Design that spells ‘zilch’

While Tim Rich doesn’t want consultancies to treat copywriters as mere suppliers, he thinks writers can hamper their cause with cynicism and apathy

There’s been a lot of talk about the role of writing in design. Sadly, one or two generalisms have come to dominate what is a complex and fundamentally important subject.

For example, there’s that moronic mantra: ‘People don’t actually read these days, do they?’. Clearly many do – people aren’t buying Harry Potter books for the typography, after all. Perhaps the question we should really be asking is, ‘How are people reading these days?’.

Then there’s the snarky truism: ‘Designers can’t spell’, a comment made so often it’s become a cliché. What’s particularly irritating about this barb is that spelling is far less valuable than an appreciation of writing. I’m currently working with a designer who has severe dyslexia, yet his passion for design writing is inspiring.

Another problem with the writing in design discussion is that it has been rather one-sided. The focus has been on what designers are doing wrong, and how their prioritisation of the visual over the written has limited creativity. But there’s something else to consider here – just how good are the writers working in design? And are writers doing enough to inspire designers and clients to think about written language in new and inventive ways?

How good are the design writers out there? I’ve encountered brilliant writers – people who can really engage the reader, who care about the look and feel of their writing, who love to collaborate with designers, who love to do fresh things with language. But there aren’t enough like them, and design consultancies that recognise the commercial and creative importance of writing can be forgiven for feeling frustrated by what is effectively a skills shortage.

I’ve worked with many consultancies to address this problem, helping them find and develop writers they can work with regularly. That word ‘develop’ is key, as many good writers need help to evolve from copywriting to the more holistic approach of design writing. But developing talent is one thing, finding writers who will open themselves up to new ways of working is another. I find many copywriters to be apathetic, cynical and unimaginative. Many are unprofessional to the point of being socially dysfunctional.

Writers complain about designers being virtually illiterate, but many copywriters are visually illiterate. They produce densely typed sheets of ‘copy’ (horrid word) and expect the designer to do the rest. This is peculiar, as the first wafts of meaning from a piece of writing come from how the words look, not from how they read. Surely a writer should care passionately about every aspect of how meaning is produced. Shouldn’t we be involving ourselves in discussions about the type and images that might work with (or against) our words, for example?

And how many writers recognise the value designers bring to the writing process? Designers can be wonderful editors, adept at thinking about the entire reading experience, identifying information hierarchies, and helping ideas and messages to flow by shaping, emphasising and manipulating words. Many writers seem to resent these skills, rather than celebrate them.

The design process is fundamental to all this. Design writing is a plastic art that works best when writer and designer think beyond A4 from the start of a project. We only need to look at the formalised integration of art director and copywriter in advertising to see how it can be done. Of course, there are projects where there’s no role for a writer, and design writers don’t need to be in-house, but when they are involved they should be central, not peripheral. Some design consultancies treat writers like suppliers rather than partners, but just how hard are writers fighting to be included? I wonder.

It’s time for us design writers to be more active in developing our role. We need to demonstrate that good writing can help to create more imaginative, engaging and effective design work. Hopefully, 26 can help (DW 21 August). It’s a new not-for-profit organisation I’m involved in that sets out to bring writers, designers and clients together to share experiences and develop new thinking. We need collective initiatives like this if we’re to move the practice of design writing forward.

Ultimately, these issues need to be addressed because the quality of writing in design isn’t good enough. Both readers and clients are being let down by poor content. There’s too much bimbo design around – looks good, but says nothing – and that’s the responsibility of writers as well as designers.

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