Design With Words
A guide to copy writing and use of effective language as a marketing tool
Many of us web designers always see the little details: our little icons, the borders and shadows in our widgets, the typefaces and font–sizing we use in our type. But how often do we really put emphasis on the copy we write, on the words and prose we use?
Being visually–driven is a typical trait of every designer; we web designers may even be a bit more attentive than our print design counterparts since we always have to deal with the ever–changing configuration of the media used to display our work, the browser being the usual and major suspect. At the same time, publishing on the web presents other concerns not always dealt with in print. Yet, the web is more powerful now more than ever. Web pages are always designed to convey information, to send a message that elicits action.
Words that move
Designing for the web calls for graphical acumen, but more importantly requires an understanding of a page or a site’s purpose. It is this purpose that we designers must transmit through our visual design and the copy we produce. Thus, every designer should learn to speak the language of a page, one that is in line with the site author’s goals and the readers’ expectations.
A simple weblog or a complex web application can be made more usable through good copywriting. Interface design should use proper dialogs with the right questions and labels, just as widgets and headings should be named descriptively expecting to be understood as an average user would have it. 37signals’ Defensive Design mantra immediately comes to mind.
Blogs, on the other hand, were by–design meant to be personal and honest, though with the rise of professional blogging has been reduced to lifeless text that bounces around in an echo chamber. Certainly, it can be avoided by reviewing some of our favorite articles on ALA: “Attack of the Zombie Copy” and the ever–popular “10 Tips on Writing the Living Web.”
Let the writers write
Who should be writing for you? Who should be designing your interfaces?
If you are publishing your own site, you know your content inside out. It is you who knows how you intend to deliver your information. Building your own web application, you have an idea how a user should interact with your interfaces, ideally. But if you really think hard about it, the user determines how an article or an interface is understood, and should be written.
We sometimes get clients who provide us with content that reek of marketing–speak yet we don’t or are not allowed to make revisions to present it in a format more easily digested by a user. But honestly, there are times when we simply do not notice the content or choose not to. Web designers should learn to be good writers. Good web design does not end with the graphical aspect alone, it involves a process and a mission to get your message across.
Don’t just write
Projects typically allot a good part of the resources to design and programming. Unfortunately, interface and web copy is given little time and money for development. It is often overlooked, assuming that users already know how to use an application, or a reader already understands all the marketing and technical speak thrown around, assuming he actually got to finish reading a given article.
Good copywriting is part of the development process — it is not optional. It is part of good usability and accessibility. Don’t just let programmers or clients insist on what they think is good enough, look at it from a user’s point of view. If needed, let someone else who understands do the writing. Your design and content can only be good enough if it serves its purpose, if your message reaches the intended recipients.
Written by Markku Seguerra. He takes photos and blogs design at rebelpixel.com — sometimes.