Designers, Writers: You Need 2 Become 1
Man, each year, a new crop of young and hungry designers and writers graduate from college, put up bombass online portfolios with neato animated elements, and list out all of these new technical skills I haven’t even heard of. Like, aggregated-SEO-C++-analytics-on-rails.
And there are maybe a few hours each June when I’m lying in bed and biting my nails, because I am convinced these 22-year-olds are going to supplant my place in the professional world, making me destitute and forcing me to orphan my dogs because I can’t afford dog food anymore.
And then I get over it!
Because I’ve figured something out — as you get older and more established in this field, it doesn’t even matter if you know how to code or not. You can like, easily hire someone to do that work if you don’t feel like learning (hollaaa!).
What matters way more are soft skills. And the biggest core soft skill of all in communications is knowing how to tell a story and knowing how to remove friction in the viewer’s experience of a narrative. You can do this visually (design) or through text (writing). Increasingly, it is a hybrid of both.
Designers, writers — y’all need to reach across the aisle and adapt the skills the the other has. Doing so will make you better at your core job. I know! I know! The idea of suddenly specializing in an entirely different skillset might seem daunting, and for real, it is. But here are some idiot-proof tips to help you fake it until you make it.
Writers, start making more charts and lists.
Writers have a tendency of wanting to spell out information in fat blocks of paragraphs, even when the information is stuff like a convoluted timeline of events.
That stuff is a bear to read and often boring. With content that is inherently kind of boring, it’s good to make it skimmable. This is where charts and lists come in handy. If there is ever a list in which more than three commas are used, just bullet it.
When I am the writer on a project, I like to make pretty rudimentary charts in Excel that take very little time. And then I embed them into the copy and send it on its merry way to get nicely laid out by a designer. It’s pretty easy!
Designers, make more infographics.
The first time I made an infographic for a client, I was shocked at how hard it was. Hilariously, it was because it forced me to read, learn, and study a complex subject — before undertaking the massive task of illustrating a complex topic into easy-to-digest visual bites.
Designing infographics trains your brain to think in detail about information-giving.
That first experience made me realize just how deep designers can get into text, how good design can really just disseminate really thick information that would usually lie in an under-read report and make it palatable for mass consumption. That is powerful stuff. Designing infographics trains your brain to think in detail about information-giving.
Writers, put in more subheadings and paragraph breaks.
I write with a lot of subheadings on purpose. I think voracious readers see a fat, dark block of text and they go, “Oh, boy! Goody!” But I’m a designer who has an attention deficit disorder, so I see a fat block of text and I get really discouraged and depressed about it, like, “Oh great, I have to read now?”
Thinking about the visual hierarchy of information is doing a service for ADD folks and also really busy folks. It also takes into consideration that people don’t read linearly.
For delicate souls like me, I like to pop in lots of subheadings that convey specific information to serve as a visual outline for the content. Thinking about the visual hierarchy of information is doing a service for ADD folks and also really busy folks. It also takes into consideration that people don’t read linearly. Sometimes we skip ahead to the end of the book to see how it works out before we go back to the beginning and commit to the journey.
Plenty of subheadings serve readers by giving the gist of what this piece is about at a glance.
Designers, create Instagram brand stories.
A really good social media content creator is actually a hybrid of designer and writer because social media is so image- or graphics-forward, but still requires good copy to relay messaging.
Instagram stories, in particular, allows the opportunity to create narratives, with beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s also a fairly low-pressure arena for designers to work on their writing chops. Plus they get immediate feedback and information on how people engage with the content though Instagram’s built-in analytics tool.
Writers, practice writing short copy.
Oftentimes, the hardest thing to write is not the 1000-word body copy of an article — it is the headline or title of it. The title is the selling vehicle, the thing that convinces a reader whether or not to invest in the content you have created. It is a tough job, and yet many writers treat titles as afterthoughts.
I try to invest the time to write good headlines before giving designers content. I think about what would be easy to stylize.
As a designer, I’ve been frustrated when I have to lay out a title that manages to say nothing of importance and yet is way too long.
As a writer, I’ve messed up the design of a page when I’ve seen a shitty title I have written in print and then asked the designer to redo the heading while I think of a better headline on the spot.
These days, I try to invest the time to write good headlines before giving designers content. I think about what would be easy to stylize. My favorite brainless method when I’m in a hurry is the headine-subheadline combo:
Stash it or Trash it?
Six ways to clean your home quickly before the Lunar New Year
When you do this, the designer gets to have a short and jaunty bit of text to blow up and make look cool, and the subheadline underneath conveys the important bit of the sales pitch.
Designers, keep a running list of copy issues you spot as you design and share with client.
This is a good practice to get into. Always do it. Never just hand in long-form content and say, “Here you go! See attached!” There’s no way that anything more than three pages was written so cleanly and so tightly there were no items to flag during layout.
You also don’t have to be comprehensive. No one is asking you to be a proofreader. But the perk of sending a few bullet points is that it sounds to the client that you are well-rounded and you are engaging with their content. It affirms the partnership because it shows you care about content holistically, not just about making content pretty. And when you commit to always send in notes, you end up reading things all the time. It just becomes part of the workflow.
Common, easy notes that I send a lot:
- Asking for title or subtitles to be lengthened or shortened, for better copy fit
- Asking for excess content or repetitive content to be trimmed
- Information they forgot to write in — like contact info or their website
- Reminding client of the notes they leave to themselves in the copy, stuff like, “We earned $x,xxx dollars this year.”
That’s it! Super easy, right? If you guys get these easy things covered, I swear, it will make a huge difference in your work, and your clients will definitely notice, too.
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