Verbal grace

Writing for design is becoming ever more integral to the process, as writers are increasingly brought on board from the very start. Anna Richardson hears what three experts in the field have been up to lately

A picture speaks a thousand words, perhaps, but the value of a thoroughly considered word is not lost on designers. The past ten years have seen the standing of writing for design rise steadily. It is no longer marginalised, as writers have managed to draw attention to their craft, with organisations such as writing collective 26 and The Writer doing much to increase visibility.

Tone of voice, for example, has entered into everyday marketing parlance. Companies have realised that they need to have their own tone of voice, and are recognising that they don’t necessarily need to work with one of the big international brand consultancies to hone it.
‘The role of writing in design has gained a much higher profile within the design industry and among designers,’ says writer and editor Tim Rich, while Ben Afia believes that ‘writing is speaking up for itself a bit more’.

Writer and brand consultant John Simmons agrees that writers are now increasingly involved at the idea-generation stage of a project. ‘There is more of a sense that the words really matter,’ says Simmons. ‘They matter at any stage of the process, but are beginning to become more important at the concept stage. That’s great, because that’s where I would always want to be.’

Here, writers talk about some of their recent work and the ever-developing relationship between writer and designer.

John Simmons

As one of the founders of writers’ collective 26, John Simmons has for decades been extolling the benefits of a close relationship between writers and designers. He has a longstanding working relationship with Pentagram’s Harry Pearce, ever since their time together at Newell and Sorrell in the 1980s. ‘When I work with someone like Harry Pearce we tend to be on a similar wavelength,’ says Simmons.

He particularly enjoys self-generated projects, such as last year’s 26 Exchange exhibition, during the London Design Festival, by 26 and charity International Pen, which was visualised by Pearce and Simon Sankarayya of All of Us.

‘These projects are interesting because they are pushing the possibility of what you can do with words,’ says Simmons.

Recent commercial projects included one for National Australia Bank. Simons helped the bank express its purpose more powerfully through stories. Ranging from real stories about the bank’s staff and customers to fictional genres, the narratives are accompanied by large and small visuals by Sydney-based consultancy Principles on posters, postcards and animations.

Another recent project was new packaging, website and other materials for Twinings, on which Simmons worked with Brandopus and Maia Swift of brand language consultancy The Writer. Simmons was heavily involved at the initial stages, creating the strategy and tone of voice, with Swift doing most of the writing since.

There are thousands of writers out there, but not all have the right understanding of how to work with designers – or the opportunity, says Simmons. ‘I love working with designers, it stimulates me and I can stimulate them. It can be a genuine creative collaborative process.’

Richard Owsley

The advent of the Internet and different electronic platforms has had a marked effect on writing, believes Richard Owsley, founder member of copywriting company Writers.

It reinforces the idea that words have to work harder to keep people interested, which is having a positive effect on print communications, making them more concise and effective.

‘The Internet has improved writing for print because you have to catch somebody’s eye and get your message across quickly. Over the past ten years, the online environment has opened corporate clients’ eyes to the fact that there are writers who can summarise and communicate key messages about a brand, company or product in a few paragraphs,’ says Owsley.

This, in turn, feeds straight into the relationship between writers and designers. ‘It allows designers more leeway in creating an attractive communication that succeeds in getting across the look and feel of a new corporate brand,’ says Owsley, who recently worked on a brand book for GSTS Pathology, which was designed by consultancy Rare Breed.

The brand book is A6, ‘pocket-sized, and far more likely to be looked at than a great 24-page A4 brochure full of copy’, he points out.
Owsley has noticed that some clients – keen to cut budgets – are attempting to do the writing themselves, ‘and failing hopelessly’. Some think that a writer’s job is nothing more than ‘styling the words they’ve put together’, says Owsley.

‘A writer’s main job is actually to do the strategic thinking about the communication, the form of the wording is really just the final touch,’ he concludes.

Tim Rich

Tim Rich values the close relationships that can form between writer and designer, having worked with some designers for more than 15 years. ‘You begin to build up an understanding and you’re able to help and challenge each other in the right way,’ he says. ‘But it’s also important to find new people. There is an entrepreneurial aspect to being a writer in business, and you have to find the best opportunities rather than wait for the phone to ring.’

Collaboration between writer and designer is moving into a new era, believes Rich. It’s a given that writers are more involved in the design process, but the development of the online world will challenge that collaboration further.

Online innovation is having a great effect on how businesses communicate, and design work can now stretch from print to platforms such as online video presentations.

‘It’s an exciting opportunity for the designers and writers to expand their skills and their collaboration,’ says Rich, who explored these possibilities with Moving Brands on its Living Identity paper, when he helped the consultancy express its views on branding.

Planned as a print project conveying the group’s philosophy and approach, Living Identity expanded to reflect Moving Brands’ work across media.

printed publication was used to link online through augmented reality, enabling an interaction of the printed word with film and user-generated content. ‘Working in that way only works if the writers and design team have really good mutual understanding,’ says Rich. ‘It was a very iterative process. It’s early days of getting different media to speak to each other, but for it to work writers and designers need to work really closely.’

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  • Malcolm Mortimer November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As a writer who has worked closely with a number of excellent designers over 25 years, I wholeheartedly agree with the bulk of the above. I would, however place two massive red question marks in the margin of Tim Rich’s last two paras!

    What does it actually mean? I can hazard a guess, but I shouldn’t have to! Just because it’s for Design Week, there’s no earthly reason for a horrible lapse into ‘industry speak’ to cloud an otherwise cogent and relevant opinion. Or am I just being thick?!

  • Tim Rich November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hello Malcolm. Which bit/s confused you? Tim

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