A Writing Primer for Designers

It’s a strange paradox: So many designers whose work speaks so fluently in images flee in terror when called upon to communicate with the written word. After all, designers are nothing if not communicators, and communication is most fully realized when image and word unite.

It’s time to conquer that fear. One look through any recent annual’s credits will confirm that, in this era of shrinking budgets, designers are more frequently called upon to serve double duty—writing everything from taglines to full-blown annual reports. For those who tackle the challenge, it can be highly rewarding, enriching the creative experience and extending the boundaries of expression.

And all it takes is practice. Here a few tried-and-true verbal brainstorming techniques designed to help you find the right words for your next project.

Begin with the words. While it may feel more natural to begin the process by sketching images, starting with the words will help you quickly zero in on the concept—and inspire images in line with the language.

Get to know the territory. Pore over the annuals—they’re rich with examples of excellent writing. Read and absorb the winning entries. Take note of the techniques used by those you admire, and get a feel for how the format you’re working in—ad, brochure, Web site, whatever—sounds and feels.

Find the key(s). Creative briefs abound with keywords that serve as guideposts to the brainstorming process. Identify and compile a list of those words that evoke an emotion, that seem particularly important to the client or that speak to you.

Create a Mind Map. Take every word on your list and free-associate. What other words does that one bring to mind? What images does it inspire? Are there connections between them? It’s also a good idea to get comfortable with a dictionary and thesaurus. Many words have nuances in meaning or unexpected synonyms that can provide fertile ground for ideas.

Get it all out. When it’s time to actually sit down and write, it’s often best to just let yourself go creatively. Allow yourself to write thoughts as they come, without stopping to second-guess or edit. Don’t even use full sentences. It’s surprising what can come from these stream-of-consciousness ramblings.

Organize and edit. This is the hard part—sifting through what your subconscious produced in the previous step and whipping it into shape. For long copy, identify one main point or theme and make every sentence support it, ensuring that every thought logically leads your reader to the next. For short copy like headlines, select your top five and refine. Request feedback from someone you trust, and keep an open mind.

Simplify. Be merciless with your red pen. The fewer words, the better.

HOW June 2003

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