Good Writing Is Good Design

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Content Strategy / UX Design / Writing & Editing

“Words matter. They are abstractions, too — an interface to thought and understanding by communication. The words we use mold our perception of our work and the world around us. They become a frame, just like the interfaces we design.”Frank Chimero

Michael Johnson, Design Director of Happy Cog, tweeted something recently that caught my attention. Not only because designers can learn about design from writers, but also, I believe that writers can learn about writing from design. Both hone their craft to shape experiences – one visual, the other written.

Designers should spend more time with writers. At least that's what a design director thinks.

Designers should spend more time with writers. At least that’s what a design director thinks.

Just like code is material for developers, and pixels are material for visual designers, words are the building blocks that interface writers use to shape digital experiences. Language is material that speaks directly to users.

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Instructions, explanations, and commands help us get from Point A to Point B. But sometimes they’re bossy and confusing. We often forget that an interface is mostly text. Without copy, an interface has no meaning.

Text makes the design on Basecamp. From Signal vs. Noise.

Text gives meaning to a page on Basecamp. From Signal vs. Noise.

Design is still about words. Seduced by flashy graphics and novel interactions, we can overlook these tiny texts that quietly move users along to do what they came to the site to do in the first place.

These microcopy inhabit buttons as labels and instructions under form fields. They relieve anxiety during a purchase flow and help users avoid nasty surprises from accidentally deleting their work. Just because they seem invisible doesn’t mean we should skimp on these details during the design process. Great interfaces are written.

When you ignore the written part of the interface, your design becomes a narcissist. It’s not sexy to work through tedious rounds of edits on a string of seven words. It’s not a showstopper on a portfolio piece. Although you might assume that people don’t read interfaces, I’ll let their frustrations show you otherwise when something goes wrong.

The look and feel of a website or a mobile app is important, but without equal attention on the written interface, they’re just decoration. Every user becomes a slave to the design rather than the design freeing them to do what they do best.

The fastest way to improve your interface is to improve your copywriting. When you put substance over decoration, you see what’s clear and what’s not. What’s a filler and what’s essential. Carefully chosen words give your product a coherent voice. It shows users that you pay attention and you care about their needs. These bits of copy are the underdogs of interface design. And I’m a sucker for underdogs.

In future posts, I hope to expand upon the role writing plays in UX design. As a perpetual student, I found some great resources that I plan on sharing with you to design better products. Until then, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“Aesthetics are debatable, but writing is essential. Peel away the layers of styling and you’ll be left with words. Writing is the meat of a design, and it’s one of the hardest things to get right.” –Jonas Downey, On Writing Interfaces Well.

[Featured Image: Function]

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The Author

I'm a content strategist and UX designer. I design with words and write to design.

2 Comments

  1. This is all so true! And a great reminder for myself as I’m writing to go back and talk to our designers a bit more. It’s always beneficial for both parties to have these conversations. Great post!

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