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Design and the Written Word

One of the things that first struck me about Speak Up was the writing skills of both the authors and the community in general. Aside from an unnamed few, these skills are, by and large, above average. It is of course a skewed demographic: those who can write, do; and those who write really well, write often. So the community here looks fairly coherent and literate.

As designers we often refer to ourselves as communicators; as communicators it is certainly useful to be able to express ourselves in writing. So I’ve wondered, how important is it for a designer to be able to write?

I’ve mentioned before in the Good Typography thread that my knowledge of typography was bound to my knowledge of writing. I’ve spent a lot of time proofing jobs for not only my own graphic errors, but for errors in copy as well. I’ve had many discussions with clients regarding editorial matters — which they usually, but not always, appreciate.

In my former studio I was also ultimately responsible for how all design defenses, letters of explanation and project briefs went out. One of my designers was an excellent writer, but extremely convoluted and long-winded (yes! this coming from me!): I usually edited his communications down to half. My other designer wasn’t that comfortable with writing, so we’d do it together, or I’d do it for her.

But was it needed? I didn’t really know. One of my “great moments” came when my partner was presenting a round of proofs to the client. They had requested something which I had thought was a bad idea and had written a page on why they wouldn’t be seeing that reflected in the proofs. In short, my partner met them armed; but when she presented the document and started to explain they said, “Oh! If Marian has written something that’s fine—we believe her, whatever it is.” The mace of the written word had been brandished and the battle won without a drop of blood shed. Kewl.

So if you can write, do you think it helps you do your job? And if you can’t, do you wish you could?

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 1892 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Mar.29.2004 BY marian bantjes
WITH 47 COMMENTS
Comments
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Writing displays thinking.

Q.E.D.

On Mar.29.2004 at 09:12 PM
Tim Lapetino’s comment is:

>So if you can write, do you think it helps you do your job?

Absolutely! Being a young designer (just out of school for four years--with a degree in Print Journalism, no less--emphasis on Information Graphics), I am fighting hard to grow in my skills. And I'm the first to admit that I have so much to learn. But I believe that what I lack in some of my design skills and knowledge, I can sometimes make up for, in my writing (or the extension of that--my speaking skills).

I feel I'm at my place of strength when I'm pitching to a client, or selling them on a strategy, concept, or a design. Face to face, I use my vocabulary and communication skills, not to impress, but to clearly paint pictures of what I'm presenting.

It also helps that I can often write copy for ads, or do more than the normal work in something like a campaign. Writing a beautiful (at least, to me) brief or emotional intro to an ad campaign is much more compelling and convincing to a client than some designers I've known, sheepishly saying, "Well, it's kinda like this..."

I'm sure I'm biased, having come from the world of the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, but in some ways it shows that communicating verbally/with the written word isn't *that* much different than communicating visually. They're sort of like different dialects, and many of the principles cross over. Like Edward Tufte says: "Clear writing mirrors clear thinking."

On Mar.29.2004 at 09:18 PM
Patrick’s comment is:

I believe that writing is rather important in general to the freelance designer, and perhaps less so to a designer at a studio. But this is not to say that if you are a freelance designer you must be a good writer.

Writing takes practice (lots of it), knowledge, and skill. You come across none of these easily and that is why, just as there are professional designers, there are professional writers. I don't feel I need to be a great writer, but I do need to be a great designer who is willing to work with great writers when the need arises.

My wife is a curator and an amazing writer. She proofs my proposals and any self-promotional material, usually finding errors galore, and suggesting improvements. I'm grateful for the guidance.

In short, I don't think designers need to be good writers. I don't even know if it is much of a benefit on average. Leave the job to those who know.

On Mar.29.2004 at 09:19 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Good writing essentially means you can articulate a viewpoint coherently. In that regard, we'd all better be good writers, because we are selling ideas on a daily basis and need to clearly express ourselves to a range of different audiences. How you describe an idea to a bunch of designers is not the same as conveying the same concept to an MBA.

I consider myself a decent enough writer/communicator so that I'm comfortable presenting my work. The better command of the language you have, the better off you are, I believe, regardless of career or position. For the most part, people simply respect an educated mind and are more apt to trust it.

On Mar.29.2004 at 09:33 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Writing makes ideas real. Personally, it's the best way for me to think through a problem, create a process, or simply organize information.

Do designers need to be good writers? My answer is yes, or at least we should be able to write effectively. How does a designer write effectively? No different than any other writer: have a point of view, state your ideas clearly, avoid jargon, use the right words, unify, know your audience, deliver a strong introduction, finish with a great close, etc.

