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Image credit: https://imgur.com/a/PETBA

What do Grafitti Artists Have to Teach UX Writers?

(and writers of every stripe)

Maki Isayama
Jun 8, 2018 · 3 min read

I went to see “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” this weekend, a terrific documentary about the early, formative years of the artist as recounted by his friends and acquaintances from the downtown art scene from the late 70s and early 80s.

Basquiat, like several of his contemporaries, began his public artwork as a graffiti artist, tagging his art and poetry on whatever wall, door, or article of clothing was convenient. The life of a graffiti artist was fraught with perils and limitations, and this got me to thinking how their approach and philosophy had a number of very practical lessons for UX writers today.

Tick…tick…tick

The life of the graffiti artist practicing his craft was not an easy one. As described by one of Basquiat’s contemporaries in the film, they always had a very limited time window (usually during the night), so they had to come prepared and work fast.

They always had to work under the threat of arrest by the cops, disruption from MTA workers, and even potential violence spilling over from the urban turbulence that constantly swirled around them.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like your working conditions as a UX writer?

Rarely are you given ample time to do your work — usually, it’s a crazy deadline that’s been imposed by someone else or due to a last minute change/request — so you’re constantly forced to produce under pressure. There is always the possibility that some other person or group in the workflow — marketing, legal, product — is going to come along and “interrupt” you work.

So what can you do?

Come prepared. Know your environment and projects through and through. Even if you’re not actively participating, keep tabs of what others are working on and map out where you might get an opportunity to jump aboard and do your magic. Even if your window may be short, wouldn’t it be better if you choose when and where it happens rather than waiting for it to come to you?

And be prepared to win some but also lose some.

Fame is Fleeting

Another very insightful observation from the documentary was about the intentionality of the graffiti artists.

Graffiti artist know going in that their work is highly ephemeral, in both short and medium timeframes.

Although the MTA was strapped and under-funded, eventually, they got around to cleaning up the graffiti. So the artists knew (or so they believed at the time) that theirs was outlaw art and it had a very limited shelf life.

They also knew that their artwork, would only be seen in brief, passing glipses, either as their canvases (subway cars) or their audience (pedestrians), or even both were in motion.

So is the case with most UX writing. Rarely is it long articles or even short ones. Often, it’s navigation, or micro-content, or even error messages. Not exactly at the glamorous end of the creative writing spectrum. However…

The content is the content the user needs/wants now.

If your writing enables a user to get through a transaction, or overcome an obstacle, or addresses a potential concern, you’ve done the job, likely with little notice.

From an intentionality standpoint, this is where UX writing is very different from graffiti — one is design to attract attention, while the other is designed to do everything but. However, remember that most of the content that we consume on a daily basis is not artwork, or ever intended to be; yet this content is essential to just about anything and everything that we do.

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