Writing for design
On this day nine years ago, I decided to ‘get into’ writing.
Ah, 2010. A lot’s happened in the last nine years. Personally, professionally, locally, globally. For all of us. Back then, we were all very excited for the upcoming London 2012 Olympics, figuring out how Twitter actually works and designing websites without even thinking about how they might work on a mobile screen. Simpler times.
To provide some context about my life on this momentous day in 2010 when I decided I was going to change the world through writing about design is not necessarily important, but something that will help with this little story. I was winding down after my sixth (and thankfully final) year at university. After really getting my head down and working pretty damn hard, I’d been lucky enough to get some exposure in a six-page ‘Talent’ feature in Grafik Magazine (RIP¹), and I was unknowingly being scouted to be lured to work in London for my first role in the creative industry. I was ready to take on the world and my confidence peaked once the feature was published, and subsequently read by my friends, tutors and peers. Back pats all round. A few beers. Good times.
In the same magazine, another designer who graduated from my award² two years prior also had a feature. It was a piece in the ‘Logoform’ section of the magazine, which invited designers to speak about a specific logo that they like, and why. That designer is Harry Heptonstall, who was earning his stripes over at The Chase at the time and was (and still is) revered for his expertise in graphic design (Harry’s now over at Love Creative). I mention Harry, because he’s somebody I’ve always looked up to in the field, and reading his analysis and praise of the Open University logo (which I also have a deep love for) was really inspiring, and a bit of a turning point in how I thought about design.
For the first time, I actually understood the value of being able to write about design. I even reached out Harry and asked for ‘any tips’ (must’ve been annoying with such a vague, open question) and he was gratuitous enough to send me a little nugget of wisdom back in an extremely professional response.
Up until the point of reading Harry’s article, I saw almost zero point or need in being a competent writer. The 5,000 word essay in my final year was by far my worst performing piece of work, scraping by with the lowest pass grade possible and probably only remotely passable because I’d laid out the pages so they didn’t look too bad. “I’m a designer, not a writer — I make stuff look good not read good!” I more than likely proclaimed as a third-year-know-it-all not remotely ready for what lay ahead and the huge barrage of reality check-trucks³ that were aiming directly toward me.
Now, I’d always been pretty decent in English class at school. I received a commendation in year 9 for English language and since then, I paraded that Shakespeare swagger (yeah, that swagger) around like I was Eminem and safely tucked the skill into my locker as ‘done’ (evident from the ‘read good’ proclamation above) and with no need to reopen and reassess. I mean, I had a commendation… and what did I need to know how to write for anyway?
Well shit, then it dawned on me.
“If I can write about design, I’ll be a better designer” I thought. “If I’m certain I know what I’m talking about, then I can prove it by writing that stuff down some place, and people will take me seriously with my thoughts, ideas and reasons for designing certain designs how I want to design them!” (again with the magniloquence)
The first reality check-truck of many to hit directly in my stupid, inflated ego. At first, Harry’s wis-nugg⁴ didn’t make much sense to me. But pretty soon it was clear as day. Of course, to have any real clue of what to write about, or how to write, I had to read. That year 9 commendation seemed like a long, long time ago. It was. The Shakespeare / me / Eminem hybrid manifestation slumped out of that locker and was looking pretty dusty. I had some work to do if I honestly wanted to ‘get into writing’ and show people that I kind of thought that I knew what I was doing.
But holy shit, where to start? What do I read first? What was I meant to pick up from reading these things and how will be actually help me be a better designer? No idea. But I had to start somewhere. I’d amassed a decent book collection by this time. Like any designer with an addictive personality / uncontrollable spending habit / fetish for how paper ink on paper smells, I’d bought a few extra titles based off of university reading lists and my shelf was looking rather healthy. I scanned a few to get started. I was determined. Pictures, pictures… more pictures. I scanned further, and I realised my collection so far was made up of beautiful crafted coffee table books. I wasn’t going to learn a great deal in terms of writing styles from these. Granted, they have their place (many more than just those few nine years ago are on my book shelf today) and act as valuable resources for inspiration and satisfying ink and paper fetishes. But I needed some real substance. So I started at the best place possible, unbeknownst to be at the time.