In all, designers should be able to communicate through verbal, visual, and written means. We must be effective across those communication channels to not only sell our work or promote our concepts, but also further our practice. Speaking and writing stimulate dialog, and moreover, allow us to participate in a dialog--a discourse about what we do. Design needs this, and writing will stimulate it. Look at what this web site makes happen.

For further reading on this subject, I recommend Rick Poynor's article, viewable as a PDF. I swore I read another article entitled A Call for Criticism, but I can't locate it online.

On Mar.29.2004 at 09:53 PM
marian’s comment is:

I do need to be a great designer who is willing to work with great writers when the need arises

Yes, I completely agree, and I'm not advocating that we take on the job of writing for our clients.

...

Has anyone ever worked with someone who was a really poor writer and found it to be a problem?

Also, when I used to accept applications or interview potential employees, I put a lot of emphasis (perhaps too much) on their writing skills. I don't think I could hire someone who was actually a poor writer.

On Mar.29.2004 at 10:03 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

My writing skills (or at least my focus on writing) have made people suspicious of my motives, and raise the question of whether or not I am a "designer". It is atypical to use writing in such a way that it makes design strategies problematic, opening them up for discussion. Writing is mostly seen as a vehicle for rationalizing-away our most fundamental inadequacies.

Since we are not at a level where writing can be considered a legitimate form, and a necessary part, of design practice (as opposed to just a supplementary instrument of persuasion on the business side of things), dialogue has very little chance of becoming integrated into our sense of design rationality. We will continue on our march toward Irrelevance.

On Mar.29.2004 at 11:01 PM
marian’s comment is:

and raise the question of whether or not I am a "designer"

I find this utterly bizarre.

We will continue on our march toward Irrelevance.

Tom, Tom, Tom ...

It's late on a Monday night--you must be tired. Give us a fresh start in the morning, please. Now get some rest. Sweet dreams.

On Mar.29.2004 at 11:15 PM
Jeff G’s comment is:

I right really really goode and thats whats makes my solution's so awsome.

On Mar.30.2004 at 02:45 AM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Writing is important for Designers and None Designers alike.

Writing has it's limitations in reference to Design.

However Good a Writer you are.

Writing will not Compensate for a Designer(s) inability.To Discuss his/her work. Pitch the Idea. Sell the Concept and Close the Deal.

Certainly, writing will not compensate

for lack of personality. Needed for informal

and impromptu meetings on the Golf Course.

Certainly, Good and Effective Writing has its Virtues.

Does it make a Better Visual Designer?NO

Addressing the Applied Art aspect of our business.

Does it make one a more effective Written Communicator.YES

I'm reminded all the interviews I ever went on

in the last twenty years.

I've always expressed to the interviewer.

"I apologize for the couple of mis-spelled words."

Overwhelmingly, I was told. 100% of the time.

"We Don't care how good you can spell". "We only care how good you can Design."

Throughout the years. I've witnessed brilliant writers terrified of speaking publically.

Frankly, were staged frightened.

I've seen people with Speech Impediments. Such as Stuttering and Lisp. Perform flawlessly in public speaking.

How many contributors to SU new that James Earl Jones is a Stutterer? Yes, the Spokesman for Verizon is a Stutterer. Whom forced himself to take acting classes to overcome his Speech Impediment.

For someone such as myself in Management Consulting as an Independant Identity Consultant. Verbal Communication is First and Foremost.

I have to Pitch the Idea. Sell the Concept and Close the Deal.

While the first thing my clients see is my letterhead. I have a pair of Fresh Eyes Proofread my Proposals.

Alas, my Capabilities have to be sold. It's all

verbal.

On Mar.30.2004 at 02:50 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I don't know why that sounds so bizarre to you, Marian. My status as a "designer", due to my preference for writing, and the status of my writing as design "work" have always been in question on this blog.

I work on a different schedule, and I'm sharp as a tack, thank you :) There's no real way to respond to a condescending non-response (a great rhetorical strategy, by the way) other than to point out that you may have effectively deleted my thoughts from the discussion.

If we want our work to be relevant subject matter in a future narrative of real human progress (in answer to the question 'will writing help us do our job better?'), it must be progressive and it must possess some agency derived through a conscious break with tradition. This break is achieved through truly dialogical writing, a process by which we can develop our own convictions (rather than system imperatives) and the ability to critique and guide a cultural practice that is most likely, under opposite circumstances, to be wholly dictated by outside forces.

