Design and writing are communication mediums, and both usually have restraints: a client asks a designer to solve a specific problem and writers use a voice and length appropriate to a publication. Successful design and writing move people to action or to understanding. In process, both design and writing are crafts of refinement, the results of a thousand decisions made one after another. With so much in common why don't more designers write? Why don't all designers write?
One reasonable explanation is that, for designers, writing is an additional, difficult skill-set that takes time to master. And while design and writing share parallel processes and objectives, being good at one does not guarantee success at the other. However, so many of our favorite designers of both the old and new guards - Paul Rand, Victor J. Papanek, Michael Beirut, Ellen Lupton and Frank Chimero - do excel at both written and graphic communication. One marvels at how design heroes and heroines can be so accomplished at such separate and equally demanding disciplines.
Furthermore, most of these design icons are also educators. Do writing, design, and teaching mutually inform one another? My resounding answer: Yes! Each of these expressive endeavors has the capacity to make us better at what we do, a truism that can be boiled down to a few shared attributes.
Clarity of thought
Analyzing each word and sentence in a written statement for meaning and flow helps clarify an idea. Writers look to word placement, accuracy and brevity to expose gaps in logic. Similarly, writing about design (or thinking about design as a writer would) can expose aesthetic weaknesses. In the same way that misplaced or wrong words detract from written communication, gratuitous design elements detract from a design message. While there is a fine line between simplification and reductionism, the removal of inadequate or redundant parts usually makes for better, more focused end-products.
Connections to others
Solid design, writing and teaching often need research and community to succeed. In writing, fact-checking and interviews necessitate reaching out to people. Design research allows designers to better understand who they are designing for. Teaching requires buy-in from students in order to be effective. Although creativity is often considered a solitary affair, the industries driven by creativity are more conducive to those who are able to elicit responses from others.
Whether writing copy for websites or creating graphics for an article, versatility in content-production frees the creator from relying on other experts. The maker's message originates from a single source and is seamless. Knowing what makes good writing, or good design, is also a valuable service to offer clients.
Writing and design, though less formal than standing in front of a blackboard, are methods of teaching; they impart ideas. An ability to cogently express ideas and processes requires a thorough knowledge of the material, so that striving to explain is also striving to understand. Learning through teaching is widely considered one of the best ways to assimilate new knowledge.
My cousin, an actor, believes the secret to persuasion is making others care about a cause and that this is done through effective storytelling. Stories, and the way we tell them, certainly engage (or disengage) our audience. It is why as designers we create user personas, why as writers we strive to create believable characters, and why as teachers we attempt to tell anecdotes to which students can relate. The best teachers, designers, and writers will all be interested in how to better tell stories no matter the medium.
Creativity charms the businessperson when it is replicable. Writing about or teaching creative process lends credibility to an otherwise amorphous process. A list of publications, educational institutions, or conferences is like building a résumé of past employers; it lends credence to a creative's expertise by demonstrating they understand and are in control of their process.
Writing, particularly, delivers unexpected opportunities. For me, interviewing established designers has made them more approachable at conferences, business leaders featured in articles have extended speaking invitations, and some articles have even resulted in direct job offers from someone who read them. What I have learned as I gain further experience as both a designer and a writer is that opportunities are boundless when you include others in your career.
Where to begin?
While the reasons for crossing disciplines are plenty, how to do it may be less clear. Immersing oneself in the craft of stringing words together is actually step two; step one is recognizing there is a whole new industry to learn. Have the humility to seek writing advice no matter what stage you are at in your cross-disciplinary writing career. Here are some of my favorite writing tips I continuously look back at:
- Don't be afraid to start at the beginning, even to unlearn bad habits if necessary. Writing tips for web designers
- Read, not just non-fiction, but anything you can get your hands on. Read, read, read.
- If your writing bores you, it probably bores others too. Tell a story. Make it interesting.
- Delve deep into your subject matter. Expose the inner workings, not just the surface questions.
- Don't over-explain. Trust your reader.
- Join a writers group. This not only has taught me much about writing, but is an excellent motivator for consistent writing.
- Don't merely write, edit until you can no longer lift a finger. Editing tips for designers.
- If all else fails, take a class. Discipline can be key in learning to write effectively.
Inspirational cross-disciplinary leaders
Another way to embark on one of the many available paths is to follow in other designers' and writers' footsteps. Look at how inspirational figures have approached their careers. More specifically, notice how these people have not let their job titles limit their aspirations.
- Alissa Walker, contributing editor at GOOD magazine and FastCo Design, speaker, and writer
- Christopher Simmons, graphic designer, writer, educator and principal creative director at MINE
- Elliot Jay Stocks, designer, illustrator, speaker and author
- Eric Karjaluoto, writer, speaker and Creative Director at smashLAB
- Erin Kissane, New York City-based content strategist and writer
- Ethan Marcotte, designer, developer, speaker, and author of Responsive Web Design
- Francisco Inchauste, designer, writer and UX specialist
- Frank Chimero, designer, writer and educator; "he makes pictures about words and words about pictures."
- Helen Walters, New York City-based business and design journalist
- Paul Ford, author, programmer, and editor specializing in long-form writing
What good will writing do?
Eric Karjaluoto wisely wrote, "I spend a large part of my day either writing briefs, rationales, proposals, general correspondence, or even copy for one of our projects. I will likely never be a writer, but at very least, I am not afraid of using language as my work demands."
As you learn to write, it will become evident that these new skills will augment your professional design career. You will ask tough questions about design to expose its inner workings and this, whether you decide to teach or not, will expand your understanding of design. Being able to communicate your desired message is a skill strengthened by mastery of these related disciplines, and from students to senior designers to creative directors, every designer benefits from knowing how to write.