Writing the wrongs

Copywriting is enjoying a little time in the spotlight, with articles and letters about standards and practices appearing in this and other industry organs. No doubt the addition of a Writing for Design category in the 1999 British Design and Art Direction Awards is one reason for the attention.

I was one of the judges at D&AD and it was a fascinating exercise. For me it was less about awarding gongs and more about attempting to mentally organise a vast and disparate area of activity, from annual reports to posters, and from there to begin to set some judging criteria. There are a thousand issues to be grappled with in coming years, but D&AD has shown foresight in introducing the category now.

Does the new category mean that more clients and designers are waking up to the power of writing? I’m not sure, but they should be. In a world saturated with corporate literature, websites and other design media, it is increasingly difficult for visual aesthetics to differentiate unaided. There is a valuable role for writing after years of being seen as the inky bit that no one ever reads.

There are problems, however. Despite a heritage stretching back hundreds of years, the land of copywriting remains a strange place populated by a bizarre collection of ex-journos, ex-PRs, ex-marketers and unpublished poets with a taste for expensive consumer goods. These people inhabiting the world of words don’t always speak the same language as the inhabitants of Planet Design.

Indeed, designers who are able to work confidently and imaginatively with words and wordsmiths are in the minority. Literacy is one of the key issues here. Ask many designers what they’re reading at the moment and they’ll hold up the latest Photoshop manual. For others, reading starts and stops with the name on their trainers.

On the other side, many copywriters are design-illiterate. They moan about being asked to contribute to the overall concept; they think their text should remain as a holy and untouchable object once it has left their PC; and they sulk over any request to cut a line. In short, they fail to understand that it is the entirety of the message that is important, not just their beautifully judged commas.

This gap in understanding between designers and writers creates flat text. You know what flat text is when you see and read it. Flat text is one-dimensional, unrelated to its surroundings and deathly grey. Flat text is an obnoxious waste of a client’s money and, in many cases, actively annoys the reader (for which read customer).

Part of the problem lies in the way writers are commissioned. Too often they are brought in once every other element – you know, small things like concept, layout, photography and typography – have been decided upon. It’s as if the writer is expected to turn up and spray words on to a finished page like a farmer showering muck on to the fields.

As a writer, my best work is always done when I’m working with designers who involve themselves with my writing. It creates great interaction. Writers can be overly rational – too intent on literal meaning – while designers can sometimes bring a lateral perspective. Designers often see the shape and sensuous qualities of words, and they can often float excellent metaphors into the writer’s thinking (a useful quality in name- generation sessions).

It’s too simple to say writers are left brained (logical and analytical) and designers right (artistic and imaginative), but the different conceptual processes in each discipline can create a potent blend. In the context of communications today, you need Yin and Yang thinking to create the most compelling and effective messages.

Debates about how to improve copywriting practices are unlikely to attain the depths of tedium created by such burning issues as free-pitching and the role of design industry organisations. Writers have far too much of the lone wolf mentality to attempt to create either a set of standards or some eunuch of a professional body. And anyway, there is little incentive for good writers to state their case at all: demand far outstrips supply and the best writers choose who they work with and on what.

Writing for Design at D&AD is valuable because it will help good writers become better, but I’m not sure whether it will do a great deal for standards overall. Maybe. What will definitely drive demand for better writing across the industry is the understanding that excellence gives a client competitive advantage. As ever in our world of commercial creativity, the most effective catalyst for widescale improvement can be described in one word – money.

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