On Mar.30.2004 at 02:50 AM
vos broekema’s comment is:

Designers don't read, so design writers don't write. Let's amend that: they write captions. Sometimes they write really long captions, thousands of words that do nothing but describe the pictures. —Tibor, that is.

On Mar.30.2004 at 03:56 AM
scott’s comment is:

These days I think it's critical for designers to be able to write. I spend as much time writing (correspondence, proposals, articles, copy--also, posts on sites like this one) as I do designing, and everyone who works here needs to be able to write as well.

One misspelled word will send a resume or cover letter to the garbage. It's true that spelling isn't the most important skill for designers to have, but getting things right in correspondence shows respect. After all, there is that spell-check thing now, right?

On Mar.30.2004 at 06:53 AM
marian’s comment is:

"We Don't care how good you can spell".

Well, I think I would have said "We do care how well you can spell ..."

;)

have always been in question on this blog.

Tom, I misunderstood the initial context: I thought you had met resistance to yourself as a designer (due to your writing) in the context of a client relationship.

On this blog. I see. I wouldn't actually say "have always been in question." You've had the occasional run-in, but I've always considered you a designer, without knowing much about you.

I certainly didn't intend to shut you down, but I just don't understand why you feel compelled to make these sweeping statements about the design profession that are not only overwhelmingly negative, but are completely untenable. Our march toward Irrelevance?? C'mon, please.

So ... reading the last paragraph of your last post very slowly and carefully (the language you use is sometimes difficult for me to navigate), you're saying basically that writing is important from a critical perspective, and if we can't write we can't contribute to the critical thought and writing about design, at which point we would give up our own voice in that critical thought (thus surrendering it to outside forces). Yes?

Scott, what you wrote could have been written by me. I too am spending as much time writing (maybe more--gulp) as designing, but even when I ran a studio I spent an incredible amount of time writing. And there's nothing that irks me like sending something out with a written error. It's like a stab to the heart and a kick to the backside.

On Mar.30.2004 at 08:54 AM
marian’s comment is:

there's nothing that irks me like sending something out with a written error

A case in point being a grammatical error in the first goddamned sentence of my post here -- which I have now fixed -- The Power of Being an Author.

On Mar.30.2004 at 09:14 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Writing is essential — it might not make you a better designer but it will make you a better communicator — specially nowadays that people will not talk on the phone and would rather receive an e-mail (and read at their leisure) with explanations on why the logo is green. Or to explain how a web site's flash navigation works or to explain why the color on a proof will not match the final output color, etc.

But besides that objective instance, writing serves as an extension of one's thinking and helps ground ideas. Good writing goes unnoticed and is well appreciated by clients, even if unconsciously; bad writing does not go unnoticed, can be disastrous, off-putting and paints a bad picture of someone.

Designers don't have to be "good" writers, as in being able to write novels and describe what a pear tastes like. Eloquently expressing one's ideas in written form is one more tool that we have. If there are two equally talented designers but one can write and the other can't, who would you pick?

> the status of my writing as design "work"

Must… resist… to comment.

Tom, writing is writing not designing. Look it up in any dictionary, bring up any theories you might have… designing, as in graphic designing, involves creating something visual, an output, something tangible beyond words. Writing alone, by definition, is not designing.

On Mar.30.2004 at 09:24 AM
eric’s comment is:

writing serves as an extension of one's thinking and helps ground ideas.

agreed, and that's precisely why better writing makes better designing.

On Mar.30.2004 at 09:55 AM
Paul’s comment is:

The above comments mostly refer to writing in the service of communicating one's design goals. How about writing copy? Tim mentions it, but does anyone else find themselves in a position of having to/wanting to do this? I wind up doing a fair amout of coywriting; in many ways it allows me to propose much more cohesive design solutions, especially when it comes to advertising work. (But I started out as a copywriter, so perhaps its just me...)

On Mar.30.2004 at 10:53 AM
Paul’s comment is:

proofreading, however, is clearly not my strong suit. ouch.

On Mar.30.2004 at 10:55 AM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

Writing is an important skill for visual communication designers to posess. Writing allows us to convey ideas and information to others in a predictable, codified manner. The effective use of typography gives a voice to our words.

I'd go so far as to say that graphic designers who cannot write effectively often end up being restricted to the rank of stylist — more occupied with shaping form than conveying meaning.

On Mar.30.2004 at 10:56 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I think it's essential for a designer to have good writing skills -- for all of the reasons already mentioned.

