10 Strategies to Help Designers Conquer a Fear of Writing

At some point in your professional journey as a designer, “copy goes here” just isn’t good enough. If you want to be taken seriously as a brand communicator, a strategic designer and a serious player, relying on lorem ipsum won’t cut it. You need to get comfortable with words.

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As much as our communications are becoming electronic and ephemeral, the written word is still one of the chief ways that human beings communicate. Words can be inspiring, moving, infuriating, or many other colors — and as designers, we check out of that conversation at our peril. Some designers seem to conveniently disappear when writing and copy are discussed, and I think this relates to our overall visual natures. Many designers think, relate, and communicate in images — it’s one of the skills that leads to great design and better designers. But while a picture is supposedly worth a thousand words, text isn’t going away anytime soon. So, it’s up to us, as designers, to wrangle the written word and to make the work we do even greater by engaging with the copy.

Most designers are not wordsmiths or writers in the strictest sense, but that doesn’t mean that we have to opt out of participation when it comes to the writing aspects of our designs. Even legendary book jacket designer Chip Kidd reads each book he designs to draw out themes and understand what his work should communicate. Page counts of these books are undoubtedly higher than the websites or annual reports we’re tasked with. Here are 10 thoughts that will help you conquer your fear of words.

1. Just read it.

If it’s good enough for a design rock star like Kidd, it’s probably worth your while. It sounds obvious, but designers need to read the copy contained in the things they design. I’m always amazed at how few designers actually do this! You need to understand the words that will work in context with your design. It’s not enough to merely plan for text length or headlines. Writing and design work in tandem, and it’s not okay to “let the copywriter handle it.” Wade Niday, senior designer at Kym Abrams Design in Chicago, is a veteran of many print pieces, including many high-profile annual reports and corporate communications pieces. Here are some of the thoughts and strategies he employs before he begins designing.

“When I first begin,” Niday explains, “I’ll browse through it to see how the content will translate visually. Are there certain sections to the text or natural breaking points? Are there any clues for a chart or graphic that could help tell the story faster or more clearly? I’m also looking at the voice of the language. Is it internal, corporate-speak, or is it correctly targeted towards the intended audience? All of that influences how I design.”

So, if you’re beginning to see that getting more involved in the words you’re arranging is a noble effort, here are some thoughts to consider on that journey.

2. Respecting design means respecting the words.

This conversation isn’t merely about words, but about the designer’s role in the creative process. If we want to have more of a say in how our final designs work, having a voice in the writing aspect is a good start. Our choice of communication shows what we value, and designers need to remind clients and other creative team partners that we’re valuable for more than just “decorating” in the design process. Give your input in the initial stages of a project as it pertains to copy length, tone and voice. All of this will trickle down to the work you do, so make sure you’re involved at the outset.

3. Change how you think about text.

How do you talk when you discuss the written parts of a design? Copywriters and editors have worked hard to communicate with effectiveness, clarity and passion in much the same way designers labor over kerning, color matching or browser testing. So, it’s important to treat the text (and the hard work of your collaborators) with respect. If your feedback to the client or creative team is “this is too much copy” or “it doesn’t fit my design,” you’re being as insulting as the first person who uttered “Can you just make the logo bigger?” Show some respect, and these other creative professionals will thank you, and might even pay some of that back in the future, when it comes time for design feedback.

4. Identify the writer’s intentions and the goals of the piece.

Copy informs design, and design serves the copy. Or, one hand washes the other in a symbiotic relationship. But a writer’s words also can give you, the designer, crucial inspiration for your parts of the process. To glean that info, you need to ask some questions of the text: What is the writer’s goal? Is she trying to persuade? Elevate? Sell a product? Impart crucial information? What are the audience’s needs and desires, and do the writer’s aims overlap with the audience’s real needs? If you’re aiming for effective communication, they certainly better!

The answers to these questions should be part of any self-respecting creative brief, but sometimes, in the frenetic scramble that is design, these important nuggets aren’t communicated clearly. You might have to do some detective work within the text, digging up these answers for yourself. It might sound like a memo from Obvious Land, but the content should help drive the design.

Niday also mentions how the copy he receives influences his designs. “This is where designers really add value with solid typography and a smart structure,” he says. “We have the ability to turn up the volume on the language or turn it down. With lead-ins, headlines, and subheads, we can play to the scanning, casual reader, but also to the person who has the time and interest to read every single word.”

