Words + Pictures
What Can a Writer and Designer Learn from Each Other?
Designers live in a world of colors, shapes and images; writers in a world of words, phrases and narratives. Both are tasked with making concepts come alive to readers, and their efforts are complementary when presented together. So what can each creative discipline learn from how the other works?
Let’s Get Schooled
Most deliverables comprise both visual and written content; it is rare that a firm works on projects that require only one type of creative offering. And when the visual and narrative mesh perfectly, the team is proud — and the client is thrilled.
In an effort toward continuous process improvement in our own collaborative work at Cobalt, we explored what our editorial team and art team can learn from each other. Discussing the creative process revealed many similar processes, as well as some new methods that can be added to their respective toolboxes.
In Common, but in an Uncommon Way
Designers and writers both spend significant time researching and thinking about their client’s industry, product or project. This part cannot be rushed; immersion in the client’s world takes time. Even as a firm that specializes in science-focused organizations, Cobalt has a diverse client roster — from biopharma to packaging to polymeric coatings. Deep understanding in these topics cannot be faked. Both writers and designers have to make time for research if they want to produce effective work.
Finding inspiration in the form of art, music or writing is an essential practice for creatives on both sides of the office. As imperative as it is to become immersed in the client’s world, it is vital to step out of it and feed the creative side of your brain. Writers and designers never know the inspiration they might find in Shakespeare or Banksy or Billie Eilish. When designing a sell sheet for a pharmaceutical device, perhaps diving into a high-concept design magazine will inspire an aesthetic for the project. Or maybe the structure of a novel’s plot will spark an idea for how to present information on a web page for a packaging company.
Additionally, creatives take inspiration from both the visual and written content of competitors. Browsing the internet to see what’s working and what isn’t — whether it’s visuals, tone or hierarchy — can help inform our own deliverables.
Designers and writers agree that communicating with clients and leveraging collective professional expertise to determine which methods and channels to use is imperative. A client may request a website landing page, but given the creative team’s experience and evaluation of the client’s needs, they might recommend an infographic instead. The best way to identify a solution that achieves the client’s goal is to have some deep conversations — and really listen.
Techniques: From Visual to Narrative
The master of the pixel has some things to teach the ruler of the pen.
Sketch with Words
Laying the groundwork for a project helps creatives stay on target and reach goals efficiently. For a writer, sitting down in front of a blank page can be intimidating; designers counteract this by starting with a sketch, either digital or pen on paper. A writer’s version of a sketch is an outline, and it can do everything with words that a sketch can do with graphics. Mapping the route ahead of time and planning out the necessary work can make the journey much smoother.
Mock Up Your Work
Writers can benefit from remembering that they’re not writing into the void. A blank word processing document gives no sense of how writing will be laid out in the finished product. Briefly mocking up a layout of the content lets the writer see how his or her text might be displayed. Writers can mock up a layout, fitting their blocks of text on the page to see the overall impact. Projects like websites are amorphous, and it may be difficult to discover the final form before it is laid out by the designer — but it’s a good exercise.
Think About Hierarchy
How text is formatted and presented is crucial. Designers regularly make use of a simple concept: important content goes first, without preamble. For a writer, it’s important to think about how users are interacting with the content on a page. On web pages, users scan quickly to find the information they’re looking for; placing key content where they are most likely to see it takes advantage of this natural behavior. Other visual strategies to maximize attention include using bulleted lists, larger fonts, and colored elements; and strategically breaking up paragraphs. These visual design strategies ensure users see the most relevant information and encourage them to keep reading.
Advice: From Storyteller to Artist
Designers can learn a few things from the writing process.
One of the first things writers consider is the piece’s audience. Writing about a complicated medical device will be very different if the audience is the doctors who are expected to employ the device or if it is the patients who will be using it. In the same vein, the logo design for the medical device may be received one way by the doctor and another entirely by the end user. Starting with audience consideration can influence a design and make it more impactful.
Words Can Bring Designs Alive
Just as a writer pictures the eventual designs in which the text will be placed, a designer should consider headlines, captions and other written content during the creative process. For example, when developing a logo, a designer would be helped immensely by knowing the company’s tagline, brand positioning statement and elevator pitch. These written elements can enhance the impact of the final presentation.
Trust the Process
A polished design wows the client . . . and it renders invisible the hard work that designers do, as well as the versions they have gone through to get there. Look in any writer’s archives, and you’ll find drafts upon drafts, with minute to major changes between versions. Glancing back over a folder full of drafts — as writers often do — can foster metacognition about evolving skills and the creative process. Be unafraid of a shoddy first draft design. Writers know that it takes many iterations, some of them terrible, to get to a refined final product.
Think Outside the Comfort Zone
Writers and designers have a lot to learn from each other. The next time you face the blank page of a new project or cannot move past a mental block in the process, borrow a practice from your creative counterpart and see where it takes you. You, your team and your clients will all benefit from this cross-disciplinary approach.