Writing as design

There’s continuing debate over whether everyone is a designer. The argument if this is true or not is still ongoing, but can writing be part of the design process? Is writing, itself, design?

I personally come from a design background. I studied graphic design at college and university with the intent of becoming a ‘Graphic Designer’. After doing some freelance branding work, I then worked as a Web Designer professionally.

Then I saw a new opportunity and I went for it. I’m now a content writer and loving it. From what I’ve seen this is a slightly different path to get to this role. Most of my peers come from an English studies background. I believe my knowledge and skills in design have influenced how I write and understand what I’m writing for, giving me a unique perspective. For me, I see content writing (especially for services) as an extension of my design knowledge, but can I say I “design with words”?

Big picture, small details

Writing is big picture. It gives you an understanding of processes and the narrative you audience expect from your service. By writing you can design the service. This might seem odd when you think of design as purely the visual elements. But for products and services (or service design) you’re having a conversation with the user. A lot of content designers start designing the service by writing out the conversation you expect the user to have with it. This way you can structure the service more organically and as they would expect to interact with it. This is why it’s crucial to include content designers at the start of any service project. If you can understand how users “talk” to the service you can make sure the service is built to answer them.

As well as the broader ideas writing also lets you consider the smaller details. The attention to detail needed is fundamental, especially when writing shorter, to-the-point content. It’s important when writing for the web to write clearly and concisely, I cover the research done for this in a previous article. This is especially important with services where your content may just be field titles, help text and other microcopy. Your content needs to be direct and informative in the fewest amount of words. It’s also important that these few words have clarity and aren’t misconstrued by the user. Every word must be deliberated and debated to make sure the context and inference is properly understood and considered. In my own work I’ve spent up to 40 minutes on just one sentence, discussing with other content designers. You don’t want your audience to misunderstand, and worse take offense to what you’re saying to them.

Design is communication

What’s the purpose of design? It’s more than just making things look pretty, it’s fundamentally about communication and this is the same for writing. This is why design and writing are naturally linked. They don’t need to function and develop separately — services are better off if they don’t. It’s well understood that making your content plain English is the best way to make sure it’s understood by all. This is how, as writers for the web, we communicate. With short, concise sentences that are direct, yet conversational we can make sure the user fully understands what they have to do. This is crucial to the design because without words the users would be lost.

Designers are precious of their title — and rightly so! They’ve studied and worked a long time to get to where they are. But design is a multifaceted practice. It’s becoming more understood and encouraged for designers to learn to write. This is so they can communicate their ideas and how their designs have developed. What’s slowly becoming more realised is that writers are also part of design and we design with our words. By writing we can understand the flow and narrative a product or service should follow.

In summary

Design has multiple disciplines. It’s not just branding or infographics. There’s graphic design, web design and digital design as well as many others such as book design and typographic design. It’s not just what you see, such as the front end in web design. It’s also the structures that hold the design behind it, whether that’s the grids in a book design or the information architecture of a website.

A crucial component in a lot of design are the words. They’re often what you see first on a website, in a book as well as in branding and infographics. They’re often the main component users and viewers interact with, because of this it’s important the words you use are understandable and correct.

Therefore, I think it’s right that writing is considered part of design. It’s an integral part of the process and the final outcome. It’s also how those who design record their processes, patterns and research. Its apparent at all stages of design. So you can design by writing and writing can be design.