4 reasons designers should write

Find out why you should hone your writing skills as much as your design skills (plus get some concrete writing tips).

John Moore Williams
July 21, 2015
Web design

In today’s crowded market, every professional skill you add to your arsenal can help set you apart. And writing may be the single most powerful skill to hone. Here’s why.

1. Writing will make you a better designer

The web is mostly words. Imagine Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn without all that text. (Or install this bookmarklet and see for yourself.) So if you’re a web designer, you’re going to spend a fair amount of time typing.

And that copy you’re writing needs to be clear. Just think of all the times you’ve run into a web interface with language that confused you so much you just bounced. (I know I’ll never forget the mind-blowingly existential Create Absence button I found in one of Oracle’s HR apps.)

If I’m honest, I'm a little afraid of clicking this button ... 

If your beautiful, elegantly usable UI falls apart due to a single unclear sentence (or button), all your design work’s been for nothing.

Or, as 37 Signals put it in the “Copywriting is Interface Design” chapter of their book Getting Real:

Copywriting is interface design ... If you think every pixel, every icon, every typeface matters, then you also need to believe every letter matters.

37 SIGNALS

Apparently, someone at Microsoft didn’t get the memo:

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a professional copywriter or editor reviewing your language to clarify or jazz it up. But even then, clear language can help communicate the purpose of an element, page, or workflow to the copywriter (or your freelance design clients). That not only makes their job easier, but also saves you both a confusing, time-consuming back and forth. 

Which brings me to my next point.

2. Writing will make you a better communicator

I know what you're thinking: duh.

But I have to make the point, because effective communication is such a valuable professional skill. And with more and more professionals working remotely, more and more communication happens in writing.

Remember that time you got a incoherent email from a coworker or client that left you uncertain what, if anything, you were supposed to do about it? Of course you do. That kind of failure to communicate can slow down the design process, introduce errors (if, say, you misinterpret garbled instructions), and annoy or even upset coworkers.

But it’s not all about maintaining workplace efficiency and morale through writing. Writing regularly can also help you develop two other key skills:

1. Structure

Effective writing owes much of its power to its structure. And the same could be said of every good website.

The ultimate tool for structuring your writing is the humble outline. It’s like a wireframe of your writing. Instead of just sitting down and banging away at the keys, start with the skeleton:

  1. Write a working title
  2. Then a thesis statement (a quick summary of your point)
  3. Then your supporting arguments (make these brief, as they’ll become your subheadings)
  4. And finally, a quick conclusion

Then start fleshing out the skeleton (i.e., writing)

This model works for most types of blog posts, and can even be applied to listicles (which don’t typically have an argument).

If you’re writing a news story, feature launch announcement, or press release, you’ll want to use the inverted pyramid structure followed by journalists, where you start with the most important details, then work your way down to the least important stuff.

The inverted pyramid focuses on the most important points first, and defines most news stories.

2. Storytelling

Thinking of design as storytelling has become a hot concept. And when you consider the user-centric nature of UX design, it’s no wonder. Your target user is your protagonist (main character). They have a goal they want to fulfill, and obstacles they have to overcome to achieve that goal. And your design is the tool they’ll use to reach that goal (hopefully).

Those skills aren’t just applicable to design—they’re also key to selling your designs. People love stories. It’s just written into our DNA. Which makes a story the perfect vehicle for convincing your clients and bosses that you’ve come up with the right design solution.

If you can tell a compelling story about your user achieving their goals through your design, you’re well on your way to a green light.

Every story contains these key elements:

A protagonist: The heart and soul of your story, the person it all happens to, or who makes it all happen. Over the course of the story, the protagonist changes somehow: they might become a better (or worse) person, fulfill their fondest dreams, or lose everything. Think of your protagonist as the user persona of your design work.

An antagonist: Your protagonists’ enemy, the person (or thing) who blocks their every effort, the source of all the tension, struggle, and drama. Note that the antagonist isn’t always a person: in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the antagonist is nature itself. If you’re building a news reader, the antagonist might be the content firehose that is the internet itself.

A conflict: Stories revolve around drama, tension, and change—and none of that happens without conflict. It can be easy to confuse the conflict with your antagonist, so think of your antagonist as the source of conflict. For example, in “To Build a Fire,” nature is the antagonist, but the conflict is the struggle to survive Alaska’s hostile wilds.

A turning point (or two): This is the climax of your story, the point of highest drama, when we find out whether our protagonist succeeds or goes down in flames. In “To Build a Fire,” the turning point comes when the protagonist accidentally destroys the little fire he’d managed to kindle and decides to try to run for camp—only to stumble, fall, and finally give in to the urge to sleep.

The schematic for most stories, here applied to a 3-act play.

3. Writing can get you work

Think of all the writing it takes just to get a job, let alone keep it. At minimum, you’ll need to write:

- Resume

- Cover letter

- Emails

But in the design industry, you’ll most likely have to add your:

- LinkedIn profile: Check out How to Set Up Your LinkedIn Profile: A Freelancer’s Guide.

