3 reasons designers should write

These days, designers have a thousand skills they could be growing. From kearning to AI prompt generation, there’s no limit to the “what.” I’d like to dive in to the “why” behind the skill and practice of writing which refines thoughts from a passing notion to a polished point of view.

Beau Ulrey
Product Design Community

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Image of a sketch of fabric with watercolor shading.
Moving from sketch to finished work, notion to point of view. Image credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi

A dose of humility

First of all, I don’t think of myself as a writer. I do think of myself as someone who benefits from writing throughout the day. I also see strong writing and communication skills in the co-workers that inspire me to be better. Writing has helped me move through various roles as a designer and more recently into managing teams.

You might ask, “Isn’t it enough to do design? Why do I have to write about it too?” It’s true, the majority of the daily work a designer does is going to be moving pixels, connecting up prototypes and iterating in design tools. But when I look at the most successful designers, it comes down to much more than executing quality work. The best designers can help others understand the process and thinking behind the work, the lessons learned and how collaboration happened along the way. Writing can shine a clearer light on strengths than visuals ever could. An image is not always worth a thousand words. Sometimes, they’re near worthless without words. Plus, it’s good to do hard things.

3 reasons to write (or type)

Writing can serve a lot of different purposes depending on the work you do, how collaborative your team culture is and how broadly you need or want to share ideas.

Reason #1 — Communicate vision clearly

Credit to Remilla Ty for the Doodle Figjam stickers collection

Vision’s written form can take a lot of shapes. If a team is doing discovery work to understand the most impactful opportunities, the team might tell stories or define high level user journeys. If they’re delivering consistent value in pursuit of product vision, they might write acceptance criteria and epics. Either way, clarity is key.

I cut my designer-teeth at IBM doing design thinking, writing hills and creating storyboards to communicate the pain of today and the possibility of what we could create. Storytelling can be a blast. It’s hard work to tell a clear story as a united team, but it can create momentum like none other.

Not all writing is fun and exciting. Some of it is grueling. I’m writing this now when I should be writing user stories in Jira. But it’s how a team’s vision sees the light of day. Writing builds core alignment across teammates, and it helps move from blue-sky thinking to real-world application. In order to take a product vision and make it happen, it needs to be broken down, clarified and executed. Writing powers all of that work.

Writing also reduces the number of conflicting or parellel visions that can lead to chaos or wasted time. If a team is led by several leaders, they need a unified vision that is shared across leadership horizontally and vertically. If different visions exist, the team might received conflicting feedback from different stakeholders based on who is reviewing work or giving guidance. This can cause a ton of swirl and it puts the team in an awkward position. Instead of being on track and confident, they’re left trying to navigate different perspectives without a northstar to follow and measure. Most of this confusion can be solved by writing assumed alignment down.

But what if you aren’t in a role responsible for creating vision or defining work? Writing can still help you break vision into smaller pieces and communicate those pieces to the teammates around you.

Reason #2 — Collaborate with partners smoothly

Working with other disciplines and stakeholders across an organization takes a lot of time and energy. And it takes much more time and energy if miscommunication happens. There’s a multiplying effect to misunderstandings that can be hard to reverse.

For example, if I tell 6 people that I have Thursday off this week, but I send a message to another 6 people that I’m off the day after tomorrow (Thursday at the time of writing), then in my mind I have now let 12 people know my plans. But what if 3 people read my message the following day, and interpret it to mean Friday instead of Thursday? Those 3 folks might tell the other 9 I’m actually off Friday. They might show the email, they might reach back out to me, I might have to send a new message clarifying. Whew, that’s a lot of chaos over something so small.

When the same type kerfuffle happens over more important issues, the consequence and stress is much higher. Setting up a workshop requires me to clearly communicate the context, constraints and desired outcomes. Sharing feedback during critique requires me to preface that feedback with whether it’s a command, question or consideration. Process changes need a clear message of why and the painpoints that are being addressed with the latest strategies.

Reason #3 — Process thoughts effectively

At the end of the day, writing is thinking. In the same way that teaching requires deep learning, writing requires contemplation and generation. In order to write this article, I needed to put what’s in my head down on paper, gather similar references, proofread everything to a moderate amount of success, and hit the publish button. That entire process serves to organize my thoughts. Beyond that, I build up my own perspective by reading other articles on the topic. Now, instead of a half-formed idea, I have a strong perspective to take in to the future.

To me, writing has similar benefits to drawing. When I draw something from sight, I have to closely study the details and translate that to paper. Drawing forces me to slow down and observe everything from the big picture all the way down to the smallest details. When I draw something, I get a new appreciation for the logic and beauty that always existed.

When I write, I also have to slow down. The concepts I’ve passed by dozens of times mature from a passing thought to a point of focus and appreciation. Visually, I move from a rough sketch to a finished drawing. Conceptually, I move from a vague idea to a polished perspective. Drawing and writing are the processes for connecting the dots.

Thank you!

You might have noticed, none of these reasons involve ‘building a following’ or being invited to speak at conferences. If you want that kind of guidance you’re reading the wrong author 😆

But the good news is, even if what you write gets no response, these reasons hold true and the benefits still exist. Writing can help you spread vision, collaborate effectively and form stronger perspectives.

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Beau Ulrey
Product Design Community

I use empathy and good design to help people reach their goals.