Word game

The benefits of involving decent copywriters in the design process can’t be ignored.

Copywriting. Who needs it? Well, graphic designers certainly don’t if some of the remarks they come out with are to be taken at face value.

Last summer, I was commissioned to work on a chunky mail order catalogue for a major high street retailer. The designer heading up the project blithely informed me that I should keep the words down to a minimum because no one would read them anyway.

Another copywriter of my acquaintance recently had his best efforts likened to blocks of grey tint. Whether they were passages from the Bible or extracts from a washing machine manual didn’t make the blindest bit of difference. On another occasion, he rang up a design company explaining he was a writer looking for some freelance work. “What are you calling us for?” asked the puzzled voice on the other end of the line, “we’re graphic designers.”

As much as it galls me to admit it, they have a point. Certainly in a catalogue situation, a good photograph, a price and a sales reference number come way ahead of a couple of client-approved puns and a two-line description of an everyday item like a pen or a toaster.

Even when you move into the realms of CD cover design, copywriting skills are still surplus to requirement. It’s a good bet that Peter Saville never worked with a copywriter, or Designers Republic or Tom Hingston or Mark Farrow for that matter. And it didn’t exactly hold them back, did it?

OK, you hardly need to pay a copywriter to write out the running order on a CD. But on the other hand, you probably would need one for an annual report, or a brochure, or point-of-sales literature, or – as clients are slowly coming to realise – a website. So the crucial question is, at what point do you need to call upon the services of a copywriter and how would they best fit into your working processes?

“[Copywriters] are seen as a luxury rather than a necessity,” believes Patrick McKenna, a copywriter who has worked on projects for the likes of Identica, Addison and Navy Blue. “We suffer from a lack of status within the design industry. Often it’s a case of ‘We’re coming to you because we tried whatsisname in marketing first and he was no good’. We’re a last resort.”

Money is certainly an issue. While most design groups think nothing of paying rates of £1000-plus a day for a run-of-the-mill photographer, when it comes to forking out for words, they suddenly take umbrage at having to put their hands in their pockets. Their argument goes something like: “Why cut into our profit margins when we can fudge something the client has put together. Oh, and doesn’t Sally in accounts have A-level English? Maybe she can handle it.”

“Everyone uses words,” says Margaret Oscar, communications development manager for Orange. “They’ve been talking since the year dot, so they just assume they can write. Whereas not everyone has a creative eye, so they believe that a photographer is giving them a specialist skill,” she adds.

“There’s still an element of smoke and mirrors attached to photography – and graphic design for that matter,” says McKenna. “So while a photographer’s contribution is valued, a copywriter’s is regarded with some scepticism.”

Not by everyone. Orange, under the auspices of Oscar’s communications department, has gone to great lengths to give words and images equal billing. “There’s one underlying current [in Orange’s marketing output]: everything holds equal importance and is crash-tested against the brand values,” she says. Orange has set up a “message development team” consisting of a dozen or so copywriters who meet regularly to discuss communications strategy. They then go away and compose copy guides, which are posted on the Web and form the basis for all written communications, above and below the line. Key propositions and phrases included in the copy guides eventually find their way into the finished promotional material.

“Because of the phenomenal growth rate [of Orange], it was necessary to manage how people were talking [about products and services] across the board,” says Oscar. “So we created a hymn sheet – the Copy Bible – which provides all the information up front and supports the product delivery.” With well over 30 marketing agencies pumping out literature, this level of control is essential in achieving a consistent tone of voice.

Few clients are so rigorous, however, and more often than not, it’s the design consultancies which become the guardians of the written word. And attitudes and aptitude vary greatly. “There’s a great difference working for Derek Birdsall or a group of body piercers in Clerkenwell,” says McKenna wryly. “You’re not often in a position to lead and educate.”

Certainly there are graphic designers who respect and enjoy the written word. You only have to scour the pages of Design Week for the likes of Intro’s Adrian Shaughnessy, Johnson Banks’ Michael Johnson and Atelier Works’ Quentin Newark to establish that.

And in the context of design rather than editorial, they are acutely aware of the synergy of words and images. Before briefing a copywriter they’ll often come up with headlines and a well-structured copy platform themselves. “We’re very verbally aware here,” says Johnson. “Perhaps we work slightly more like an ad agency than a design company. Effectively we’re asking a copywriter to produce the body copy rather than the headlines, which we do ourselves as part of the initial design concept.”

John Powner of Atelier Works says: “We’re finding more and more that we are expected to take responsibility for an entire project. That includes moulding the content. All the client does is commission, steer and approve it. That’s about the industry moving in a certain direction. And because we happen to know good copywriters, we prefer it that way.” Copywriters, adds Powner, can bring more than mere words to the table. “They help to structure the concept and content in a way that I can’t.”

This attitude shows that in some quarters at least, copywriters are considered equal team players. “Around a third of the time, I’m working on concepts and brainstorming,” says writer Tim Rich, who has collaborated with Stocks Austin Sice and Atelier Works, among others. “Often I help with the pitch or constructing the brief with the designer and client. Working at that level is a much richer way to be involved.”

Tom Lynham is another copywriter who is regularly asked to contribute on a more conceptual level. “I find I’m doing less and less physical writing,” he says. “I’m used more as a creative dynamo to get people thinking.” Lynham, who collaborates regularly wit

h Rufus Leonard and Spencer Landor, is unusual in that he graduated from the Royal College of Art in graphic design and is involved in filmmaking, photography and image making, as well as writing. “I think the designers who respect writing are those with broader terms of reference,” he says. “They have eclectic backgrounds and realise that design is not to do with style or fashion, but is an intellectual process.”

Like design companies though, writers come in all shapes and sizes. They may be brilliant but unsuited to your project. They may not be up to scratch. They may be too technical or not technical enough. The challenge for the design industry is to integrate them into the design process in a way that’s mutually beneficial. The corporate arena, sales and branding literature, websites, annual reports and customer magazines are all areas of massive growth which demand quality writing. And they are areas in which the design plays second fiddle to content.

Design company Intro is facing a typical conundrum. As the slant of its portfolio shifts from music industry graphics towards on-line design, it is considering taking on a full-time copywriter. Adrian Shaughnessy may be convinced that he needs to add copy skills to his offering, but he is also concerned about the quality of writing available. “A lot of copywriters are programmed to be bland and direct,” he says. “The language they use is very formulaic.” He is keenly aware that design companies need to get their act together as regards copy, but is not quite sure of the way forward. “There’s not much of a culture of knowing how to handle writers in design,” he admits.

The next stage in the uneasy relationship between graphic design and copywriting will be critical. There may be some way to go before perfect harmony is achieved, but words are finally being recognised as a bit more than grey tint on a beautifully designed page.

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