- Portfolio site: Your portfolio should epitomize your design work—and your writing. So make your UI copy (buttons, links, directions for forms, etc.) crystal clear, your blog posts insightful, and your tone a good fit the kinds of companies you want to work for. For more on this, check out my 10 UX copywriting tips for designers.

- Design presentation: Nancy Duarte provides some amazing insights into the structure of effective presentations in her TED Talk (see below).

- Challenges/exercises: these are often not simply about the quality of your design, but also your rationale. The best thing to remember for these: anticipate potential objections to your design/rationale, and answer them.

- Design proposal: if you’re a freelancer or agency designer, these are how you bring in the bacon—so they better be good.

Phew. That’s a lot of writing—and hence, a lot of opportunities to miscommunicate. But done right, you can use writing to charm, persuade, and convince your way into work.

 

The value of blogging

One of the most important types of writing you can do to help you get work is blogging.

Remember Andrew Kim, the young designer who brashly reimagined Microsoft’s brand? Yeah, he works for Microsoft now. All because of a blog post.

Granted, that’s an extreme example. A single blog post does not a career launch (usually). But a few high-quality blog posts, even just on your personal site, could set you apart from competitors. And if they’re on respected industry blogs, even better!

4. Writing will make you a better person

I kid. Sort of.

Writing well does require a key characteristic of great people: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (or in the case of writing, brain) and see things as they do. It plays a vital role in writing because in order to communicate, persuade, or entertain someone, you have to “speak their language.” You have to understand, inside and out, what your reader wants, what’s getting in their way, and how you might be able to help. You also need to know what voice and tone to adopt to effectively make your point—particularly if it’s a difficult or upsetting one.

Considering how hungry I was, this text from GrubHub really got inside my head.

Sound familiar? It should, because empathy is one of the fundamental ideas of user experience (UX) design. Designing user-friendly workflows requires the ability step into others’ shoes and speak their language. So time spent honing your writing skills won’t just make you a better person, it’ll make you a better designer (see point 1).

But the ways that writing can make you a better person don’t stop there. Taking a break from design to do some writing (or, granted, anything else) can boost your creativity. Writing about stressful, traumatic, or just-plain-lame events in your life can make you happier. It can even help you heal faster

And if a happier, healthier, more creative you isn’t a better you, I don’t know what is.

How to write more—and better

Okay, so you’re sold on the value of writing. Now you’re probably wondering how to do it more—and better.

The good news is that it only takes two things:

1. Practice

2. Feedback

Prompt yourself to write. Every day.

Practice makes perfect. So discipline yourself to write every day, even if for just 15 minutes. Many writers—including American sci-fi master Ray Bradbury—suggest doing it at the same time each day, which might help, but it’s your call.

Note that it doesn’t matter what you write. In fact, at first, I’d recommend just freewriting: scribbling down whatever comes to mind.

As a professional designer, you’re probably used to designing for a purpose, i.e., to overcome some challenge. You don’t design in a vacuum, so it might be challenging to just sit down and write. (You’re not alone. Most writers regard a blank page with a heady mix of fear, loathing, and excitement.)

So, give yourself a trigger to inspiration with writing prompts from:

Daily Page

Language is a Virus

500 Prompts for Personal and Narrative Writing

- The Writing Prompts subreddit

Use an app for that

It’s the age of the app, so it should come as no surprise that tons of apps address writers’ unique needs. Microsoft Word-alternatives dominate the scene, but some speak to other phases of the writing process. Here are 3 of my favorites:

1. Quip—for writing

It’s tough to call out one text editor above all others—after all, I use 6 of them at least semi-regularly—but I have to say that for personal writing, I love Quip. (For work, I use Google Docs.)

Quip offers mobile, web, and desktop apps, so it’s literally there wherever you go. It’s got a minimally distracting interface, tracks changes as you work, and you can invite others to collaborate or just chat with you. (And it does chat better than Google Docs, IMO.) Quip also boasts minimal styling options in the form of themes, so you can achieve a look without wasting time fiddling with your fonts. And with the recent addition of a desktop app, several export options (including Markdown and HTML), and a bunch of integrations, it’s become much more robust.

I also love Draft, though it lacks a native mobile app.

2. Hemingway Editor—for editing, natch

Possibly the only viable replacement for a human editor (though a skilled human is at least 10 times better), Hemingway Editor helps you punch up your writing by calling out difficult sentences, unnecessary words, adverb use, and passive voice. While you could certainly debate the negative impact of all these, it’s widely considered best to avoid them when writing for the web. It also gives your writing a grade based on the level of education a reader would need to fully grasp your writing—super handy. Just keep in mind that Hemingway Editor’s only an app, and no app can replace your judgement.

Another interesting option is Grammarly, especially if you’re looking to hone your grammatical skills.

3. Freedom—for focus

Writing is hard, so it’s easy to get distracted. And there’s nothing more distracting than the internet, with its constant calls to check your email, cruise Facebook, or seek out hilarious GIFs. The solution: turn off your internet access. Yes, you totally could do that yourself, but that’s too easy. With Freedom, you’ll have to restart your computer to get internet access back, which could be just enough to keep you scribbling.

