Why designers must never forget the power of the written word

Published:  April 11, 2016

As designers, writing may seem to be a secondary element in design but Frost*collective‘s Ryan Curtis stresses that this should never be the case. Words, that is carefully selected words, and great visual design can make a campaign, or any project, even more powerful, Curtis writes.




It’s hard to stand out these days. I mean to really wrangle someone’s attention away with something memorable, to capture a small piece of a creative director’s imagination, or sweep a potential client away in a wash of design brilliance. Creating work that is surprising or unfamiliar in today’s hyper-connected society is a constant challenge.

For the past decade, the world of visual communication design has become increasingly homogenised. Gone are the distinctive visual styles of the 20th century, when identifying your Swiss from your American or your Dutch from your English was easy enough. Gone too are the revolutionary movements ushering in the unseen and unusual. Today’s digital platforms are the prime breeding ground for design group-think. Whatever the poison – blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, Vimeo – we’re all drinking the same stuff. And most of the time, it’s clear to see.

So how do we set our work apart from the next blogging, pinning, gramming designer? One answer lies not just what our design looks like, but how it speaks.

In recent times, a new crop of Australian brands are distinguishing themselves by embracing design as the vehicle for exciting language. Aesop has set itself apart from the shiny world of cosmetics by combining beautifully understated packaging with a healthy dose of philosophy and literary musings. MONA pairs a dangerously hip aesthetic with subversive commentary at every step – descriptions mounted next to artworks are replaced with an ‘artwank’ written by owner David Walsh. Hotel Hotel, the ‘place for people people’, doesn’t rest on it’s well documented eye for design, instead taking every opportunity to strike up casual, yet sophisticated, conversation in every branded piece. It’s all wonderfully refreshing.

When interacting with these brands, the first thing you notice is that they look great. But spend another moment and you quickly realise that there is unique substance to those looks. You can’t help but feel you’re in lively conversation with a new friend that’s both beautiful and intelligent. They make you think, question, feel. They show us the power of combining striking design with sharp words.

Writing for design is not something that universities and design colleges teach a lot of. Understandably, design and visual communication courses tend to focus on the visual. But as the ever-quotable Michael Bierut puts it: “People don’t care about typefaces or colours. They are merely the delivery mechanism for something else: ideas.”

It’s rare for an idea to be exclusively visual – language usually comes to the party sooner or later. I remember the early Ending HIV campaigns being a big reason why I wanted to spend my days at Frost*. These typographic-led campaigns were visually arresting, but it was the equally bold and direct copywriting that made these campaigns so memorable to me.

As a designer that’s had the opportunity to work alongside some super talented copy writers, I understand the specialised nature of both fields. I’m an amateur writer at best, but I am aware of good writing when I see it and the driving influence it has on design and ideas. Carefully considered words are like a design Sherpa, helping push your work to new heights. But this works both ways, and most writers jump at the chance to work with other creative people.

“Some forms of writing can be solitary, but collaborating with other creatives to achieve the same goal is motivating and inspiring,” says freelance copywriter Sarah Clark, who has written for iconic Sydney locations such as the The Rocks and Central Park.

“Writing is sometimes forgotten, or considered as a secondary element in design, but when words and design come together the result can be extremely powerful,” Clark explains.

Language and design are now more intrinsic to each other in this multi-platform environment than they ever have been. While both are still highly specialised fields in their own right, when combined they inject a project with creative possibilities difficult to achieve otherwise. This is the core truth for Clark. “Messages can be delivered in a way that is much more impactful when words and design are used together and can achieve much more than either element can ever hope for on their own.”

Adding another dimension to that café branding project or music poster design could start with thinking about the messaging, not just how it’s typeset. For students starting out—furnish your big idea with words, not just images. Pay a visit to the creative writing or journalism department at your university and suggest a collaboration. If you work with copywriters, make friends. Write more. Read more. Respect words.

This ode to the written word isn’t a rejection of a designer’s first love: the visual craft. It’s not an excuse for poor kerning or lazy layouts. Rather, our profession has now reached a point where striking visuals are simply the expectation. Society is now more finely tuned to good design (clients are on Pinterest as well) and will call out the bad when they see it. Making our work visually engaging is a mere pre-requisite.

But as Bierut recently opined, every thing we do is an intrusion into a shared public conversation. Every act of visual communication is an uninvited trespass on the public consciousness. With this in mind, we must question what our work is saying. We must make it engaging, constructive and of value to people. Surprise. Challenge. Endear. And make it memorable.


Ryan Curtis (@ryancurtis28) is a designer at Frost*collective.

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