new ideas will only happen if writers and designers make the time for it.”
– Erynn Hesler, Designer – Omada Health
6. Keep the bottom-line objective in mind.
“As a User Experience Designer, I like to build a wireframe first, then kick it off with a copywriter, explaining what we want to achieve at different touch points. Then I let them run with it. I encourage copywriters to think about if the content we’re creating is informational or educational. For example, are we telling the customer how to do something or aiming to inspire an action? Always keep in mind the bottom-line objective of what we want the user to do.
Other times, I like to collaborate and work in real-time with a writer and/or other collaborators. I’ve also liked working brainstorm-style where we all contribute our areas of expertise and then work in parallel from there. This is common when you’re pumping out projects fast, sprint-style.”
– Erin Jones, User Experience Designer – Art.com
Whether you’re a junior copywriter, experienced designer, or a hybrid of the two professions in a multi-hat wearing startup role, take it from these guys. A successful marriage of effective copy and creatively innovative design will always require collaboration, flexibility, and innate understanding of your partner’s role. Let’s shoot for that.
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