Write Like a Designer

February 12, 2013

How do you do your best work?

This is what works for me:

  1. Start with a goal-driven concept I’m excited about
  2. Focus for a sustained period and get the “heavy lifting” done
  3. When all of the pieces are there, go back and polish, polish, polish

By the end, I should have something I’m happy with. Deviate from those steps and the work suffers. Sticking to that process is important for my work’s success. It’s natural and something I’ve followed for a long time.

Writing

Until recently, my writing process has been nothing like the one I use for design. Actually, that’s a lie. I didn’t have a consistent process at all. I would usually do a quick outline, type a bunch of strung together sentences with a splash of humor, and hit the big PUBLISH button. With the post live, sometimes I’d go back to catch any spelling or grammatical errors, mostly to avoid embarrassment more than anything. Other times I wouldn’t even do that. How careless.

Taking the effort to practice a process didn’t register because I never really enjoyed writing. It’s always been a task to cross off the list, not something to spend time crafting and enjoying. That results in doing work you aren’t particularly proud of.

Applying a design process to writing

From William Zinsser’s On Writing Well:

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? … Simplify, simplify.

Then, Dieter Rams’sĀ 10th Commandment for Good Design:

Good design is as little design as possible ā€” Less is more ā€“ because it concentrates on the essential aspects and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Recognizing this shared goal of reduction finally made it click. Great design, writing, coding, and any other works of craft follow the same process: do it, review it, redo it.

Clutter

A big part of that process is simplifying. Too much distraction in creative work ruins potential. In design, it takes the user off track from the purpose of the product. Instead of clicking the ‘Sign Up’ button, they lose interest and navigate to another site. In writing, the reader’s mind drifts. Eventually he switches to focusing on something else enitrely. Less clutter creates a stronger message that holds your audience’s attention, allowing you the opportunity to guide their actions.

Crafted Table

Style

Some argue that clutter creates a unique style and is desirable. Zinnser talks about how this thinking is wrong:

The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.

Style is important in design. But a cluttered interface with nice styling is still a distracted and weak experience.

When writing, eliminate the superfluous and focus on the goal of your message, just like when designing. Anything not in support of that goal should be questioned.

Applying your familiar process is a way designers can become stronger writers. It takes time and determined practice, but spreading your thoughts about what you’ve learned is important. We all benefit from it.

There’s one last similarity between designing and writing. If your project’s not working out how you’d like, you can solve it the same way: drag it into the trash and start over.

  • samhermes

    Well said. As more and more people publish online, this becomes increasingly important.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Hamstu Hamish Macpherson

    A very well written article Matthew. Thanks. I’ve always felt that the writing process should parallel that of design.

  • Tim Pullen

    Well it’s not Shakespeare, but you do make your point clearly, Matthew