The Blue Bible, as it’s known in graphic design circles⁵, is the first edition of How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul. Initially published in 2005, it is widely considered to be one of the foremost pieces on being a graphic designer from a practical and informative point of view. It’s very matter of fact, very insightful and very well written (and very very well designed, by Bibliotheque). Shaughnessy’s writing style is informative and approachable, which is ideal for new designers who a) need to understand the realities of being a graphic designer in the real world, b) can be inspired as to how to communicate with the written word with eloquence and c) a whole bunch of other incredible insights and information.
In my opinion, this book really is probably the best starting point for those to wish to read to inform their writing (about graphic design). If you understand the content and can consume it, then it can really help you get set in the right direction. Also, Adrian Shaughnessy has been behind a number of fantastic books (I’ve listed some of my personal favourites of his, and others, at the end) that have aided me getting into writing, and for those who don’t know he also is co-founder of Unit Editions alongside Patricia Finegan and Tony Brook (Spin).
Putting it into practice
“That’s all well and good” I hear you cry, “but how does one actually write for design?” Like with anything, I can only give you an insight from my own experience. So I’m going to carry on with my story⁶ just a little bit more to further contextualise my point of view.
So as I was saying. Confidence was sky high, first truck had hit me and I was working away in London. I was keen to get into writing. “Yeah” I thought, “I’m gonna start a blog!” so, I did, about cycling. And what happened? It was an online coffee table book—lots of lovely imagery and inspiration. Not a lot of writing. To be honest, I didn’t really have time. All I was focusing on was attempting to survive between a house in Stoke, a flat in London, getting to work on time and doing design (at least a couple of handfuls of extra trucks had plowed into me during my first few months in the industry). Onto the Backburner. That blog then turned into a magazine. Awesome—an opportunity to write some stuff for it! Pretty soon though, I realised that between art directing, editing, curating, selling ad space and distributing the thing, there was no time to indulge any sort of writing for it. I had fun with the introduction(s) and smaller areas, but before long I’d almost forgotten about wanting to get better at writing.
Then, I was thrown into a situation where I didn’t have much choice. Alex Farrall and I started a design studio up north, and pretty soon we made a business plan, built a website and went after work. It was the first time really that either of us were in the position where we had to articulate our work style (in an online portfolio setting), our approach (in tenders, say) or our ideas (during the process). So, both Alex and I got to writing. And, I really enjoyed it. I wanted to carve out a bit of a style, something like ‘words with a wink’, you could say. Something that would hopefully bring a wry smile against a usually dull tender application, or injecting some choice sarcasm into a social media timeline. I used my writing approach in our work, where copy was an appropriate tool to communicate an identity. Between all the areas I had at my disposal, I saw writing as another way of expressing myself through my work and in doing so, made work that I felt really close to. And proud of, even to this day. Words have the power, when combined with design, can make work feel personal like not much else.
I’d got the itch, and I wanted more. I really wanted to say something… but I wasn’t sure what. By this time, my bookshelf was even bigger, with a healthier balance of eye candy vs. insightful design publications. “I’ll have a bit of that” I said one day (probably), and before I knew it I was talking about writing an actual book. After some really great advice from Jim Williams, my former typography tutor and author of Type Matters!, I had put together a proposal of an idea I’d had, and Jim had managed to get me in a room with Merrell about them publishing it. They were keen—the idea we spoke through was a book about graphic design and its role within the creative industries—we had a contract drawn up, agreed and… cancelled. Shit. What happened? It was accredited to Merrell downsizing, and my idea was put to bed. And at the time, any notion I had of being able to write a book also dozed off.
A couple of years went by, and I’d not really done anything with writing. Of course, I’d been carrying on with my day-to-day design duties and the writing that was involved in that, but no concerted efforts to do more with writing about design. Before long, another idea struck. A book about self-initiated work within the design industry. And… I just did it. I just started writing it one day. I had some ideas, and it just flowed out into a ramble that I thought was half-decent enough to go on and ask other people to contribute to the idea as well.
And they did. I started interviewing designers about their work (with such esteemed peers as Craig Oldham, Stefan Sagmeister, Veronica Fuerte and Ian Anderson) and asking others if they wanted to write essays on the subject, too (with contributions from David Airey, Michael Johnson and the late Ben Bos). I was loving it. I was writing, designing and talking to industry greats about an idea that was once just a seed in my head. I’d gotten about half the book designed, with interviews and essays completed. It was at this point I wanted to show a publisher this time around. When it had more substance. “There’s no way it could get turned down by any commissioning editor, it’s full of design superstars!” I propogated.
Oh, but it did.
