Why I Write…or How Writing Makes You a Better Designer
I have been doing more and more writing lately – most of it surrounding user experience, leadership and creativity. Over the past year or so as I have assumed more and more leadership responsibilities in my day-to-day work, I have found writing to be a way to funnel my excess creative energy somewhere other than design, which I do less and less of these days. Writing was the first true art I fell in love with – long before I ever put a single pixel on a screen. And over many years, I have realized how closely writing mirrors what we do in design. In fact, I contend it make us better designers.
Writing has always been a catalyst in my life, but it hasn’t always gone so well. As a young a child, I would write really bad poems (note: I still write really bad poems). In high school, a young journalism teacher gave a freshman underachiever (that would be me) the chance to write for the school paper. I used my position on the school paper as a platform to gain modest celebrity status critiquing everything from school plays to the school lunches…much to the chagrin of the drama teacher and cafeteria workers. (I hereby apologize to my journalism teacher for all the complaints he had to field concerning my poorly written and very critical editorials.)
I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to see the world and, primarily, to write about it. That almost got me shot or killed a few times. I then proceeded to major in English (and philosophy) at Indiana University – a major, which left me unemployed indefinitely. In the interim, I was a freelance journalist and photojournalist for the college and local newspapers – a job which paid very little but at least paid something. Shortly thereafter, I was able to snag a fellowship from that same university where I scarred many students for life as an underpaid and inadequate writing instructor.
Let’s just say writing, for me, has been a love-hate relationship in many respects.
Writing does have an intrinsic value though. It is communication – something we often lack in our world today. It is an imperfect form of communication because language is not as precise as we would like to think it is. But, it is communication nonetheless. And in putting pen to paper, you naturally become better at communicating.
Writing can improve you as a designer, as well, in a variety of ways. There is something about the process of iterating through a writing project that is very similar to the process of iterating through a design. I do admit – in both the case of writing and design – I occasionally iterate to a worse product. But, for the most most part, the revision and process of moving to a final deliverable are similar. And, writing is a process that enables me to better organize my thoughts, prioritize a project and simply stop and think more deeply.
There are a few ways I think writing makes for a better designer.
Writing forces you to think, UX design requires thinking
When I taught writing, I told my students each semester: “In order to write well, you must be able to think well and visa versa.” Good writers are good thinkers – especially when it comes to rhetorical writing. But, even if you are not attempting rhetoric in the form of an essay or whatnot, all writing is an exercise in convincing the reader – convincing the reader of your story, your point, etc. And in order to convince, you must organize your points, your story or your thoughts so they can be put on paper in some sort of coherent, digestible fashion. Writing is an art that forces you through many thinking exercises in the process. It is also an exercise in problem solving where you have to address a need or solve a problem in order for the reader to keep reading. You have to think about your audience just as we have to think about our users in UX design.
Much of the writing I do today involves user experience design, which I largely consider a problem-solving exercise. User experience design, as a profession, is largely concerned with identifying and solving problems. Good UX design is less concerned with the process of pushing pixels (though there is a time for that) than addressing a need or solving some pain point. This forces us to think. We stare at the sky, we contemplate the problem and we stare at blank screens until our eyes bleed. In writing, we do the same thing. We think of the point and the counterpoint to a design. We anticipate the arguments against a given design decision. And, we do the same thing in good writing.
Over the years, writing has forced me to become a better thinker in nearly all areas of my life, but especially in design where thinking is key.
Writing is communication, design is communication
As I point out above, writing is communication. That’s no secret and I would imagine most people think of writing as a form of communication. I am not sure we always think about design in the same way. I recently gave a presentation at the IA Summit 2018 where I make a point concerning how UIs are methods of communication. A UI can be many things and can be composed of many elements. Think of traffic as a means of communication for a moment – think of it as a UI. Your daily commute involves a series of icons (street signs), maps, traffic lights, train schedules and the rules behind all of this that are essentially methods of communication you must interpret or understand.
Getting from your home to any destination involves a complicated means of communication we all agree on and understand so we can travel safely through a city or town. A UI is no different. It is a means of communication. Maybe you are working on an e-commerce site or an enterprise system. These sites and systems comprise a series of screens and interfaces. Sometimes they involve physical aspects of the world. All of these interfaces and aspects are means of communication, helping your user get from point A to point B. Granted, it is a different form of communication than writing. But, only because it is a different type of language (though we do use written language in design as well).
I believe as we become better communicators in one language, we will naturally become better communicators through other channels and in other languages as well. So, become a better communicator through writing and you will naturally enhance your skills at communicating through design.
Writing helps us in gap analysis, a necessary component of design
I have already pointed out how language is imprecise. As an example, have you ever accidentally offended someone because you said something and they took it in a way you did not mean it? We all have different world-views and different ways of communicating. Ask five people to express a concept and they will all find slightly different (and sometimes markedly different) ways of expressing it. And if you take those five expressions to five different people, they will all have different interpretations of the expressions.
