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Designing Like a Writer

posted by Matt Ward on Aug 18, 2010.

I love to write, and I love to write about design. In this article, we will take a look at my general writing process and see if we can’t find interesting parallels to the design process, through the stages of the idea, the outline, the first draft, editing and proofreading.

I don’t think it’s any secret that I enjoy writing. That’s part of the reason that I love running and working on this blog so much (and why I write for other design blogs, too). It gives me a chance to do something that I really enjoy. Moreover, it also provides me the opportunity to combine my love of writing with my passion for design. It’s probably also part of the reason that some of the articles here get a little long sometimes!

Regular readers will also know that my educational background is in English literature, and that I am frequently thinking about the connection between language and design. Well, dear readers, I’ve been doing it again. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the whole issue of the craft and the process and found myself wondering what it would be like to envision my writing process as a design process.

Designing Like a Writer

Designing Like a Writer

So, that’s what I want to consider in this article.

More specifically, and more personally, I would like to formulate a theoretical design process based on the way that I actually approach most writing substantive projects, such as longer articles, essays and (though I haven’t published one yet) even books.  I will probably focus mostly on essay writing, however, since that’s where I really honed the process down to a fine art back in university.

The Idea

Any great piece of writing starts with an idea. It doesn’t have to be your own idea, and many of my best essays actually emerged as the result of a series of questions given to us by the professor. It doesn’t even have to be a good idea (though that certainly helps). Some of the topics that I wrote about seemed pretty broad and generic (for example: masculinity in Macbeth – can’t get much broader of a topic than that).

Regardless of how general or specific it might be, however, there still needs to be some sort of initial idea or concept, which forms the foundation of the piece.

I start by hashing out different thoughts based on the single idea

I start by hashing out different thoughts based on the single idea (image from Shutterstock)

I think that the same thing is true of design, or probably any other creative endeavour. It all starts with an initial idea or concept. From there, we can take any number of different routes to expand and/or build upon that starting point. Personally, I often get a bit of scrap paper or open up my word processor and just start playing the with the concept, trying to answer questions like:

  • What kind of unique angle can I use to approach the idea?
  • What are some of the things and concepts closely associated with the idea?
  • Is there some sort of prevailing metaphor that I can use to represent the idea?

While these are just a few examples of the type of questions that I ask myself, I think that they apply as much to design as they do writing, and the more questions I can answer, the better formulation I get for the idea itself.

The Outline

The next step that I take in my writing is to create the outline. Often this occurs as a natural extension of the Idea phase. As I am writing out different concepts and ways of approaching the project, an innate organization may begin to emerge all on its own. When this happens, I’ll just document it as it occurs to me, maybe polishing and fine turning a bit as I go.

Other times, I may just have a big pile of seemingly unrelated thoughts and concepts, which I have to wade through to starting pulling out meaningful relationships and connections. Through a careful hammering process, I work to fuse my (sometimes generalized) thoughts together into some sort of structure.

Either way, what I’m left with is the basic blueprint for where I want to go and what I want to accomplish with the article.

In design, this would essentially be analogous to the sketching and wireframing stage. With all of your brainstormed ideas, you open up a blank canvas (paper, Moleskine, Photoshop, Fireworks or even a code/text editor), and just start messing around. With all of the ideas and concepts floating through your mind, this is where you can start to bring the first, initial stages of structure to the project.

If it’s a website, you may start drawing content boxes or hashing out the basic navigation structure. If it’s a logo, you may start giving shape to your basic ideas. If it’s a poster, you may start determining the basic layout.

When all is said and done, though, you will have a tangible plan. It may not be an exact representation of what you will end up with, but it is an important starting point.

First Draft

Once you have your plan firmly in hand, it’s time to jump in and actually start creating the first draft. In writing, this means stringing together words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.

What it doesn’t mean, however, is starting at the beginning. Personally, this is a habit I’ve never really been able to break. I always seem to start with the introduction, even though there’s usually a pretty good chance that will end up completely rewriting it later on. You certainly don’t have to do it this way, though. In truth, it may very well be better to start with your strongest point and work from there, possibly even saving your introduction until the very end (I’ve heard plenty of people recommend writing this way).

