Learn to Write for Designers

The Purpose of Design: Communication

This is going to sound self-depreciating, but when I first graduated from college, I was inwardly embarrassed of my diploma: Visual Communication. 

First of all, it was only a diploma – and not a degree. I knew I was competing in the market against graduates of more prestigious arts degree programs. Furthermore, the designation sounded vague and less legitimate as something more professionally recognized as “graphic arts”.

Prior to taking the program, I had never heard the term before. I felt that I always had to explain what it was to other people, whereas saying I studied ‘graphic design’ required nothing more.

Strange how we can feel sensitive at how we are perceived, but that’s just how I felt. Hence, when asked, I always told people I graduated college in graphic design and illustration. While this was accurate, ultimately, I didn’t appreciate how meaningful “visual communication” was. 

As a designer, pride in my craft came from how beautiful my design work was. I was an artist first and I wanted to visually impress clients by the aesthetic qualities of my work. Like many artists, I would stand back and admire my own completed creations from every angle. Only when it looked good did I feel successful. 

But here’s the real question: did my designs communicate?

Visual Communication: The Main Jam

Fast forward a couple decades of professional experience. The great lesson I’ve learned is that, in graphic design, communication is everything

I never lost the desire to create beautiful graphics. I will always take pride in being an artist and I want my designs to have a wow-factor. But if I design purely from the motivation of visual aesthetic, that begs the question of whether “meaning & message” was given preeminence behind every design choice. 

Before a designer sits down to create, there should be a phase of connecting with the brand message they are entrusted to visually develop. The brand is not the logo or the visual elements, no more than clothing defines person who wears it. To be introduced to a ‘person’ is to learn their values, perspective, personality and reason for being. 

Furthermore, if my job is to express these personal attributes of a brand in a visual way, then I should be able to articulate them. 

Herein lies the premise of this article: “Want to become a better designer? Then become a better writer.” If you can use words to accurately describe a brand and its services, then you have an advantage over how you visually communicate it.

The Relationship Between Writing & Design

Good writing is an interplay of form, meaning, communication and storytelling. In content marketing, being concise matters as space is limited — and so are attention spans. Words are carefully crafted to use as few as possible, to say as much as possible.

Visual design is similar. It needs to speak the visual language with skill; within limited space, as simply as possible while conveying as much as possible.

An effective marketing piece will be a harmonization of these two skillsets. It’s beautiful when it comes together with clarity.

For the visual designer, written headlines and copy are used in nearly every project. They are expected to comprehend the intended message and visually depict it so it communicates cohesively. Any designer can receive copy and make a design from it.

But not every designer can write or edit that copy themselves. Heck, many designers I know barely read the copy they were provided.

Admittedly in my early career, that was me. Paragraphs of text felt like visual blocks that I had to nicely arrange. They were objects, not meaningful text, and it didn’t feel like my job to comprehensively read it. My attitude was that I was only hired to build something pretty from it.

What a grossly inexperienced approach! 

What If a Designer Could Write Copy?

What if a designer were to develop the skill of copywriting? And not just editing content, but the ability to write complete articles, marketing copy, and brand messaging?

Quite simply, their value would increase significantly.

When I realized my ability to write added layers of value to the design process, it was a game changer. I began to provide meaningful feedback to the copywriters I worked with because I could recognize when content didn’t translate well into impactful visual design. It moved the needle on the value I could bring my clients; I was able to become a strategist on top of being their graphic designer.

I could not only build a website, but write the content from page to page. I could create effective landing pages, marketing collateral (brochures, documentation, taglines, etc.). I felt invested in the entire creative process and my confidence grew accordingly.

If you are a designer looking to take a career step, this would be one of my highest recommendations: learn to write well.

How to Develop Writing Skills

Make writing a habit! My first recommendation is to do daily journaling. It doesn’t have to be traditional journaling, in the sense of recording your own life. It’s just an exploration of your own thoughts, as they come.

Writer Julia Cameron famously wrote a book called “The Artist’s Way”, and teaches a method called Morning Pages. I’ve adopted this practice at times in my creative journey – and it helps immensely to set dedicated time to write.   

There is learning you can do by intentionally seeking inspiration and reading other copywriters. Take online courses and workshops that are practical and offer applied learning. Join a writing group and talk to other writers. Start a blog, and bite into regular social media posting with purpose.

All of it will help lead you towards what you ultimately need to do: to start writing. But don’t let yourself be buried in researching. The bottom line is this: You need to write, because practice makes progress. 

More Ideas About How to Develop Writing Skills:

  • Write privately for yourself with the mindset you aren’t going to share. This is for you; you’re just ‘brain dumping’. Set a timer. Don’t pause or stop; just let the flow of consciousness pour onto the paper (or digital document – but pen-and-paper is a good idea. Less tendency to ‘backspace’). 
  • Write publicly. Start a blog. Join a community like “Medium.com”. Post an article weekly on social media. It has nothing to do with numbers of readers or followers. This is for the feeling of hitting “publish”, and releasing something that can be seen.
  • Give yourself assignments. Create a personal brand message. Re-write your company (or a client’s) about page the way you would. You don’t have to share it, you’re just practicing. 
  • Look for writing workshops or communities. There are writing communities of people who are seeking to be inspired, to dedicate time to practice, and to experience peer review. 
  • Talk to your employer. Express your desire to professionally develop. Most good employers would embrace an attitude of learning and facilitate a way for your development.