Design is not different. We express (or communicate) through design and hope users interpret our expression as we intended it. But, spend a little time observing users with your design and you will find they do not always understand the intent or have a different idea as to the intent of the design. As Jared Spool states: Design is the rendering of intent. There is a gap to fill when we render intent – just as there often is in language when we have to rephrase (or render) an idea or concept.
As an English undergraduate, I would often spend hours writing some rhetorical analysis. I had an idea and point I wanted to convey. I would finish the paper, have a peer read it and they would often mark up the paper in places where they did not understand where I was going or where I was coming from. It was an iterative process where I had to identify the gaps and fill them in. Years of writing have made me better at proactively identifying those gaps and filling them in before someone lays eyes on my words. Design is no different. You have to find the gaps. Better yet, you have proactively find those gaps. Writing helps you with this as it is also an iterative process of communication – just like design.
Writing allows you to discover you, so does UX design
Write enough and you will eventually churn something out you never knew existed inside you. Writing is meditative in many ways – forcing us to reflect upon ourselves and move through a process of self-discovery. This is good for us. (But, I won’t promise you will always like what you discover.) Sit down and think about how much you really know about “you.” You will probably find there are things you don’t know, memories that were long gone or parts of you that are so deep you have not touched them in years. I have found writing to be somewhat of a Pandora’s Box in many ways and cannot count the times I have discovered something new about myself or an old memory through writing.
Design is also very internal. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a huge part of ourselves in our designs. They are like sculptures where we are uncovering and discovering parts of ourselves in the process of creating. For me, design can be very therapeutic. This has always seemed to be a natural extension of my experience with writing and expressing in my language. I am still expressing with language in design, but also putting a piece of myself into each project and discovering myself as I move through a design. I am just using a different language and able to enhance the experience as a result of my experience in writing.
Ultimately, this aspect of the writing-design connection also helps me disassociate myself from the design as a result of simply being a little more grounded through self-discovery. There is a time to discover yourself and throw yourself into a piece of work and a time you must share it. Sharing your work can be painful. I learned to get over the painful aspects of sharing as a young writer. I grew thicker skin and have been able to carry that over to my career as a designer where critique no longer bothers me as it once did so many years ago.
Writing can help you work through UX design problems
Maybe you aren’t a person who wants to write a blog post every week or post random thoughts to the web in some formal forum. But I would venture to bet simply keeping a short “design diary” of your thoughts on your current design work as a daily or weekly process could prove beneficial.
I keep a design journal where I write about the problems I am having in my current work. This is usually design-related in content and I often find my brain switches gears when writing out the problems I experience. The act of writing forces me to think differently – in a different language. I am thinking in words and not images, icons and interfaces. I will be writing about some design issue I am trying to work through and suddenly a solution will come to me. It isn’t always the right solution. But, it often is a solution that will and does work.
Keep a design diary for 30 days or longer and you will see what I mean. Spend a little time each day documenting any problems you are trying to work through. Try to explain it the best as you can in words. At the very least, it can serve as an archive to your progressing experience as a designer. However, I venture to bet you will come to some solutions you might not otherwise have come to.
Writing and copy are integral to UX Design
We have a UX copywriter on our team and she is great. However, she is a fairly recent addition. Up until her arrival, we had to write our own copy (i.e. labels, error messages, etc.). That meant, for the past few years, everyone has come to my desk to have their copy looked over or ask how we should word a message. I was only too happy to oblige (and use my English degree for something other than filling out unemployment paperwork). The problem was: I was fairly inconsistent in how I would structure messages and could not devote a full-time effort to copywriting in our system.
UX copywriters are becoming more and more common. However, they tend to work on larger teams with larger budgets. Until I came to Walgreens, the idea of employing a UX copywriter in most places I worked was unrealistic. Thus, I was often the UX copywriter.
If you have a background in writing or just want to practice more, it can be of service in our profession and to the work you do each day. User interfaces and systems are full of words, writing and language. Writing and copy are integral to UX Design.
Not everything I write herein applies to just writing. Maybe you sketch, drawn or paint. Maybe you are a musician or a singer. Maybe you sculpt folk art from old machinery you pick from yard sales. Art takes many forms and there are many ways to practice it. Writing is just the art I chose or, perhaps, the art that chose me. So, diversify yourself.
Practicing some other form of art (other than UX design) will make you a better designer. Arranging a piece of music or a folk art sculpture may be quite different than arranging an interface. But, they both involve design. Just as speaking more than one language will make you better in communicating, writing, as a form of communication, will improve you in the art of UX design (another form of communication). And some of what I write herein will help you as a designer – no matter what type of art you practice.