No publisher I spoke to wanted to go for it. No idea why. Still to this day, to be honest. I spoke to at least a dozen who replied to my contact, but no dice (it’s a project I still want to get off the ground, so if you’re a commissioning editor reading this and you’re actually still reading, let’s have a chat and get it going. There’s some really great stuff in there). Another confidence blow. Ouch.
Two books later
Around this time, I was contacted by old school friend, and founder of People of Print, Marcroy Smith. By the power of social media, Marcroy had seen that I was all over the book publishing idea, and he wanted me to help him make a PoP book a reality. So, we put together a proposal, and starting reaching out to publishing houses. Pretty soon, Thames & Hudson responded positively, we had contracts drawn up, agreed and… it was go time! The responsibilities on the book were split between Marcroy and I. He was curating, I was designing.
Which meant in reality, I didn’t do any writing. Okay, so why is this relevant? Well, for a couple of reasons really. I learned a lot about the process of piecing a book together, and what it took to get it out there. I learned about lead times, about dealing with editors, with marketing and the nuance that goes into all of these things. In a way, I was happy I wasn’t writing it. I was fortunate enough to receive an introduction into being an author, without actually putting pen to paper. Did I want more? You damn right.
People of Print was published in 2015, and whilst I’d love to go back and change a few things, on the whole I stand by the project as one of my most treasured amongst all. So of course, the natural step would be to be a sole author on a publication. “Maybe that one idea about self-initiated work?” I thought. It’s just, it got rejected, a lot. So I just parked it. At the same time, I was running three businesses — a creative agency (with a retail store, gallery and print workshop), a pizza place and a design studio. So the reality was, I had to park all thoughts about another book for now. I got on with the day-to-day once more, and just enjoyed the fact that I had just co-authored an internationally distributed title with one of the world’s biggest publishers.
As time went on, I had a lot more practice at writing. Not for books, for blogs or for magazines—but for my business. I really had the opportunity to dig into writing almost everyday about the business. About our approach, our methodology. And I really enjoyed it, just like I did when Alex and I were doing it together a few years earlier. I got to carve out the essence of our offer in my own words and hone my craft whilst doing so (a little more about why I feel this is important below). So, once things had settled and I was in my routine, I set off on the mission of getting that self-initiated idea turned into a real book. By this time I’d come up with a name—Sans Client—and I started putting it out there in my circles to see if anyone would bite. I started a Twitter page for it, I posted out on Facebook. And what do you know! Ali Gitlow, who works at Prestel and is married to an old colleague of mine, responded.
She was interested. “At last! It was going to happen” I though. We had a chat, I told her a bit about my idea, about the PoP book and what happened before with Merrell. She sounded interested in that, too. So interested in fact… that we made that book together. Sans Client was parked again(!), and so began work on what would become Graphic Design for Art, Fashion, Film, Architecture, Photography, Product Design, and Everything In Between.
And so, GDf was published in February 2018, and I wrote it. A collection of interviews, insight, analysis, thinking and absolutely incredible work from some of the best graphic design studios in the world who are all creating work for the creative industries themselves.
I mentioned before I learned a lot through the PoP book process. And I did. But I re-learned it again here—mainly because I was actually writing this, as well as designing. I had the advantage of being generally prepared and the naivety of thinking I knew what was on the way with writing a 30,000 word publication. I’ll be the first one to say, I fucked up. A lot. The first submission was declined. Damn! But, I didn’t let it get to me. I got back to it and made it happen. A season late, yes (sorry again, Ali), but all of that anxiety, dread and worry flew out the window when the advanced copies arrived in the post and I saw the book for the first time, in my hands, in the real world.
This is why I wanted to write. That exact feeling at that exact moment. Almost nothing can beat it.
I had some exposure in a few high profile areas, with lovely commentary on such sites as Creative Boom, Grafik, Design Week and Wired along with being placed amongst some industry legends on lists here and here. I’m grateful for all the positive feedback, to everybody who picked up a copy and to those who keep me humble by saying great things about it. Thank you. 🙌🏼
I’m actually getting to the point of this article now, as it has become somewhat of a precursor to what could be a straight to DVD biopic⁷. This is the bit that really, everyone could just skip to, but hey, everybody likes talking about themselves don’t they. Don’t they? Anyway, here are five key things that I feel will help you become a better design writer.
