Finding design inspiration in creative writing
Originally Posted on the Bureau Blank Blog, 24 October 2014
To get into the Halloween spirit, the Bureau Blank design team have been reading a book by the master of horror, Stephen King, but probably not for the reasons you’d expect. Good design is about successful communication and so designers must also be competent writers. We decided, therefore, to read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft for some practical communication advice.
On Writing was full of technical tips but as King described grammar as “the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking” I realized the writer’s tools of structure and vocabulary are directly comparable to the way a designer considers composition and the elements of typographic style. The more I read the more it became apparent how much designers can learn from the creative writing process.
The blank page is intimidating for writer or designer but a solid grasp of the fundamentals ensures you have a head start. King advises writers to construct a toolbox of skills, “Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.” As writers construct one paragraph at a time to produce a novel, designers can rely on their knowledge of fonts and color theory to lay the foundations for the most complex of websites.
The real challenge is to produce something that’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. Readers of fiction are less interested in grammatical correctness than being entertained by a story and you can bet they don’t care about the grid system that underpins the magazine they read it in. King described the magic in stories when they “pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow.” A cast of realistic characters will follow their own motivations until the plot has a life of its own. Designers can experience the same satisfaction with a successful branding project. When you create a cohesive system of logo, color and type it forms a tone of voice and identity that carries far beyond the individual components.
King writes with a single reader in mind, specifically his wife Tabitha, and states that “the reader must always be your main concern”. Designers should also be aware of their responsibilities to the target audience. Obviously an app for young children will require different design than for other demographics, but even the subtleties of user experience between an audience of four year olds and eight year olds should be addressed. User testing may not be appropriate for every situation but audience research is essential.
As King describes omitting needless words and, “taking out all the things that are not the story.” Editing is as critical for a designer as a writer. This is as much a question of confidence as anything; avoiding the passive tone in either medium with “fresh images and simple vocabulary” leads to refined and elegant work. That doesn’t mean everything should be minimalist, but making informed decisions and cutting distractions ensures more effective communication.
On Writing is primarily aimed at fiction writers and inevitably there’s a point where that creative path diverges from the designer’s. John Maeda said, ”While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” Writing and design may both be about communication but successful design answers more questions than it raises.