I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across terrible grammar, spelling or punctuation in correspondence from young designers. And designers’ portfolios, case studies and websites are frequently filled with confusing prose worthy of a grade nine school report. It’s baffling. And it frightens me.
I realize that you studied graphic design because your passion was to create visual graphics, not to be a poet. But that doesn’t mean being a competent writer isn’t an important skill to possess. On the contrary, I would argue that the best communication designers work hard to become as skilled at expressing their thoughts and opinions in words as they are at massaging images and type.
If you brush off writing as beneath you or something not worth mastering, you’re a fool.
At the core of the designs we produce are words. Lots of them. From the proposal to the brief, from research to the content in our projects, and of course the rationales behind client presentations and case studies are all glued together firmly with writing. Write badly, and you run the very real risk of being dismissed as a hack.
We all know this, don’t we? I’m stating the obvious here, right? Then why do I witness an increasing amount of God-awful writing these days?
Writing builds trust.
We’re not “artistes” and must remember that we’re in the business of servicing business. You must communicate very well, in writing AND verbally, if you want to land that big client or job opportunity. Expressing yourself and supporting your ideas as you present or defend a rationale behind your design work requires careful writing indeed. And this takes practice. Chances are, you will not do as good of a job with that unless you leave them with a clear, written document that tells them, in plain English, why your work is awesome. Also, don’t forget that having a good relationship with a client requires consistent and clear communication. If you ever come across as an incompetent writer, your client will immediately judge you and doubt your expertise in other areas—regardless of how pretty your design work is. If your plan is to be an art director, creative director, or run your own studio—and let’s face it, it’s everyone’s plan these days—then you MUST be a masterful writer. Like others in our industry, my firm assesses designers’ writing ability and won’t even hire people who use poor grammar.
Your job is not what you think it is.
Anyone who has spent five minutes in an actual job that requires some sort of mental awareness knows that no job is what the job description says it will be. Ever. Especially in a smaller studio, writing will be one of those duties probably not emphasized in your job description. To succeed as a designer these days, you require as much business acumen as aesthetic skills, and will often be asked to participate in sales, marketing, administration and client communications. To grow and learn, you will be required to write. A lot. For example, if you need to clearly summarize a concept for a client online because no one else has time to, what do you need to do? Write. If you need to quickly add three pages of content to a presentation because no one else has the time, same deal. There is no escaping the responsibility of writing in your job, so you’d better get used to it.
Communication design is firmly rooted in language.
The best examples of graphic design are centred on words. The most successful identities are defined by meaningful taglines as much as any logo, and the most memorable advertisements are crystallized into our cultural fabric by carefully crafted copy. And think about a key characteristic of the most successful branding or advertising: a personal story. How will you incorporate a realistic, personal story that resonates with your audience into your design work if you don’t understand what kind of writing works with your design in the first place? Design is a combination of elements that communicate a message, and it is your job as a designer to understand those elements. Ideas are at the core of great communication design, and ideas are expressed by words as much as visuals. At a recent talk in Vancouver, Canadian type design legend Rod McDonald claimed that over 65% of all graphic design content was based on type.
Marketing yourself requires writing.
To say this is a saturated industry is an understatement. With so much competition, promoting yourself and your firm to potential clients is more important than ever. It used to be that pretty portfolios were an effective way to show off your talents and get noticed, but these days firms and clients alike want to know who you are, how you work, what you stand for, and whether you will be a good fit for them. Pretty pictures can’t tell that story, so you have to. One of the best ways to do that is through case studies: your work documented by photos AND a written explanation. Sure, you can get other people in your studio to write those for you, but will they understand the rationale behind every little thing in the project better than you? I doubt it. And what about proposals? Or project rationales? Someone has to write them, so why not you? Also, unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that everyone has a blog now. This includes design studios. Designers and studios that regularly post quality content on their blogs show potential clients their expertise and capability, building their reputation and credibility. If you avoid hosting your own blog because you can’t write well and don’t feel like making the effort, then you’ve missed a terrific opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
In the spirit of transparency, I’ll admit that I find writing hard. Sometimes I hate it and struggle with it. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that writing only improves with practice. Anyone can learn to write if they set their mind to it and put in the effort—even if it doesn’t come naturally. One of the best designers I know struggles with dyslexia, yet has developed strategies to write competently. And committing myself to writing and risking putting my prose out there to be judged by all has been one of the most beneficial choices in my design career. I dare you to do the same.
Do you find writing a key part of your job as a designer? Got any suggestions or pointers for those who fear writing?
Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [B.C. Chapter], and a design writer and educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @MarkBusse