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A manifesto on writing for design

The following is a guest contribution by Jim Davies of totalcontent.

Why use fifty words?

I’m delighted to have been asked to be foreman of D&AD’s Writing for Design jury this year. On 16 April, I’ll be getting together with friends and fellow copywriters Nick Asbury, Lisa Desforges and Fiona Thompson, as well as John Weich of Lemon Scented Tea and Interbrand Sydney’s Christopher Doyle, to look over likely contenders.

It struck me that I should get my thoughts together and set down a marker ahead of the judging. Not only what I’ll be looking for on the day, but what I believe it takes to be successful in the writing for design world. So I’ve put together a 12-point ‘manifesto’ based on my personal observations and experience. Some points are pretty obvious, others maybe less so, but I hope they add fuel to the debate around this particular form of writing. Feel free to agree or disagree.

A writer’s dozen
Jim Davies’ 12-point manifesto on writing for design

1— Remember, all designers are different

There are some designers out there who really can write. There are others who appreciate good writing when they see it. And then there are those who can’t and don’t. The level of dyslexia among designers is astonishingly high — that’s probably why they’re designers and not writers. So the way your writing is perceived and received depends on not only how good it is, but who you’re dealing with. Maybe your words will transport the reader with unfettered delight, but on the other hand, be prepared to explain yourself or fight your corner. Just bear in mind that different designers (and clients) have different expectations and perspectives.

2— Know your place

A lot of writers moan about words not being given the respect they deserve. But they are missing the point. Good words deserve respect, bad words don’t. Besides, you can’t expect to be the star of the show in every performance — different design projects involve major or minor roles for the writer. You need to establish the part you’re expected to play from the outset. If you’re Hamlet, grab the opportunity with both hands. But if you’re Rozencrantz, make sure it’s a Rozencrantz to remember. And certainly, don’t let Guildenstern get a look in.

3— See your words

If a woman in a boilersuit and a man in a tutu utter exactly the same words, the effect is completely different. So before you start writing, it’s important to visualise what your words will look like when the reader sees them. How will the text and images relate to each other? What typeface will they be set in? What’s the format and medium? Too often, words and visuals inhabit the same world but look in totally different directions. Whereas they should be embracing like childhood friends.

4— Be yourself…

Of course you should be able to modify your tone and adopt different voices. One of the joys of writing for different brands is slipping into a variety of personas and being someone else for the day. But it’s also worth remembering that you’ve been asked to contribute for a reason — because the client wants a piece of you. Something about your personality or writing style has made an impression, otherwise they’d have asked someone else to do the job. Be a chameleon, by all means, but don’t be invisible.

5— …but don’t take it personally

No matter who you are, your drafts will be rejected and your best lines will be cut. You’ll be asked to write the same sentence over and over before the client decides he likes the first one best after all. Days will be long, repetitious and frustrating. You’ll have occasion to feel ignored, bullied and belittled. But most of the time, this will have absolutely nothing to do with you or the quality of your work. So you just need to keep smiling and do what you do until the sun comes out again.

6— Keep a lid on it

Too many punch lines can leave the reader punch drunk. Just like a good joke, writing for design is all about rhythm and timing, keeping it natural, not trying too hard. No one likes a show off, so try to curb your instinctive lexical dexterity. Of course, the odd clever analogy or deft turn of phrase doesn’t go amiss, but context is all. Think of a Paul Smith suit — impeccably tailored, but with a perfectly judged twist. Be disciplined, but know the precise moment to let go.

Paul Smith suit

7— Be a stickler

When I worked on newspapers and magazines, there was a small army of sub-editors and fact checkers to make sure everything I wrote was correct — right down to the last dotted i. But writing for a brand or design company, the buck stops with you. You can argue as much as you like that spelling, grammar and punctuation don’t really matter anymore, but research has shown that a single spelling mistake can cut a website’s online sales by half. Punters equate shoddy spelling with shoddy service. It undermines your client’s credibility, making them look inept and even dodgy. So whether you like it or not, it’s your job to stop those typos in their tracks.

8— Break rules for a reason

Heeeey, I’m such a linguistic rebel. ‘And’ is my favourite way to start a sentence, and if there’s an infinitive around to mercilessly split, I’m your axe man. I’m not some kind of Trussed-up grammarian, but it’s almost become a rule to break the rules. Casual flouting is so commonplace that any impact or interest has long gone. It’s like swearing — do it all the time and it just wafts unnoticed into the fuggy atmosphere of expletives. Choose your moment carefully and it cuts like a blade. Sure, break the rules… but when you do, make it count.

9— Keep your distance

Call me old fashioned, but I like a bit of formality. I may not insist on being called ‘sir’ in a restaurant, but ‘are you guys ready to order?’ sticks in my craw. Similarly, the kind of ‘chattytastic’, over-familiar brand writing that’s become prevalent over the past few years is really starting to rankle. It’s like some irrepressibly cheeky chappie you’ve just met down the pub plonking himself on your sofa and telling you what you should be watching on TV. Too much of this writing is cocky, presumptuous and downright annoying. We keep being told that the modern consumer is a highly sophisticated creature, so maybe it’s time to show a bit of class and restraint. You know who you are.