I've never thought of myself as a writer, nor have I aspired to be one. But somehow, I've written a number of my own annual reports, as well as some, or all, of the content in countless numbers of posters, brochures, websites, etc. Again, not intentional -- but just a result of being a good communicator I guess.

I should clarify that the kind of copy I write and prefer is similar to my preference for design -- simple, direct, metaphoric, and unique. I try to write similar to how I speak and think. It's a relatively straightforward approach, yet is surprisingly challenging at times. I don't especially like academic verbosity in writing. It's just self-serving in most instances. The mark of an intelligent mind is the ability to communicate complex things in uncomplicated, direct terms. That applies to both writing and design.

I have a friend who's a brilliant copywriter -- he's written copy for every firm here in town. His copy is devastatingly simple, yet is always no more or no less than what is needed. He has this simple philosophy for writing -- to wit, "When I write copy, I just leave out the parts that people will skip."

On Mar.30.2004 at 11:08 AM
marian’s comment is:

proofreading, however, is clearly not my strong suit. ouch.

Don't feel badly, Paul, I do this all the time here on Speak Up -- usually at the worst possible time.

In general I'm a strong advocate of hiring professionals to do the jobs that go hand-in-hand with design, such as writing. If you feel you could have done a better job, get another writer.

However, this is not always possible: we get a lot of copy from clients, and from writers they have hired which is just not good and yes, there have been many, many times I've had to step in. Fortunately, in my former company, my partner was a writer and editor, so even though I was as good a writer as she, and it may have been me who had the written solutions to the written problems, we were able to say "We have a writer, we offer this service, we suggest you take us up on it." This prevented them from maybe wondering at the Jack-of-all-trades aspect of the designer now being a writer, and also made sure that we billed for our additional work on their copy.

I'd go so far as to say that graphic designers who cannot write effectively often end up being restricted to the rank of stylist

Hmmmm. Now that's an interesting comment. So, Robert, you think that the ability to write is not just a welcome addition to the skillset, but somehow informs the actual process of design?

On Mar.30.2004 at 11:19 AM
marian’s comment is:

simple, direct, metaphoric, and unique

Me too. I'm fanatical about it. However, I know a writer here in town. He's too direct. His sentences are always this short. He says, "We do this. We do that." Then he's done. It drives me nuts.

On Mar.30.2004 at 11:22 AM
Zoelle’s comment is:

I agree, writing skills are essential. I don't think you need to write like a professional writer -- just a professional. I receive horribly written emails from clients all the time. My one pet peeve is multiple spelling errors. Nothing tells me that someone doesn't care like a barrage of spelling errors with no attempt to spell-check. I find it funny that the one client that I have that crafts the most articulate emails is a charter fishing captain. Why is that? Effort.

On a side note, at my first job out of college I spent a long day in a poorly lit board room full of people tallying thousands of inventory sheets with calculators and pens. I managed to get a stack of papers with more line items per page than the others. So there I sat. Tallying away while other people finished up and went home. It came down to just me; well, me and the company president. He sat quietly while I worked for about five more minutes. It was closing in on 10pm. I glanced over to him to see if I could read his body language. He was leaning forward at the table in anticipation. When our eyes met he asked me if I was having any problems. I stopped working and gave him all my attention. I looked at him with a somber expression and said, "Didn't Colleen tell you -- I'm dyslexic." He sat up surprised as though he had received the news that a loved one had died.

"Really?" he said.

"No, not really." I answered. After which he nervously laughed. I'm glad he had a sense of humor. (I mean no disrespect to those who are dyslexic.)

On Mar.30.2004 at 11:40 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> How about writing copy?

> I'd go so far as to say that graphic designers who cannot write effectively often end up being restricted to the rank of stylist

Both Paul and Robert bring up a good point (Robert's a bit more drastic, but not far from the truth). While I don't encourage designers taking on the job of writers who presumably have better writing techniques, a designer that can write headlines and copy is more likely to create better-rounded pieces of communication. Even if it serves only as a starting point and the copy is then refined by a copywriter is an advantage. Posters, brochures, annual reports all benefit from creative writing, sometimes writers are so preoccupied with form and syntax (which is a good thing) that they forget to be creative.

That Veer movie I did a while back relied heavily on the copy I came up with and I sincerely don't think a copywriter could have achieved the same results as that movie was a writing/design tandem process that if separated wouldn't have been as cohesive. Or funny. Or weird.