Now go get writing

The best way to find out why you should write is to start writing. You’ll experience the benefits.

6. Networking and word of mouth

The number-one way to find quality clients is to get out and meet people (figuratively and literally) at non-design events

Once up a time, I’d spend all day at home, applying for mechanical engineering jobs in isolation. I was unsuccessful for months.

I did, however, make serious headway on my Netflix backlog. Serious progress, people.

Eventually, I gave up and focussed on pursuing a career in web design and development (which I was much more passionate about), and started getting out and socializing. 

Within weeks, I had job offers coming in from my loose-knit network of new acquaintances. It’s not rocket science: People prefer to hire people they already know and like — not the faceless folks clogging their inbox with links.

Notice how I didn't specifically describe who the people I met were? That’s because you need to meet all kinds of people. You have no idea who your next client will be.

But they probably won’t be at a web design meetup — those are filled with jobless designers. 

All of this is worth repeating: Go to any and every meetup that matches your interests, and simply tell people you’re a web designer. Watch what happens. Everyone needs a website, or knows someone who does. That's what’s so great about freelancing in this industry.

people eating and talking
Get outside. Talk to the humans you meet there. Repeat.

Some places to start meeting people:

  • Meetups
  • Sports events and classes
  • Cafes
  • Abroad (for some reason, people are a lot more open to talking to strangers while traveling)
  • Parties
  • Twitter
  • Slack groups
  • Conferences and conventions

Just keep in mind that, no matter the event type or place, you have to actually talk to people you don’t already know. 

Tip: Don’t be the typical “business networker.” Don’t bounce from person to person shaking hands, fake-smiling, repeating first names every sentence, and handing out business cards. Be legitimate. Make real connections. 

The other side of the networking coin — word of mouth — comes from building up a client base, having lots of contacts, and building your personal brand (with your blog, portfolios, and templates). This takes time. Do great work, treat your clients with respect, keep in touch with past clients, and follow the rest of the advice in this article, and you'll absolutely be fine.

With networking and word of mouth, you can easily reach a state of having more work offers than you can sustain—without ever actually working for it. When this happens, you can increase your rates. Ka-ching.

Personally, I turn down contract offers on a weekly basis. And they’re all the result of word of mouth and networking I did months ago.

It honestly doesn't take long to get to this point if you produce quality work and put yourself out there.

7. Hustling

Hustling is the art of working extremely hard and extremely smart. In the context of freelancing, hustling involves going out and finding work directly. For example: finding websites or businesses that desperately need your services.

Does your favourite pub have a terrible site? Why not talk to the owners and convince them they need you to fix it?

If you have the right personality, and the drive, this can be an extremely effective way to whip up some initial work. It just isn’t particularly glamorous. It also requires your repeated, hands-on time and energy. (In contrast, writing blog posts or setting up a portfolio one time can attract customers for years to come.) The success rate of in-person contact, however, is much higher. The trade-off is lower volume.

Bonus: Freelance.tv

Fresh out of the studio (or maybe his cool van) Dann Petty released Freelance.tv. It’s a series of 10-minute interviews with freelancers that explores how they find, work with, and keep clients (and much more).

As you may have noticed from reading this post (or maybe not), hearing from other freelancers about their experiences can be extremely helpful. Check out his new episodes and also his upcoming documentary, Freelanced.

Now get out there and find your next gig

If you’re sitting at home, desperately hoping clients will come to you, I have news for you: They won’t.

You have to put yourself out there to start, and show prospective clients that you have tangible, valuable skills to offer.

Luckily, this is an industry where skill and contacts trump all — education is irrelevant. So take advantage of that.

So to summarize, here are your next steps for getting clients and building your freelancing business:

  1. Build your portfolio. Make it gorgeous. Share it everywhere. You can use Webflow to do it yourself without coding.
  2. Create profiles on Behance, Dribbble, and Webflow to connect with other designers and potential clients. Use their SEO advantage to drive more traffic to your website.
  3. Create a profile on Upwork and Design Inc, and bid on contracts. Be confident, and don’t be scared by inexpensive competitors. Also use AngelList to find contracts with promising or established startups.
  4. Start meeting people. Get out, meet, and befriend as many non-designers / developers as possible. Be legitimate.
  5. Start a blog to complement your portfolio. Write thoughtful, useful content to establish yourself as an expert in your discipline. Let your personality shine through.
  6. Convert your websites designs to templates, and release them on sites like Webflow, CreativeMarket, and ThemeForest to earn passive income and awareness.
  7. If it’s your style, start hustling. Find people who legitimately need your services and tell them why.

But most of all:

"Do something! Even if it's wrong."

– My friend's dad

When you’re starting out, it can be better to do the wrong thing than nothing at all. In the process, you’ll learn, and you might just stumble into something that works beautifully.

Just try to not to be so wrong nobody will ever work with you again. Ever.

Now, stop reading, and get out there and land some clients!

Oh — and If you’re a freelancer, how do you find clients? Is there anything I missed?

John Moore Williams

Head of Content Strategy at Webflow. Nice to meet ya. Follow me @JohnAMWill.

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