Why words are a design issue

Writer Gemma Church explains why designers and copywriters need to work together.

Designers and copywriters do not hold mutually exclusive roles. The design process needs to happen with content, not just for it. The practice of creating a page full of lorem ipsum and then just getting a copywriter to fill in the gaps does not cut it anymore.

I've worked as a website designer and copywriter. Many companies take a blinkered approach where each department 'did its own thing'. Designers design websites. Writers churn out copy. Marketing department promote websites. It usually turns out a disjointed and unpleasant user experience – as well as producing a confusing and frustrating work environment.

The key factor here is effective communication. Every department has a different set of priorities and a different level of understanding. Designers discuss images, fonts and layouts. Writers worry about word choice, tone and syntax. A designer may not understand the lingo of the writer, and vice versa.

The first step is understanding each other's worlds. If you're a designer, take some time to read about writing styles. If you're a writer, try to understand some of the more technical aspects of the business. There are plenty of resources out there – but just pulling up a chair and talking to your colleague is the best approach.

You need a genuine appreciation of each other's work. A writer needs to understand how good designs can engage and persuade users. A designer needs to understand why copy can influence moods, buying habits and boost engagement.

Once this understanding is in place, all parties can work together to create a cohesive user experience.

Words are key components of many pieces of design

It is important to think about copy early. It is intrinsically linked with information architecture, so it makes sense to get your copywriter involved right at the start. Key messages determine how users should flow through the website. They affect the sitemap, navigation bar, page layouts, calls to action and even button placement.

A great way to achieve this is to invest in some wireframe software that allows for real-time collaboration. A designer can create the first design draft and share it with a copywriter and marketing team. Everyone can edit the content – which should boost collaboration, improve the decision making process and cut down on those lengthy email conversations too.

When good words go bad

It can be difficult to keep a writer's enthusiasm for the written word under wraps. I hold up my hands here and admit I can get carried away with lengthy prose instead of focusing on the most important aspect of a website – the user experience.

It's important that writers and designers undersatnd each other

Here are three bad writing practices that every designer should be aware of:

01. The wrong tone

You must take into account the tone of your website and who will be reading those words – otherwise the site can come out as a little weird and untrustworthy. Professional designs for professional companies must be matched with professional copy. Likewise, a more light hearted company can use jokey and informal language – just make sure everyone is on the same page.

02. Brevity beats longevity

Website copy needs to be clear and concise. No matter how good a piece of copy may be, large blocks of text will turn people away and distract from the design. Writers need to keep their egos in check and make sure they are producing copy that users actually want to read.

03. The headline

A good headline will grab the user's attention. It needs to be short, to the point, engage users and state a benefit. This is an area where writers and designers often fall out – make sure you collaborate to find the right words to fit the design and ethos of a site.

One and the same

So you now understand each other's language and priorities. That must mean designers and writers can work in a harmony, right? Wrong.

Designers will always believe the design draws in users. Writers will retain the notion that the rights words determine the user experience. Making such distinctions between design and the written word is the real misnomer – they are both sides of the same coin.

Context is everything when writing for a design project

Take another look at the top three mistakes made by writers, could any apply to designers too? Has your design ever struck the wrong chord with users? Have you put in too many images when one would do? Have you sacrificed words in a headline for a cleaner layout?

All too often, designers and writers work in their own little bubbles, with each person unaware of what the other is doing. For the copy to be of any use, the writer needs to be aware of the context in which it will appear. And the designer needs to understand that words are ultimately a design issue.

Words: Gemma Church

Gemma Church is the freelance writer who gets tech, a Countdown finalist and lover of all things science.

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