Big Little Things

Designing by writing (or The non-iterative design process)

Last week one of the design students from Project M (where I’d served as an advisor over the summer) asked me how to become a better writer. That was super encouraging to hear because I think writing is an essential part of the design process. And it’s something I’ve felt missing in design education for a long time.

Here’s why: when someone asks you why you used green, or why you included that crumpled-paper background, or why there’s a bird in the logo, you’re gonna need to know. What’s more, you’re going to need to be able to articulate it in a way that makes them care. I’ve been in graphic design classes in which I’ve asked students presenting their work why they did what they did. And 90% of them have said something like: “because it’s like, I don’t know. It’s like I thought that color looked super good right there. And I like birds.”

Now, I don’t care how gorgeous the thing you made was, if that’s your answer, I’m not gonna hire you. It’s not enough to make pretty things. You’ve got to be able to talk about them, to present them, to parse their meaning. And the truth of it is that if you can’t articulate what the thing you’re making means, you’re gonna have a helluva time making it mean something to someone else. Which is a problem, because that’s the job.

Writing will make you a better designer. I know: it sucks and it’s super hard. But it will make you a better designer. Hell, it’ll make you a better thinker. Here’s an example: when we’re working on a design project at Language in Common we don’t make a bunch of different sketches before we come to the right one. We don’t sit down at the sketch pad or the computer and try to draw in the dark. That’s a waste of time. Instead, we talk it out. We discuss what kind of vibe we’re trying to create. We use different words to describe the same concept and then more different words to describe to each other what the piece might look like and why. And what happens is that in the articulating and re-articulating of what a particular concept might look like, its execution becomes more and more clear in everybody’s heads. So that by the time we actually get to drawing or building the thing it’s already pretty much done. All we have to do is put it into illustrator or photoshop or indesign or whatever tools it requires to make. Because we don’t go through a ton of iterations, we’ve become super fast when it comes to visual design. And we can talk about it with ease.

Try it. See what happens. Lemme know if it works for you.

18 Responses to “Designing by writing (or The non-iterative design process)”

  1. Shawn Liu Says:

    Yes, but – sometimes words can trick the mind to believe a bad design is good, like this breathtaking Pepsi logo. That’s all I’m saying, man.

  2. josh Says:

    @shawn true that. but that awful pdf (didn’t i tweet that to you, btw?) is full of misleading imagery as well. nothing could have made that thing good except fire and gasoline. and besides, anyone who was actually fooled by that bullshit kinda deserved to be.

  3. Designing by Writing | Konigi Says:

    [...] love what tiny gigantic has written in this great short post about designing by writing (or the non-iterative design process). I agree wholeheartedly, although I think of writing as part [...]

  4. Devin Says:

    I’m curious what advice you gave for becoming a better writer. Honestly, we think a great deal where I work and I’ve found that I can no longer just sit and sketch to get things started if we haven’t even hatched out a strategy or message. So I used to write well, but then I learned how to build web sites and forgot how to write. Any suggestions?

  5. josh kamler Says:

    Sure do, Devin. When we first started the company, we wrote a little manifesto bookie on how to be a better writer. It’s called Ten Writing Tips to Make Your Mother Proud You can find it here:


  6. Dennis Moran Says:

    How true! And how great to read it expressed so beautifully!

    In my experience as a graphic design teacher (part-time adjunct) I constantly preach to the students that they MUST be able to articulate the “WHY” rather than the “WHAT” of their design solutions. This advice of beginning the process by discussing it and then writing about it is perfect. Thanks!

  7. graham wood Says:

    hmmm . . . it’s also sort of called ‘planning’ (like in advertising). good planners are fun. it’s fun working with good planners. it’s also fun to work like one. not that it needs to be called ‘planning’. it’s about playful and cogent thinking, and then expressing that thinking as clearly as necessary (which includes not being clear if that what a thing is about!). mainly it’s a fun way to do it. work, that is. with a bit of a conceptual process. anyway, design education has really become like culinary/finishing school-and it’s far far too vocational. a bit shocking to know that the approach in the article above would be a revelation to students really. blimey. whatever happened to concept, process and play? and lovely lovely words? blimey.

  8. Importance of writing for a designer. Says:

    [...] This is a nice article expressing the importance of writing for designers and the design process. [...]

  9. Importance of writing for a designer. « Idea Blog Says:

    [...] February 20, 2009 This is a nice article expressing the importance of writing for designers and the design process. [...]

  10. Raster Says:

    Before I thought design work speaks for itself when I show it to other people, so the designer doesn’t have to be a writer or need to be a good speaker. Yes, I was wrong.

    One day, I was at a dead end in a meeting; there was no notification that I had to make a presentation about what I did in front of people from three major banks – managers and business people. I was feeling faint but there was nobody else around me. Anyhow, I did it for 5 minutes, then my project manager took over. It must have been painful to watch. I was relieved but I was shocked more.

    I think when you are designing something; you have reasons for what you have created. You must put the context into your creation. You must answer every question and being able to explain why you reached this result. If you are not sure, the clients never understand.

    “I used the colour red because I felt so.” This isn’t working at all.

    Are you an artist? Then I understand that is good enough, but the client is expecting you to design, right?

    Visual is the strongest human sense and people can judge your visual at a glance. Yet at the same time communicating with writing or speaking about what you create is necessary as a designer. It’s not “write/speak/talk about design”, it is “write/speak/talk about THE DESIGN.”

    I am not a good speaker or writer, besides English is my second language. I have been reading books/articles which written by Paul Rand. Is there any graphic designers who can write like him? It must be very few. That’s why Paul Rand is Paul Rand. He talked and wrote about design and his design.

  11. Leah Bobaloave Says:

    An interesting article, as both designers and writers have something very important in common — communication.

    I came to design as a writer, and find that after all these years, I still approach projects as a writer first and a designer second. The words matter to me, sometimes too much.

    So if anyone has ideas on how to let the verbal go and welcome the visual, please post. Thank you.

  12. Walt Kania Says:

    I’m a writer by trade, so I may not have the credentials to comment here.

    Maybe in the silly reality of the business, you have to justify and explain and rationalize designs to CLIENTS. But you don’t have to explain it to the USERS of the design: the readers of the magazine, or viewers of web site. It’s the same with a joke: if you have to explain it, you didn’t do it right.

    Also, I suspect that designers (and writers like me) tend to make up the rationale AFTER coming up with the solution. We devise the solution for whatever reason, then cook up some client-pleasing reason for doing it, so that it sounds corporate and brilliant. None of which, of course, actually went into the designing of it.

    In this case, I think what you’re proposing is ‘learn how to BS better’. It’s not really about writing better.

    But then again, what do I know about it?

  13. Josh Kamler Says:

    i too am a writer by trade. and it’s through writing that i came to design. to me, you sound kinda jaded by the industry. and it’s true, there’s a lot of bullshit out there. and, many designers do come to a rationale after the fact–which is the problem this post aims to discuss.

    but you’re correct–this post isn’t about writing better. it’s about designing better. if you’re looking for writing tips, read this:

  14. Lilian Says:

    To me writing and design are the same. They are both creative methods of communication, and I enjoy them in equal measure : )

  15. Mark Stevens Says:

    I too believe that writing will make you a better designer. Many of the great designers are great writers. I think there’s a connection. Check out this piece by Ettore Sottsass that was republished on Design Observer recently:

  16. Erica Says:

    “If You Want to Write” is the best book on writing I’ve ever read. It was written in 1938 but it’s amazingly fresh and inspiring.

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  18. A Contentmas Epiphany | Web Design Feed Says:

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