5. Dissect the style.

There also are writing styles that can either work in harmony with your designs, or cause awkwardness and dissonance. You can use a piece’s writing style as a guide that will inform your design choices. Figure it out: What is the prose like? Is it filled with short and choppy phrases? Is the writing long-winded and loquacious, or terse and matter-of-fact? Each of these writing styles carry emotional connotations, over and above the actual content of the writing. You can capture some of these emotions and sensations with the time-tested tools of design (color, layout, rhythm, gestalt, harmony) while simultaneously supporting the writing.

6. Give design feedback that helps the writer.

It’s often easy for designers to let a project’s copy become an afterthought, but when our feedback is requested, we can be more constructive by couching it in terms that will make sense to everyone. If you need to communicate that a portion of writing goes on too long, appeal to the goals of the piece (“This needs to be short and easily-scannable for busy executives”), versus invoking some nebulous design principle (“This copy doesn’t flow well”).

If the text needs work, critique the offending copy on its own terms, rather than from the design perspective. Use big-picture thinking rather than design terms that could alienate your collaborators. The goal isn’t necessarily to educate your other team members, it’s to work together to create the best possible finished work. This approach will win you respect from writing partners, and also will show that you’re thinking about the work holistically, rather than from behind a set of design-only blinders. This kind of cooperative back-and-forth builds great collaborative relationships, and leads to a better project. At Kym Abrams Design, Niday explains that writing is a key element to every project. “In our office, the writer is involved from the very beginning,” he says. “This is critical because it keeps the design in check and helps position the messaging as primary. After my initial designs, I’ll get the writer’s input, and a lot of times, they will rework the language as the piece starts to come to life. It’s a great way to get feedback before it goes to the client too. I send a PDF or link to the writer at nearly every stage before final approval.”

7. Remind others that copy isn’t an afterthought.

If a client tells you that “The copy will come later. Just ‘greek it in’ for now,” push back. Writing isn’t supposed to be an afterthought. It’s a critical component to good communication. Writing is another way to engage people, either on a B2B website, print piece, or billboard. If you treat words and the people who write them with respect, your work together will be better, and respect will eventually flow both ways.

8. Don’t be intimidated by the act of writing.

There’s nothing scary about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Good writing mirrors clear thinking, and every designer and person can improve their communication skills. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King or Ellen Lupton to communicate with words. Take a stab at communicating ideas with words.

Remember that writing is less about using the perfect words or phrases, and more about communicating ideas. This is what we designers do every day, and if you can use words (whether written or verbal), you’ll be better prepared to communicate your concepts, sell designs and showcase your strategic thinking. These are all incredibly powerful tools to have in your career arsenal. So, take a deep breath and dive in.

9. Keep reading.

Whether it’s magazines, iPad apps, or business journals, one of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to surround yourself with the writing of others. Pay attention when you’re digging into the next article you’re reading. Did the author have clear and well-reasoned arguments? Did he back them up with ideas and facts? Did the piece have an attention-getting introduction or opening? Was the language choice appropriate for the subject matter? If it appealed to you or turned you off, why was that the case? Focusing on these things as you read will help your own writing, as you notice what works and doesn’t in the writing around you.

10. Practice. Then practice again.

You might not realize it, but we’re writing all the time. Whether it’s e-mails, project proposals, blogs, or (daresay) even tweets, as humans we naturally communicate and usually use words to do so. Writing copy (or anything else) is just the act of focusing our communication in a way that considers goals, messages, and interesting ways of saying something. It might sound juvenile, but practicing is the best way to get better. Start by creating a blog or capturing your thoughts in a journal. Write down inspirational ideas or quotes in sentence form. Write thank you notes to your clients. Take copious notes during meetings. All of these exercises will help strengthen those atrophied writing muscles and will allow you to churn out written ideas faster and with more ease.

Getting focused on writing is more about communicating than it is about that perfect turn of phrase. Sure, you’ll increase your value to collaborators, clients and supervisors if you can write clever headlines or edit body copy. But in the end, it’s less about perfectly-crafted language and more about the willingness to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty with copy. When the dust settles, you’ll be a designer who can engage with writing in a way that serves your audiences and makes your work shine even brighter.

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