Good Copy is Good Design

4 Ways Copy Impacts Design and UX


“Copy” is defined as “the text of a news story, advertisement, television commercial, etc., as distinguished from related visual material.”

This definition is perfectly acceptable, except for that very last bit.

Specifically the use of the words “as distinguished from.”

From where I sit, flanked by stacks of copy docs, spec ads, and webpage comps I’ve written over a 12 year advertising career, copy is not separate from design. Even though we often refer to it “art and copy.” Or my least favorite pairing “copy and creative.” Removing copy from the creative process altogether rubs me mighty raw.

You don’t get calories from the flame you cook with, but it does make a meal easier to digest.

My definition of copy is:

“The text of a news story, advertisement, television commercial, etc., as distinguished within related visual materials.”

That’s because copy is design.

Or at the very least copy is an element of design. Similar to how heat is an element of cooking. You don’t get calories from the flame, but it does make a meal easier to digest.

Not convinced? Let’s look at a few examples.

1. Language is Design

What we say and how we say it determines whether or not a person will take action. That said, a compelling image certainly stirs emotion.

Exhibit A

Copy holds no monopoly on convincing people to act. Often it’s the pairing of the two elements–visual and lingual–that closes the loop. The words copywriters choose are carefully selected for maximum impact and minimum effort. The faster and more rewardingly a reader gets to the point, the more rewarded she is. Why? Two reasons.

1. Her time isn’t being wasted.
2. She’s “in” on what she’s reading.

A reader’s time has to be rewarded otherwise the material will fail. It will annoy the viewer or even worse, they’ll ignore it completely.

And what do I mean by that second point? Good design or art of any kind is intentionally open to interpretation. Good copy on the other hand, leaves no room for ambiguity. It should stir an emotion or action that’s easy for the reader to discern. We seek to inform and compel action, not confuse. Sometimes when something is over art directed or too much copy is trimmed the work loses the plot.

Ironically this brings me to my second point.

2. Less Copy = Good Design

A good writer should know when he or she has written too much. I’m as vulnerable to falling in love with my own voice and ideas as the next guy or gal. I have to be willing to admit that my Art Director partner is right when she tells me the headline is too long or the body copy would work better if it were trimmed by half.

If I can’t get to the point in as few words as possible I’ll hurt the design. It’ll distract the reader. I have to be willing to kill my darlings no matter how much it hurts.

3. Bad Copy Hurts Good Design

I hate to say it, but nine times out of 10, when a client supplies copy it’s going to be bad. That’s not a dig on clients. It’s simply a case of thinking too much about what you want to say when you should instead be thinking about what the audience wants to hear.

Bad copy is usually a symptom of either laziness or rushing things.

A copywriter is responsible for more than copying and pasting other people’s ideas. We supply the ideas. Along with our design partners, copywriters are half of the whole when it comes to developing creative visuals. That’s why we’re all “creatives” in the art and copy field–because we all generate ideas. What differs is the areas of expertise in how we layer them into the finished product.

Bad copy is usually a symptom of either laziness or rushing things. In a perfect world a writer and designer have days to bat around ideas and develop concepts or layouts. it gives both the visuals and the words to be tested, grow, and mature. They have to pass what’s known as “The Overnight Test.” If yesterday’s work is still good when you return the work the next morning, you know you’re on the right track.

But in an on-demand world, the reality is we’re lucky if we get a full day to give the work all we’ve got. Sometimes bad copy slips through either from a client who is too close to the product or from a writer who just didn’t have the time to give it his or her all.

4. Good Copy is Good UX

Copy helps the reader navigate the design.

Copy tells a story that moves people through an experience or action. Movie scripts, video game instruction screens, DMV forms–these are all examples of copy as UX. Using art and imagery to provoke a call to action is a tough task.

That’s why a writer is tasked with choosing the right phrase to compel someone to click through. (Note to copywriters: stop using “Learn More” as a CTA. Try harder.) Copy helps the reader navigate the design as easily as possible, thus removing barriers between the audience and advertisers.

Copywriting is Designing with Words

Language is an art form. It’s one of the most complex tools humans have developed, and yet it’s perhaps one of the most critical components to our most basic interactions. When done well, copy engages people because we are curious by nature. We seek to understand the world around us and that includes the hundreds of designs we see every day. Words help us do that. And when the right words are paired with the right design, amazing things can happen.

Thanks for reading!