I’m a Designer, Not a Writer

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write

This month marks a year since I officially dropped out of school. Frankly, I don’t miss it. Up until now, I thought that since I didn’t go to school for design, I didn’t learn much in university. Sure, I acknowledged that a lot of the theory in deconstructing and interpreting images helped me develop a very unique approach to my design work but all in all, I felt like I wasted two years of my life simply writing essays instead of creating images. I hated the educational system for stifling my visual creativity with a focus on words. Turns out, that short stint in higher education was the best thing I could’ve done.

I wasn’t always a visual person.

As a kid, I had extremely visceral dreams but instead of drawing them out, I preferred to write about them. As I got older I began to avoid art class and revel in the creative writing of my English courses. At that point, I was just learning to speak English and found it beautiful. I worked hard to learn everything I could to articulate my thoughts in this language that allowed for a vagueness that Spanish just didn’t offer. A couple of years later, I was chosen among some of my peers to publish a short story I had written, and at that point I was sure I wanted to become a writer. There was only one problem, I hated structure. Every English teacher I had said my writing was beautiful and unique but it lacked the mechanics to flow properly. For me, writing was supposed to be free, it wasn’t supposed to be anything. After hearing the same thing over and over, and seeing my brother (who I always envied) praised for his technical writing skill, I said “fuck it” and gave up on writing altogether.

With no creative outlet, I feel like I went temporarily insane.

I used writing to explore worlds I simply didn’t have access to. It was my ultimate form of escapism and without it, I felt trapped. It was only after coming across a print of Salvador Dali’s Swans Reflecting Elephants that I fell in love with surrealist art and it’s ability to create atmospheres that transport people to new worlds. Because of my fascination with Dali’s work (and his badass moustache) I pursued a career in design and art direction for film — writing eventually fell by the wayside.

Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937), Salvador Dali

When I started my degree in Film and Art History, I was immediately surprised by how much writing was actually involved. In fact, that’s all that was involved. I was faced with the same old comments on every one of my essays: “Great analysis, beautifully written but lacking structure. B minus.” It’s easy to think that as a creator of images, it doesn’t matter if we know how to write words or not, we just have to interpret them, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I struggled through school but I found that the more I wrote, the clearer I saw design problems. My ability to articulate my decisions to clients and come up with more well-thought out solutions grew immensely. Overall, writing made me a better designer. Since leaving school, and thus leaving writing, I found that my design thinking isn’t progressing as fast as it did then. I’m falling behind.

Overall, writing made me a better designer.

Thanks to the mighty interwebs, it’s easy to see why. Recently, designer after designer has touted the benefits of writing to not only boost your profile as a professional but also to further your communication skills, and share your knowledge with the community, among other things.

Sean McCabe is an incredible artist that has used writing in an incredible way.

However, for me, writing was never meant as a practical tool. Remember, I believed writing was all about being free and such. So when I sat down to seriously think about revisiting my love/hate relationship with it, I found myself realizing that the hate part of the paradigm stemmed from my hate of structure, something I had grown to love in my everyday as a designer. Needless to say, I was confused as fuck. How could something that facilitated my design process, hinder my creativity in other forms of expression?

After a long sleepless night, I came to the conclusion that my dislike for structure in writing stemmed from this association that I made while I was in school: my writing wasn’t good enough because it lacked the structure my English teachers were looking for. It was only after I created a structure for myself that facilitated my own creativity (in design) did I grow to love working within those confines. So as I venture back into this world, I made some promises, a personal structure if you will, so that I can use writing as a tool to make me a better designer, while allowing it to be free as originally intended.

  1. Write at least once a week for the next year (inspired by Julie Zhuo)
  2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself
  3. Let others read your writing, especially the stuff you hate
  4. Let your design facilitate your writing, let your writing facilitate your design — they go hand in hand
  5. Writing doesn’t have to be any kind of format, just articulate your thoughts in any way that makes sense at the time
  6. Take the time to listen to advice on how to improve, it doesn’t mean you suck
  7. Even if you do suck, don’t stop writing

The next year will be interesting to say the least, and I might not be fully prepared for what it’s like to return to writing down my thoughts, but I think that’s okay. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never be a great writer, but being a writer might allow me to be a great designer and that’s worth a B minus or two.

Keep up here.