John Maeda on Writing in Design

A very short Q+A with a design evangelist and leader

Jonathan Foster
Jun 27 · 4 min read

Starting with the basic point, what role do you think writing can play in the product and customer experience?

Writing plays an important role when information is read with the eyes or heard with the ears. It can also be touched to be read, so it is intelligible through three of the five senses. Does it also impact the other two senses — smell and taste? Definitely not in a physical sense but in a metaphorical sense, I would have to say yes. Experiencing bad writing will leave a customer with a bad taste in their mind. And will leave them thinking that a product is bad and doesn’t deserve a second chance. So, in general, I believe that writing impacts all five human senses in a similar multi-sensorial matter that any non-written aspects of a product or experience can succeed or fail at achieving.

Naturally, we’re super fascinated by the integration of writing and design, but also by the working collaboration. What could designers learn from writers and vice versa?

I’m biased in believing that all good designers can write or recognize good writing, which is evidenced by how every iconic moment of design history is only fully experienced with the words of the designer or carefully contextualized with someone else’s words. I’m equally biased in thinking all writers can design or recognize good design. This becomes more obvious when computational experiences are more like partner dancing instead of just pressing a button and leaving. The dancing we do with the cloud requires sense-making that is best delivered as stories that become the movie in which the user lives — and, as every filmmaker knows, every good story requires good writing.

In a similar vein, what qualities do good design and good writing share?

Good design and good writing share qualities of respect for the consumer’s time and money. Also, delivering value is meaningful to designers and writers when they are in service to others. In this way, they are practitioners not artists. They draw upon the more esoteric work of an artist or poet, but carefully draw a line in not pretending to be them.

How do you see the relationship between writing and design evolving over the next years?

I’m hoping we’ll see that our recent attention to design and writing in the technology industry is linked to the fact that prior experiences didn’t need emotional value as much as functional value — because the early users were mainly tech-focused aimed at getting a specific job done. Today, computing is for everyone, and that means the expectations for having a great experience are never going back to the command-line interface. Which, when you think about it, demonstrates how writing has always been at the foundation of our interactions with the computer. Writing is intrinsic to how computing has been designed and programmed. Maybe for that reason I’ve never seen the two as separate.


Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Jonathan Foster

Written by

I'm at Microsoft leading the Windows and Content Intelligence UX writing team. We make sure the best verbal design is in our products and UX. (views are my own)

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.