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23.02.23 + Inspiration

How to Write about Design: a Primer

The key to effective branding is a unified system of writing and design that tell the story of a brand. Senior Designer Steven Wimberley writes about how these skills support each other, and how understanding basic design principles can improve ones writing about design.

"Visual storytelling utilizes both language and art to pass on the essence of who we are."

—Debbie Millman

Design and writing have a lot in common. Putting the right words together in the right order is very similar to placing the right visual elements together in the right way to communicate an idea. Worlds of meaning can be communicated in a name, or a tagline, in the same way that visual designs can say so much.

Going beyond the literal is what branding is all about. What’s the feeling of a brand? What’s the story? Writing and design are the tools we use to answer these questions, and they both rest on intention.

As a designer/art director, expressing my thoughts in writing doesn’t always come naturally. It helps that I’m forced to practice, and ultimately it makes me a better designer. On the flip side, I think every writer can benefit from engaging with the design process. Here are some helpful tips that writers can use to evaluate and engage with design, or simply help designers better articulate their ideas.

Demystifying the design process

This article is a thought-starter, meant to help non-visual creatives better understand how to think about design. Ideally, it will empower them with vocabulary to evaluate designs and actively participate in creative discussions. Learning design can also, ironically, help us write better.

I think everyone should have the opportunity to foster confidence in design, because it’s also about taste — improving your taste, recognizing the things that resonate, and figuring out how to describe and build on what makes them exciting.

To begin, I think establishing a broad definition of design will help structure our thinking around it.

What is Design? What is its purpose?

Graphic design and motion design are about the same thing: arranging visual elements (type, color, imagery) to work together to successfully communicate a direct and tangible idea. The essential tools at hand are the same – composition, scale, repetition, and color. The message, and the audience it's meant for, are always kept in mind.

The best design is a system, not a single piece. This is key to effective branding, in which language and design are used to establish the multi-dimensionality of a brand and the myriad ways to embody and express that personality – then telling that whole story in a unified, cohesive, and memorable way.

Design is part objective, part subjective

This is a crucial point – designs should always be evaluated from the objective and the subjective. It can be methodical. Broadly speaking, when asking the objective questions, we’re asking: is the design communicating what it needs to? Is it readable, and organized? The subjective evaluation, on the other hand, asks whether the design resonates tonally, or emotionally. For both, we think not just about how we perceive the design, but how the audience will.

How to evaluate design based on objective characteristics:

  • First, ask what is being communicated. Is that message clear from the outset?
  • Is there an effective system of hierarchy? What message is first? Is this the most important? What’s second? What visual means are being used to establish that hierarchy?
  • Is it concise? Are there unnecessary elements that distract from the message?
  • Refer to the Trollbäck+Company credo: “Discard everything that means nothing.”

How to evaluate design based on subjective characteristics:

  • Ask yourself, does it resonate tonally/emotionally? What do you feel when you encounter it?
  • Does the visual tone match the message? Does the design feel funny vs. serious, formal vs. casual, etc. and does that match what the content is about?
  • How do the formal design elements – type color, layout – work to contribute to that tone?
  • Is there a cultural or historical context in the design? Does this help reinforce the message?

Practice makes perfect

In the same way that writers read to improve their craft, evaluating design helps designers improve theirs. The exposure builds the muscle, and changes the way you think. When we expand our thinking about the tools we use to create meaning, we can be more intentional, and the result is more compelling storytelling.

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