What is Writing in Design?

July 28, 2008 § 3 Comments

On May 17th, 2008 I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Communication Planning + Information Design from Carnegie Mellon. Since that time, I’ve been looking for work. But mostly, I’ve been doing nothing.

And I mean nothing.

OK, so I’ve taken a few trips and posted a few resumes, had some interviews (even came fairly close to landing a job in Amsterdam with frog design) but something just hasn’t felt right about most jobs. So mostly I’ve just laid low, day after day, couch surfing in Indiana, Minnesota, and San Francisco waiting for inspiration to do something.


But I don’t have it yet. Inspiration, that is. I suppose this blog is, in some small way, a step towards doing something.


Because I have motivation. It’s called debt. Lots of it.

And I have intellectual curiousity. The voice of which is still taking form.

As it goes, I don’t regret my decision to go to school, but this slow job hunt is uncovering this niggling something in my mind, this idea I have about myself and my interests as I’m learning about where I fit in the grander scheme of the job world, specifically in the world of design and ideas. And writing. Yes, writing.

I went to grad school to find out how writing and graphic design play together to create a form of information, how they create something of a rhetorical stance, how “graphic design” differs from “information design”, all with this piddling notion that it’s ridiculous to have copywriters separate from visual designers. Because it seemed like the copywriters were actually much more powerful than the visual designers, in that there was certain explicit information that needed to be in a presentation, brochure, website, financial report, and so on. And so the writers were playing at the concept level, and the visual designers were working at fulfilling the writers’ concepts. Which seemed weird, since the designers would have to understand the concept to fully realize the visual design that fully realizes the written word.

And both were frustrating each other greatly: Writers thought that the visual designers’ input wasn’t all that important for the ideas they were expressing and the designers thought the writers had little business telling the designers where and how the language and visual information should be rendered.

A disconnect, to be sure.

I guess the thing is, is that no one likes to be told what to do. They all want to be part of the process. Well, most do anyway. Or maybe not. Maybe this is more unique to designers and writers, people who are asked to listen, read, learn, absorb, reform, rethink, and reset what the content originators have in their heads, minds, books, magazines, hearts, and intentions. But, I digress.

What I want to get at here is that as I’m looking for jobs, there are jobs for copywriters, which, solely, I am not. There are jobs for graphic designers, which solely, I am not. There are jobs for User Experience Researchers, which I believe I could probably do, but am generally underqualified and/or uninterested in that type of work. There are Interaction Designers, Information Architects, User Interface Designers, Product Designers, Visual Designers, Print Designers, Web Designers, Information Designers, Multimedia Designers, Instructional Designers, Art Directors, Creative Directors, and then various levels of qualification within each of these areas. Like Product Designer I or II, Junior/Senior/Lead Web Designer, and so on. And to add confusion to craziness, almost every company defines these titles differently, so you can’t discount any one job title when looking for a job. Oh no. You have to look at every. single. one. It’s exasperating, exhausting, ridiculizing, and meticulizing.

(I know that there is some of this information out there, but I think it would be in the interest of the design & business community to have a clear sense of what all these different job descriptions exactly mean, qualifications for each, pay scale, and then create a common vocabulary within the industry. Because I don’t know about you all, but when people ask me what I do, I just get tired. I feel my body weaken, my mind flutter, my eyes roll up, and my head falls because I just don’t want to do it one. more. time. I promise not to use the period thing for exaggeration again this post. But maybe this clear definition would help.)

What I’m trying to say is that I am rarely any one of those things—writer, graphic designer, UI designer, UX designer, et cetera—at least as far as the working world is concerned. Yet I’m expected to be. The working world wants neat little boxes and quantification of skills and I don’t blame them— there’s a whole bunch of schmoes like me in the world who want to eat their cake and have it, too. And why would the working world want to waste their time figuring out what I can do for them when they can find any number of people who can fill their nicely laid-out job description that makes sense for their firm’s needs? They wouldn’t. But still, this seems limiting, frustrating, and ultimately detrimental.

And so what do I do? That is the question, yes. I do writing and I understand visual design (I think I’m pretty good, but I know where my bread is buttered). I do design and I understand learning. And I understand how learning affects design between designers designing as well as between designers and the world. I like this messy middle, which really throws the whole “copywriter” or “visual designer” thing into disarray. But where I think this all really places me is at the concepting stage, where all the implicit thought, beliefs, and research findings come together into one big explicit bento box of a meal. Or maybe it’s pie. I really like pie.

So let us define writing and its relationship to design.

For one, writing is much more than, “Wow, Jeff wrote some mean copy for that real estate development booklet.” Or “Jeff really knows how to simplify complex ideas for presentations.” Although it could mean either of those at any given point as both are valuable. Instead, writing is the idea behind the product, the feeling made explicit into a communicable form. Writing is the unpacking of vocabulary so that each of us understand what each other’s understanding is. In sum, it’s creating a clear understanding between two or more people what a person’s intent is in word usage. A “Do you mean ___ or ___?” moment. Unpack it. Understand intent. Build vocabulary from the ground up. And from there, two or more people can create a common vocabulary that becomes the language of a project, business, product, service, interface, brand, book, or whatever else you wish to design.

In this sense, design can be defined as gaining an explicit understanding of an implicit vision by unpacking assumptions and beliefs, looking at the structure of those assumptions and beliefs, and then finding a common, explicit vision that aims for a desired outcome. (Whether that outcome is reached successfully is another matter.) But none of this can happen without language. And putting thought, feeling, or words into an explicit structure that allows communication between two or more people is writing. At least as far as design is concerned.

This is what I do. This is what I hope to explore in this space.


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§ 3 Responses to What is Writing in Design?

  • My favorite example of the split between design and writing is “lorem ipsum”, that ubiquitous filler text that graphic designers use because no one has given them real text yet (and sometimes may not produce the real text until well after the designer has moved on to another project).

    Anyways, as someone else who’s skills and interests aren’t always easy to sum up and communicate, I wish you luck in your search. I think that since people us tend not to have quite the same mix of skills as each other, the jobs for us tend not to be that consistent either.

    Have you looked at Cooper and their “Design Communicator” role? Its one half of a design team that focuses on documenting and communicating the design. They own the “problem” while the interaction designer owns the “solution.” I interviewed with a company in New York that has this type of structure and was intrigued.

  • jefftzucker says:

    Yes, it’s difficult for we non-traditional skill-set folk. Interestingly, I actually interviewed with Cooper in 2007 at Confluence, but funnily enough, they weren’t interested in me this year. Maybe I’ll resubmit my resume to them to see what happens.

    What was the company in NYC?

  • LiquidNet. They are a financial services firm that runs an exchange for really, really huge share holders to trade large amounts stock amongst themselves without skewing the price of the stock so much. Their head of UX was a former Cooper person.

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