10— Don’t jettison jargon

Once upon a time, I thought the merest whiff of jargon was unacceptable. If a word couldn’t be understood by the ‘man in the street’, I consigned it to the gutter. Often this meant using three words instead of one, or writing a really clunky sentence for the sake of common parlance. But actually, I’ve come to realise, it’s all about audience. If you’re writing for carpenters, call a skew chisel a skew chisel. A sailor will know what a baggywrinkle is. And similarly, if the business community feel comfortable with their resources and collateral and bottom lines, they can have them (up to a point). Only I draw the line at ‘leverage’.

11— Cut yourself short

I’ve tried to keep each of these segments to eight sentences or less. Any more would be a bore. Remember, commercial writing is uninvited and usually unwanted, people are time-starved and impatient. You need to make your point as quickly, convincingly and charmingly as possible. Preamble and mood setting are generally a luxury. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible, and say it well. Edit, edit, and then edit again.

12— Work, don’t shirk

This may sound a bit homespun, but you’ve got to put in the hours. In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell actually puts a figure on it… 10,000. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years — just what the Beatles did. No matter how naturally talented you are, you need to hone and perfect that rough diamond until it shines like the Koh-i-Noor. The best writers for design are slightly obsessive types — brutally self-critical, they agonise over the small details, and are never satisfied with their work. If they’re not putting a shift in for clients, they’re busying themselves with personal projects. You’ve got to really want it, because if you don’t, someone else will.

Jim Davies is a commercial writer, author and cultural commentator.

After establishing himself as a design journalist, he went on to write for The Guardian, FT and Daily Telegraph on many aspects of visual culture.

He set up totalcontent in the 1990s to offer brands and agencies a new kind of design-savvy, creative copywriting service. Since then, totalcontent has built lasting relationships with many top design companies and leading brands, including Paul Smith, Orange, Nokia and Thomas Pink.

In 2008, Jim won a D&AD Gold Award for his work with The Partners on the National Gallery’s Grand Tour. His work has been accepted into the D&AD annual for six years running, and been recognised at the Cannes, Fresh, Cream, Design Week, Communicators in Business and DBA Awards.

Jim is author of The Book of Guinness Advertising and six Royal Mail Year Books, and founder of writers’ group 26.

My second book on Amazon

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13 comments about “A manifesto on writing for design”

  1. Phenomenal article. I had to look up “fuggy.” Glad I did. Couldn’t have come at a better time as I’ve been thrust into a copywriter position at my day gig while, currently, I’m rewriting the content for my website. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Are you able to link the research mentioned in 7; “Research has shown that a single spelling mistake can cut a website’s online sales by half.” I definitely don’t disagree with it, I am just interested to read more about it. :)

  3. Number 5 made me chuckle – as a designer, exactly the same thing applies: you submit the design, make loads of changes and then they decide they liked the original version best after all.

  4. Hi Domenico,
    In that case, you might find this interesting
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14130854
    Jim

  5. David,

    I agree with many of your points discussed in this article, especially when it comes to finding a balance between being formal and coming across as too friendly to your target market. In my findings, I’ve noticed a lot of copy, especially on design studio based websites, that can sometimes down play the intelligence of the consumer that they are trying to reach. It reminds me of an interview that I had in the past in which the interviewer started the conversation with what he planned to do for the weekend in his leisure time, which can come across to someone as unprofessional when your talking about a company’s perception. Great read.

  6. Domenico (and others),

    If you’re interested, I conducted a global survey asking for opinions about poor grammar and spelling and the results were pretty clear: be careful or lose money: http://www.k-creative-japan.com/2011/12/poor-grammar-costs-you-money-part-one.html

    Great article, Jim. I think all of your points can relate to writing in any medium.

  7. A good post David, very well thought out and I think touches on all angles (in particular about not taking things personally).

  8. Thank you Jim! Thank you David! Great read! Everyone involved in the process of design should be aware of these critical points. Unfortunately there are often more spoons in the soup than we realize or like to admit. Consumer input, corporate input (financial, marketing, competition driven, personal preference, egos), designer input (art director, artist, designer, design trends, egos), and copy writer of course and the most critical of all, time and deadlines all tend to work against those trying to do great work. As for 10,000 hours, I have a long way to go yet but I do love the journey. Thanks for this manifesto it is now on my bulletin board.

  9. Thanks again for the contribution, Jim, and thanks to those of you who’ve commented. I’m glad you also appreciated Jim’s advice.

  10. There is a famous saying that “Marketing without design is lifeless, and design without marketing is mute.” Thanks for sharing a great idea about writing for design.

  11. I am a copywriter and I have being lucky to have worked with very talented graphic artists. Just recently, I had the issue of having a graphic artist completely rewriting my web copy and even omitting the new slogan, which is also the USP of the product. This is a new company with a new product, I have done an incredible amount of research and yet this person decided to rewrite my copy, arguing that it was “grammatically incorrect”! and that it was “too conversational”. I have been a copywriter for almost 20 years, never had an issue like this before. I never had to question where the line between a copywriter and a graphic designer should be draw.

  12. Really enjoyed the article. Provoked some serious thinking on writing. I will definitely use this article as a reference in editing my writing in the future. Thanks for the great ideas.

  13. David, provoking manifesto there. As a designer and writer, I work at and only get satisfied when my words show up visually to readers: it helps me to say less, design less, but think more. I mostly agree to points 3, 6, 8, and 12, and am adding these points to my trove of resources. Thanks David.

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