On Mar.30.2004 at 12:12 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

So, Robert, you think that the ability to write is not just a welcome addition to the skillset, but somehow informs the actual process of design?

I think both the abilities to write and design well are byproducts of a good education (and I don't mean strictly academic). Graphic design is (should be) about ideas and concepts. Experience and knowledge play a large role in how you develop your ideas. Not being very knowledgeable simply limits the influences that inform your work and you end up appropriating styles as opposed to developing your own graphic voice.

On Mar.30.2004 at 12:15 PM
Tan’s comment is:

> His sentences are always this short.

My friend also has a snide retort on brevity -- "You don't pay me enough to make it shorter." Totally true. It takes true effort to say something in five words rather than 50.

On Mar.30.2004 at 12:32 PM
marian’s comment is:

It takes true effort to say something in five words rather than 50

And with a little more effort, you can come to a nicely balanced 10 or 20.

a designer that can write headlines and copy is more likely to create better-rounded pieces of communication

Yes, I admit this is where I've done a lot of intervention. I'm thinking of an AR where the writer did a decent job of the body copy, but when it came time for headlines that worked with the intended theme, well, I ended up writing 4 out of 5. Without that, the whole concept would have fallen apart.

On Mar.30.2004 at 12:54 PM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

When I first met Debbie Millman (first via this forum, then for drinks) she quickly asserted that I was a good writer, which I found extremely, well, for lack of finding a suitable word here, horseshit.

(See, not too articulate.) But you get it.

Designers who seem to write well, do it often, and often at the expense of what they should be creating: visuals.

I've written and crafted many strategy/briefs and am writing one now. I hate it, it sucks- but its extremely neccessary- if not simply for thought organization, than selling your idea to a client.

On Mar.30.2004 at 01:09 PM
Kitty’s comment is:

I agree that designers don't have to be novelists or poets when it comes to writing, but I do think that there are basic rules that need to be obeyed for clarity (spelling, grammar, etc.)

To me it speaks to attention to detail. If a designer hands me a written brief that's riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, then that tells me that the designer doesn't take the time to review work, regardless of whether the work is written or designed.

On Mar.30.2004 at 01:48 PM
JT Helms’s comment is:

"Writing makes ideas real."

I would hope your design does the same.

I think the most real place for writing in design is design research. People like Richard Buchanan (Design Issues-MIT Press), Richard Saul Wurman, Michael Beirut and our friends at Design Observer, Steven Heller, etc...these people are informing us (the design community) through their assessment of our profession's relationship with society. They're saying things that design itself can't always speak for.

However as a designer, it is certainly essential that you can speak intelligently of your work and decisions, but it should never compensate for the lack of communication in your design. It's well to remember a design must speak for itself, I would think in practically all contexts.

On Mar.30.2004 at 02:15 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I thought you had met resistance to yourself as a designer (due to your writing) in the context of a client relationship.

Oh I have. Insofar as both clients and designers think of design as visual styling, I have met with the same kind of resistance from both sides. I’m not only unconcerned with establishing a personal style; I’m quite against it. The fact that I don’t have one is often attributed to inexperience, when in fact, it is my “experience” that keeps me from adopting one. Above all, my status as a designer seems to be dependent on the look of my portfolio (how arbitrary is that, considering the contingency of design project concerns?) or my “professional” references (as if having done “real work” is an indication of quality), not my better and better cultivated garden of reasons (which is of no apparent value).

I’m sorry my writing was difficult, but you seem to understand it. When we lose our critical perspective, we can no longer be called designers. On the other side, our ability to design grows along with our critical capacity.

Writing enables thoughtful critique. Critique makes reasons necessary, and reasons are necessary for design. “Design” is necessary for progress, and progress is our job.

Tom, writing is writing not designing.

Writing is the design of sentences. Writing always creates something visual, and because of the contingencies of typographic representation, always goes a bit beyond just the words. That’s one way to look at it, and most designers do look at it in that way. They design sentences that will be persuasive to people in order to achieve their goals. They are interested in which font to use, or the style of handwriting used.

But writing, more importantly, creates an environment for the production of reasons, and therefore enables what we might properly call “design”. Graphic designing, the way you’ve defined it, is inevitable. All that determines graphic design is reason. As soon as I choose a font, I have begun designing. Do I have a reason for the particular font I choose? Do I have reasons for the way I space letters or the way I shape a representation of an object? If I don’t, presumably there are reasons for that as well, as in the case of Default Systems design. If I can’t back it up with some justification, how can it be called design? And therefore, design is subject to argumentation. The critic proposes reasons for why you should design differently, and in doing so, he is engaging in the design process. Without the critic, design is likely to fall into irrelevance. By irrelevance I mean that the design’s intrinsic claim to social worth is without any established value. It becomes devoid of meaning.

