6 Writing Tips for Designers


You’ve memorized every keyboard shortcut for Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, but when it’s time to use that keyboard to string a few words together, you’re frozen in fear. Whether you’re drafting an email, crafting a design proposal, or preparing your thoughts for a pitch meeting, writing is an important part of your job. Here are a few writing tips for the next time you have to communicate an idea with nothing more than 26 characters and a few punctuation marks.

1. Keep it simple. Somewhere around high school, many students started to equate good with finding the biggest possible word and using the passive voice to make it sound more impressive. Which is better? “It would behoove those responsible for the budgetary constraints to ensure that spending is kept within reasonable limits,” or “Let’s try to save money.” Remember, the point of writing is to communicate an idea simply. Hemingway did just fine with one-syllable words—you can, too.

2. Re-write your work. Most novice writers think that experienced writers produce perfect first drafts. Wrong. Most professional writers would be horrified to share a first draft with anyone—we just write more drafts and spend more time polishing every one of them. Good writing is really re-writing. I rewrite everything, from articles to emails, even text messages.

The goal of any first draft is to get your ideas on the table, and that process can be messy—just focus on putting words on the page, and clean up the mess later. When you re-write, you should be thinking, “How will this sentence look to someone who has no idea what I’m going to say next?” If you find it too hard to step outside yourself and re-write your own words, ask a friend to review your work and interpret the message as he sees it, just as you might do for a design critique.

Two quick tips: Walk away from the piece, and let it sit for at least 24 hours—the time spent away from the text will give you fresh eyes, as if it were someone else’s work. For longer pieces, write an outline after you’ve written the first draft. Doing so just might reveal a missed thought, a disorganized argument, or a redundant passage.

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Photo from Shutterstock

3. Break it up. Remember most readers enjoy short sentences, short paragraphs, bold headings, and numbered items—it’s not that different from using white space in your design. Find ways to break up your writing so it’s easier for readers to digest.

4. Analyze writers whose work you respect. When you were a design student, you spent a lot of time analyzing and perhaps even imitating some of the most respected designers. Do the same with writers. Next time you read an article or e-mail that strikes you, take a close look at what the author did to achieve that success, and try to incorporate that approach into your work.

5. Determine two or three key points. If you’ve got 7-10 key points, you don’t have any. Think about what you want the reader to walk away with, and eliminate anything that doesn’t advance that agenda. Remember, just because something is interesting doesn’t mean you need to include it in your writing. If your goal is to start a conversation or persuade someone to consider a new idea, sell yourself enough to get to that point, then go into more detail at the next stage of the process.

6. Get back to basics. “Experienced designers recognize why visual media is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but often struggle to explain it in writing, especially when the client doesn’t have an understanding or appreciation for good design,” says Sarah Rutherford, instructor and creative director of the Student Design Studio at Kent State University in Ohio. “So I tell my students to use language related to design principles as much as possible. Mechanics and doctors use language specific to their fields—so should we.” If you’re working with a client who may not be familiar with design principles like “hierarchy” “texture” and “balance,” illustrate your point with a specific example to get the conversation started.


Additional Resource
The In-House Designer’s Resource Pack will help you–and your team–continue to succeed. In this pack, you’ll find inspiration and creativity exercises, two webcast sessions, a case study, 2013 In-House Design Award winners and more to keep you energized.