1. Listen to Harry
As Harry said nine years ago, read more. Read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, blogs, car magazines, cereal boxes. Really read the words, analyse how sentences are constructed. What makes them funny, what makes them shocking, what makes them repetitive. Decide if you think that works for you and if it represents how you want to write. If you don’t know what a word means, look it up. Re-read the sentence and if you have to, read it enough times to understand what it means now that you understand the word. Then, try to use that word somewhere in your own writing or speaking.
2. Grammar up
Make sure you know your yours from your you’res. Meet their, there and they’re — three siblings who have a lot in common but have very different intentions. Get to know to too, and whilst you’re at it, learn to understand tenses and what the difference between past, present and future entails. Nobody’s perfect, and everybody slips up from time to time, even on these most basic of English language intricacies. However, the amount of people who don’t know the right homophones or grammar to use where is shocking, and it ruins any credibility when dying on the hill for that idea you love.
3. Take every opportunity
Everyday, we write. On social media, over e-mail, on to-do lists. Use these instances like training grounds. Take the time to articulate your replies to colleagues clearly, use that word you read earlier and didn’t understand⁸ and double check to make sure you’ve used punctuation properly throughout. Take notes when receiving feedback and in meetings. Get involved on writing in pitch decks or creds packs. These are the places you can hone your craft, make mistakes and learn the most. And whilst I implore you to take every opportunity to practice your writing, there’s probably no need to write an essay on the 32nd picture of someone’s dog you’ve seen today. TL:DR.
4. Listen more
By being a good, attentive listener, you’ll become a better designer. And you’ll also become a better writer. We tend to really listen to those who we find interesting, and often those people who are interesting are also quite articulate. Take on traits from how people speak and see what it’s like when you speak like that too. Go on, be inspired. And as we all read how we speak (at least I do), by default we often write how we speak too. Listening to those who are great speakers and then using that as influence in your speaking, and then writing can be a really great tool.
5. Write it down
Obvious one, huh? Well, sorry not sorry. One might say this goes without saying, but I beg to differ. For instance, this is my first Medium post and I started this thing saying that nine years ago I got into writing. So, for a decade, I’ve not done any real writing online. A few blog posts, a few insight pieces or whatever. But I’ve never had a dedicated space to write stuff down. But now I have, all I want to do is write. It’s cathartic. And know it’s the same feels for a bunch of other people, too. So—sign up to Medium (other blogging platforms are available) and just… start. Put down what’s on your mind. Who cares what other people think. It’s not for them, it’s for you. Tell your life story (like I’ve pretty much done) if you want to. Want to write a book? Begin. Those blog posts, or the introduction to that book might be absolute codswallop, but everyone has to start somewhere⁹.
I must admit, I’m no expert on any of this. The amount of grammatical and punctual errors on this article will be enough to win amateurish hypocrite of the year (but I don’t really like to pay to enter awards… so 💁🏻♂️) and any copywriters who read this will undoubtedly be shaking their heads as yet another designer thinks he can write. It’s also worth nothing that the auto-correct functionality was used an embarrassingly high number of times and pretty much every piece of copy I’ve ever written has been edited and subsequently re-written by those far superior than I.
My reading for writing list
How to be a graphic designer without losing your soul
by Adrian Shaughnessy, published by Laurence King (2005)
Designers are Wankers
by Lee McCormack, published by About Face (2005)
Work for Money, Design for Love
by David Airey, published by New Riders (2012)
Scratching the Surface
by Adrian Shaughnessy, published by Unit Editions (2013)
How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World
by Michael Bierut, published by Harper Design (2015)
Don’t Get a Job… Make a Job
by Gem Barton, published by Laurence King (2016)
Oh Sh*t… What Now?
by Craig Oldham, published by Laurence King (2018)
¹ The printed version ceased production in 2011, but it continues digitally. Also, humble brag. Don’t @ me.
² Graphic design (BA) at Staffordshire University.
³ A metaphorical collision of a truckload of information that sharply and accurately puts you in your place. Usually in the form a right good telling off from a creative director and / or mother.
⁴ Wis-nugg, otherwise known as a Nugget of Wisdom. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a real thing as I definitely made it up whilst writing this.
⁵ Right? Or did I just make something else up?
⁶ “This is going on for a bit” I also hear you cry…
⁷ Who’d play me in the movie? Well, was thinking Tom Hardy, tbh.
⁸ Only if it’s appropriate, no need to say insipid to Paul in HR just to show off.
⁹ I said this over four years ago about me growing a beard. It’s still hasn’t thickened out.