I think I agree with Robert and JonSel in this line of thinking.

The mark of an intelligent mind is the ability to communicate complex things in uncomplicated, direct terms. That applies to both writing and design.

Tan, I agree, in a way. But the problem is that many writers who are seen as writing with too much complexity are actually very direct in their approach. It is the complexity of the ideas that is a turn-off to most people. Thinking engages with complexity. When they want something “simple and direct”, what people are usually asking for is a cliché. They want to hear over and over again things they already know, and to collapse complex new ideas into an existing schema. It kills the theoretical work and banalizes it. They don’t want to hear new names or new words and they don’t want to have to make real distinctions. They want a dumbed-down version. In that case, there is little point to reading or writing; it can actually be dangerous when approached in that way.

Some things can’t be said in five words, and if you cut it down to five words: you’re not saying it anymore.

On Mar.30.2004 at 09:38 PM
Jerel’s comment is:

I'm not trying to step over the body of Tom's post, but I'm thinking of Marian's last couple of questions: So if you can write, do you think it helps you do your job? And if you can't, do you wish you could?

I missed these initially on my first reading. The abililty to write well definitely helps me in my work. I am constantly trying to a better job with it though. Essentially, I work in a publications office so I'm definitely not the one with the greatest facility for language in my set of co-workers. I came from the world of convoluted sentences and complexity (which I actually love in writing), but my co-workers say I'm getting better (which goes to show what they focus on).

I haven't seen many folks mention the writing of technical requirements, which is something that I find myself doing often as we outsource some of the more serious programming work when it comes to executing work online. I've wondered if that's just a situation particular to my role in-house or if others find that they've had to stretch their copy-writing, annual report, design brief abilities in that direction as well.

On Mar.31.2004 at 04:01 PM
marian’s comment is:

the writing of technical requirements,

Well, yeah, there's tons of that, too; basically writing up instructions for printers or production people, but this is more of a point-by-point attention to detail and while meticulous doesn't really require a full set of writing skills.

However, one thing I did used to spend a lot of time on was writing in-house instructions for how we deal with particular (ongoing) jobs or clients, or about our typographic rules, and a complete instruction manual on the way we work in the office for new employees.

On Mar.31.2004 at 04:10 PM
Greg’s comment is:

Unlike some here, I've become a fan of Tom's writing. I think he gets "picked on" a bit for having new ideas that go against the grain. But, that said, I don't think that going against the grain all the time is reasonable.

They want to hear over and over again things they already know, and to collapse complex new ideas into an existing schema. It kills the theoretical work and banalizes it. They don’t want to hear new names or new words and they don’t want to have to make real distinctions.

If you want to convey a new idea to someone, no matter what, you have to use their language. If you're talking (or writing) to someone that shares your intellectual capacity for language, fine, use all the big words you want. But if you want to talk to someone who isn't as well versed, then in order for them to even try and comprehend what you're saying then you can't immediately turn them away by using words that they can't and won't try to understand. I'm not talking about dumbing-down a message, but talking about something in reference to something that they understand helps them take that stepping stone into the plane of thought that you want them to have. Expecting them to have that plane immediately negates the point of written or spoken language, because if we could instantly communicate like that there would be no reason to develop language in the first place.

On Mar.31.2004 at 05:08 PM
marian’s comment is:

I've become a fan of Tom's writing

I am too, although we have completely different styles and (often) opinions. I really like his last post; makes some good points, and I understood everything he said. ;)

On Mar.31.2004 at 05:16 PM
Jerel’s comment is:

Well, yeah, there's tons of that, too; basically writing up instructions for printers or production people, but this is more of a point-by-point attention to detail and while meticulous doesn't really require a full set of writing skills.

Marian, am I reading you wrong when I think it sounds like your saying that technical requirements writing employs just a subset of the same skills that the other writing employs, as opposed to a different set (maybe overlapping in places)?

And, it sounds like instruction(al) writing is just assumed, and that's why maybe folks aren't bringing it up.

Interesting food for thought, thanks!

On Mar.31.2004 at 05:21 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Thanks.