Of course, when talking about design we don’t have introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions in quite the same way that we do in a written piece, but there can still be something of a presumed order. For a logo, you might always start by concentrating on the mark before moving on to the type (assuming it’s not just a type-based design), but working out the type first might provide a better frame of reference for the mark.

In web design, your natural inclination might be to start with the header and move down logically through the page, but focusing your attention on the main content area can often produce even stronger work. It can also help prevent you from getting too carried away with header (or footer) design. What might otherwise have ended up being a distraction could end up being the perfect complement to frame all the design work that you’ve already done.

The point, of course, is to produce a solid, initial draft (or prototype or mockup), usually based fairly closely on the original outline, though a certain degree of shifting and polishing is to be expected (and encouraged).

Editing

This is probably one of the most important stages, and a perfect opportunity to break out one of my favorite statements about effective writing: proofreading is not editing. Too often, people seem to get these two very different (though equally important) concepts mixed up.

Editing is about more than just working through your writing to make sure that all your commas are in the right place, or that you’ve used the correct instances of their, there and they’re. It’s about more than fixing typos and eliminating spelling errors.

It is, in fact, much messier.

Editing is the ruthless process of carefully reviewing a piece, mercilessly hacking it apart and then methodically sewing it back together again. We don’t do this out of some sense of linguistic sadism, though; we do it to help improve upon the overall structure of the piece through better flow and logic.

Editing is starts with pulling out the proverbial red pen and cutting the work to pieces

Editing is starts with pulling out the proverbial red pen and cutting the work to pieces (image by Dave Di Biase)

I think this is where design can, perhaps, learn the most from the writing process. How often do we get the basic structure finished and think: “now that that’s done, I can start fine tuning the little details”? Maybe it’s time to stop! Finish the initial design (the first draft), but instead of racing off to the polish, take a step back, look at what you’ve created and say to yourself: “okay this is good. Now how can I make it better?”

In my experience, writing only ever improves when authors take this approach, and I’m confident that design will benefit just as much.

I also want to stress that it’s not necessarily just a one step process. With some essays and articles, I may repeat the edit stage two, three or even four times before I’m satisfied. Sometimes I may reorder a few parts or passages. Other times, I may cut a section down, remove it entirely, and possibly even replace it with an entirely new section. It all depends on the particular context, but I just keep cutting and hacking and pasting back together until I am really satisfied with the overall structure.

Proofing

With all the brutal cutting and hacking of the editing stage, I am left with something that is very strong and structurally sound, but which is usually a bit of a mess. Various grammatical and syntactical scars will often mar the work along its tender seams, and the final proofing stage is where I finally go through everything with a fine tooth comb and start making minor changes to clean up the grammar and spelling.

In the design context, this is where attention gets turned most strongly toward the little things. Slight adjustments may be made in terms of margins, padding, leading (line spacing) and tracking (letter spacing) and so forth. Typographical choices may be reviewed both in terms of balance and logic, while things like colour and texture can be carefully tweaked for optimal visual appeal and user experience.

Conclusion

So there you have it. That pretty much follows my writing process, and hopefully demonstrates how the same basic steps could also be applied to design. Unless I miss my guess, a lot of people will probably already be using a lot of these same techniques, to some degree or other, but I think that looking at the entire process from a writer’s perspective sheds some interesting light on the subject.

I also think that, if there is one stage of this process that gets overlooked more than any of the others, it would have to be the editing stage. How often do we look at a completed mockup or prototype, step back to analyze it, then tear it apart and stick it all back together again with a better structure?

I know I could certainly benefit from doing that a bit more often.

Either way, I hope you enjoyed this article, and at least found something interesting in it. In closing, though, I do have to be honest and say that I don’t apply this exact process to all my writing. Sometimes, for articles like this one, I do just jump right in and start writing. That can work too. It’s generally for the bigger, more substantial projects that I deploy this stricter and more regimented methodology.

What about you? I know that many designers are also writers (bloggers) today. Does this post strike a chord with you? Was there something particular that really caught your attention? Is there something that you would like to add to this?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Aug 24, 2010

Hanna says:

Great post you have here. I have to say that some of the methods writers use can really be applied in design.

We also share the same habit of starting pieces at the beginning even when my mind’s set on what would be the core of the article. When this happens, I noticed though that I would often change the body of the article just so it would fit the first paragraph or so I’ve written. It’s not a good thing though.

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