Writing is Design


“Verbalizing design is another act of design. I realised this while writing this book,” writes Kenya Hara in the preface to his book, Designing Design. But writing itself is an act of design, whatever the subject.

Over the years I have done quite a bit of writing and recently my PhD is the largest block of words I have ever tackled. I have learned more about design and the creative process through writing than I have through designing.

The Guardian has a piece today titled Writing for a living: a joy or a chore? in which nine authors give their views on writing. There is the usual mix of tortured writers and those that love it and go into a “special place” in their heads, but it’s a good insight into the process because they are all pretty honest. My own feelings about writing are probably closest to Ronan Bennett’s.

I enjoy writing. I like it because it is a slower process than designing on the computer. It takes longer to make something polished because you need to write, edit and re-write several times.

One of the problems with working in applications like Photoshop or Illustrator is that it is easy to produce something glossy, but empty, very quickly. The finished-looking nature of the roughs can be a real handicap to generating new ideas or developing further iterations of an initial one. For this the sketchbook is king.

Tomato’s John Warwacker once said to me that he used to like the days when computers were slow because you could think about what you were doing whilst the progress bar was chugging along. Nowadays, we multitask. A quick Twitter or e-mail whilst Adobe applications crash around and update themselves in the background.

Thinking time is important and the slow, sometimes tortuous, pace of writing is perfect for thinking whilst creating.

Word processors make it easy enough to endlessly tweak, but I prefer keeping things simple with Mellel or Writeroom. Following John Cleese’s advice, writing is one of the few times when I happily ignore everyone. Even Twitter. No, really.

Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones is “allow yourself to write junk”. If you don’t, you never get to the good stuff and it is the imperfection of the written first draft that has taught me the most about design. I am happy to write a rubbish opening few paragraphs because I know that I will eventually find what it is I want to say by the time I reach the end. Then I can go in and re-write it.

Teaching students has taught me the value of the rough draft too, for students often hold their first idea as sacrosanct. They want to immediately make it, polish it, without realising the first idea is just a stepping stone to the next one and knowing where to stop is the real trick.

I find that much harder with visual design (and I’m not really a graphic designer, but an interaction and experience designer, so I cheat with graphic design). The tools are too distracting, there are too many possibilities and glossy options. I think it is why I prefer working out the concepts and wireframes – the bare bones are almost completely about the experience not the gloss. I’m thinking of downgrading to the earliest version of Adobe apps that will run on my machine. Perhaps I’ll even install Sheepshaver and run Photoshop 1.0 (which I remember using) and PageMaker 1.0.

If you are a designer I can recommend writing as a way to hone your creative process. You can even write about other designers’ writing if you want.

I suspect other people who are sporty have similar stories. Yoga has taught me a lot about slow, steady practice too, as has playing music.

What has been your greatest creative influence outside of your design life?

[Random shout out: Someone called Leigh got in touch with me from my contact page about my PhD. There was a bug in the form that meant I didn’t get the e-mail address. Leigh, can you mail me again – the form is fixed now or you can just use andy at this domain.]

7 Replies

  • Thanks for your post, I would like to reserve design for things that are about visuals and writing for things that are about words. But besides that I do believe that both writing and designing processes have a lot in common.

    That being able to write has a lot of advantages for the design process is undoubted for me (for words enable you to express things, that you cannot do visually) Would you though state that being able to design also allows you to be a better writer; and if yes, than how?

  • Hi Sjors, thanks for the comment.

    Most writing involves a design process. You think about something you want to comment about – the design problem. Come up with ideas usually in a bit of jumble, organise them, and work through a very similar process of iteration and refinement. This is especially true in any kind of creative writing and screenwriting where you are literally designing the story and dramatic arc.

    Naturally, as an interaction and experience and service designer, I don’t think design is (just) about visuals. Design is how you look at the world and think about it more than the visual manifestation – that’s the difference between someone who can use Photoshop and a designer using Photoshop. Sound designers are designers too, after all.

    I don’t know if being a designer has made me a better writer because I started designing before I started writing in earnest. I don’t think so though. I have read a lot of awful writing by really good designers. I’m sure there is some awful design by great writers too.

    The point for me is about the pace of writing and how it lends a discipline to creative thought that visual design does not always, especially on a computer.

  • Andy,

    Good post. I’ve long agreed that the writing process, from important email to paper to book, is a design process no different from others. Who will read it? What do they care about? What do I want them to know at each step? How will they know when they reach the big point? Beyond that, it includes research, sketches (outlines), prototypes (drafts), feedback loops, and even evolution (future editions).

    I was taught to write well at various points in my education and have long valued that. I work in voice interaction design and design consists not just of orchestrating flow through tasks but also of creating the words and phrases that will guide a person through. To do that, I write. :) So writing is designing, er, literally.


    Phillip’s last blog post..When Search is Not

  • Phillip – obviously I totally agree. The more I have thought about this, the more I appreciate the slowing down aspect of writing. I think one of the key things is that you have to make all the raw materials. It’s as if you were doing a piece of graphic design and having to mix your own paints and inks, make your own paper, hand-letter text, etc. The way graphic designers used to do a lot of things, as it happens.

    It’s not that I don’t think all the things you can do with computers aren’t great – I’m an interaction designer after all. The problem is exactly that all the things you can do with computers are great and you can do them pretty quickly. Imagine what a 16th century stone-mason would think to have thousands of typefaces at our fingertips. He would have had to have learn how to carve each one perfectly. Keeping up with the plethora of tools and updates often happens at the expense of improving what you already know how to do.

    That’s why I like writing so much – I learned the technique of how to physically write letters and words when I was about five years old. The rest of the time I have spent trying to put the words in the right order.

    Tell me more about voice interaction design.

  • Thanks for your reply, I do now understand better what you are trying to say. I guess those who call themselves writers, do go through some of the same processes to create the final word as designers go through. I just wonder if that is already enough to state writing == design. Which than could lead to, so designing is writing, so writers are designers. Which would make the concept of design even more useless than it already is. Though this set a side, I do agree that writing down thoughts is a great way to get a better grip on tackling the more complicated phases of a design process.

  • Sjors – I absolutely think most writers do go through a design process.

    Just switching comparisons around like you mention doesn’t work – there’s no danger of devaluing what design means by saying writing is design. Because writing is design doesn’t automatically lead to design being writing. It’s clearly not. Designing a chair isn’t writing. Designing a logo isn’t writing.

    Chickens are birds, but not all birds are chickens. Writing is a form of design, design isn’t a form of writing. Not all design is visual either (in fact, a large portion of it isn’t), but making that statement doesn’t make everything that isn’t visual design.

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