I've been breaking open the Ricoeur books lately, and from what I've gathered so far, and if I'm not mistaken, he saw distance as a catalyst for meaning (not to say that this is ALL he said, or that this was his main point). I think in an "open" dialogue situation such as this, it can't hurt to explore as many hypothetical views as possible. I can't see how simple agreement or going with the grain does much for discussion. This is not to say that I am advocating "devil's advocacy", just an appreciation of difference, regardless of the good or evil labels that may be applied. I feel strongly enough about my position, usually, that I don't feel like I'm just "playing" devil's advocate, although it is playful (in the spirit of living), and I have chosen a role.

I agree with what you're saying about language, Greg, but a couple thoughts (which might be tangential, which ironically can't be bad for furthering our sense of things at hand):

you can't immediately turn them away by using words that they can't and won't try to understand.

Going back to my thought that it is the complex "idea" and not the difficult words that people are averse to, and assuming that 100 simple words might be considered as equivalent to a jargon-laden phrase, I'm not sure that a person who won't try to understand the complex language will try any harder to understand the combination of simple words. Trying is very important, and questions can and should almost always be asked. In any case, the meaning will never be exactly the same for the speaker and the hearer, and that distance is not necessarily a bad thing.

Many (if not all) interesting (human, finite) developments have come out of "misreadings" (otherwise, our words would be THE Word, and we wouldn't be human or interesting...). But if we can try to understand the whole string of 100 words as one agreed-upon unit, we can begin to misread each other on higher levels. Otherwise, if the misreading is based on only 5 of the simple words, then it's not likely to be a very interesting development; it's more likely to be a cliche, been there, done that, many times.

If this kind of progress, which involves both an increasingly similar base of mutual understanding as well as an increasingly abstract level of disagreement, creates more meaningful (non-cliche)design work, then writing and active participation, trying, and openness is a very important method for making our job go well.

On Apr.01.2004 at 04:04 AM
marian’s comment is:

Marian, am I reading you wrong when I think it sounds like your saying that technical requirements writing employs just a subset of the same skills that the other writing employs, as opposed to a different set (maybe overlapping in places)?

Mmmm... it really depends. When I think of the specs I give to a printer, well, I don't really need to be a good writer, i just have to make sure I cover everything clearly. Yes there's some skill involved in that, but a trained monkey could do it properly. In fact, in this kind of instruction-giving, sentence-based writing can get in the way. My aformentioned designer used to write long instructions for printers only to discover they weren't reading them.

However, in other kinds of instruction I personally think I have a knack for writing engaging copy which makes the learning process that much more enjoyable. A few jokes, a little swearing, a dash of irreverence ... it all seems to go a long way to helping people through what would otherwise be a long, boring technical exercise.

On Apr.01.2004 at 09:34 AM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

So, Robert, you think that the ability to write is not just a welcome addition to the skillset, but somehow informs the actual process of design?

Yes, Marian.

I do.

On Apr.05.2004 at 07:49 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Robert, would you mind expanding on this a bit? You said that designers who can't write are incapable of being more than stylists. Why, exactly, do you think this is the case? How, more precisely, does writing inform the design process? Thank you.

On Apr.06.2004 at 03:18 AM
Jeff G’s comment is:

Robert, adding to Tom's question, what about the designer who is not necessarily a good writer, but is skilled at editing? Is he merely a verbal stylist, or is the crafting of a roughly written idea into something suitable to the message informing the design process?

How close to the origination of the message do you have to be to be more than a stylist?

On Apr.06.2004 at 06:04 AM
Brady’s comment is:

Tom --

You said...

> (Robert) said that designers who can't write are incapable of being more than stylists. Why, exactly, do you think this is the case?

Not answering for Robert, but he actually said...

> ...graphic designers who cannot write effectively often end up being restricted to the rank of stylist -- more occupied with shaping form than conveying meaning.

The key word here is often. While restricted may not ba a little heavy-handed. I agree with Robert in that not all 'writing challenged' designers are stylists -- those who's work is pretty but has no root in a well developed brief -- but many fit into that role.

Your rephrasing of Robert's assertion creates a statement equivalent to "Designers who can't draw are incapable of being more than desktop publishers." Which we know is not true.

Jeff G --

> what about the designer who is not necessarily a good writer, but is skilled at editing? Is he merely a verbal stylist... ?

Well, I'd say he's a designer with editing skills.

For me...

I simply cannot design without writing first.

Does writing make me a better designer? Yes and no.

While writing does not improve my technical skills as a designer it most definitely improves my thinking about design. By writing I can flesh out and confirm my understanding about the job and the process of writing inevitably leads me in directions and reveals ideas I otherwise might not have happened upon.

I'm not a great writer -- a good one -- but not great. But, that means the more I write the better I become and therefore better at articulating my thoughts and therefore...

a better designer.

On Apr.06.2004 at 09:27 AM
Jeff G’s comment is:

verbal stylist

A better choice of words would have been compositional stylist or stylist of words.

I'd say he's a designer with editing skills.

Well, yeah, but how philisophical is that, Brady?

For me...

The pictures come first. And maybe a headline. I do a lot of talking to myself & my work in progress & my wife. The writing is beaten out of me somewhere down the line. Unless it comes first. Then the design is beaten out of the writing.

It's a jumble. It helps to be decent at it all.

On Apr.06.2004 at 01:23 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Brady, you're right. I was sloppy with my paraphrase.

I think drawing is a necessary skill for design too. How is it not?

On Apr.06.2004 at 02:33 PM
Robert L. Peters’s comment is:

Thanks, Brady, for clarifying what I had actually said earlier. Words are indeed important. Writing is a very valuable skill for designers to posess (to wit, our abiltiy to communicate with one another, even in this impoverished visual medium, simply by forming our thoughts into words).

Actually, a dictionary definition of the word write underlines the point I was trying to make quite well, methinks (e.g. from Collins): ...to draw or mark (symbols, words, etc.) on a surface... to describe or record (ideas, experiences, etc.)... to compose... to say or communicate... to be the author or composer of... to fill in the details for... to draw up or draft... to show clearly... to spell, inscribe or entitle... to ordain or prophesy... to produce... to record... to me, this sounds an awful lot like the daily act of design at this moment in time.

It's also interesting to note the origin of our English word write — Old English writan (originally: to scratch runes into bark; related to Old Frisian writa, Old Norse rita, Old High German rizan (German reissen to tear).

It seems to me that much of the work of graphic designers today involves symbols with mysterious meaning (though of course we hope that the 'targeted audience' will get our drift) — so perhaps we have not come so far since the 3rd Century — and perhaps writing is not as far removed from making marks and drawing and crafting images as we would sometimes think.

:-|

In this age of information and ideas, I think communication design is still all about imbuing meaning through the visual marks that we make — the more literate we are in the relevant lingua franca, the more meaningful (and thereby more effective) our efforts will be.

On Apr.06.2004 at 04:11 PM
Mark Smith’s comment is:

My grandma who lives in Las Vegas says that my writing shows that I am college educated (she means that as a compliment.) I take it as a compliment. I found it serendipitous to discover a discussion about writing in graphic design on "Speak up." I am a graphic design student and my assignment for the weekend was to log onto this website and respond to an essay or discussion. Lucky for you I just got back from Wendy's and they messed up my order. Now I'm pissed off and ready to rant about something. The question presented was, "If you write, do you think it helps your job?" Naturally my response should be yes... but does it really? I am a competent writer. I had Mr. Wood for honors english in High School. He gave me a perfect score on my Cyrano De Bergerac essay. He did not give out perfect scores often. Anyway, as a student I have yet to apply my writing skills to any professional jobs. The only reference I have to the effectiveness of my writing is the assignments that I have completed, especially during this semester. I choose to approach writing assignments from obsucre perspectives. I do this because I do not want to approach a discussion from a pro/con perspectice. Most open discussions can endlessly debate pros and cons for eternity. I may feel strongly about one side of an arguement. However, I usually don't express it because I am sure somebody else will do it for me. Then, when I chime in with my unique perspective, I either look really insightful or really silly. But at least I don't look average. Does this approach to writing work? Judging by the reactions of my classmates, no. I just tend to look like somebody who is trying to be different. Also, as a student I apply for lots of scholarships and financial aid. These applications often require essays on why I should deserve free money. Having not landed any scholarships for next year, I may have to re-analyze my proficency as a writer. I may also have to find a sheet of visquine to live under during my seinor year, but I digress. As a writer I am no Dave Forsythe (whew.) Will an art director ask me to write something in the future? Possibly, but will it be a placeholder until the real writer finishes the copy? Will it have widows and rivers? I'm a third year student and I still can't get type to look right. Maybe I should spend less time writing and more time typesetting. But right now I am going to drive back to Wendy's and chuck their chicken sandwich, open faced, at the drive up window. Then I'm gonna finish the four other projects that my professors assigned before this Easter weekend. Yeah, I hear what your saying, "Boo hoo, cry me a river."

On Apr.11.2004 at 11:49 PM